Fierce Detachments

I Fear My Pain Interests You BY Stephanie LaCava. Brooklyn, NY: Verso. 192 pages. $17.
The cover of I Fear My Pain Interests You

Stephanie LaCava’s second novel, I Fear My Pain Interests You, opens with a strange epigraph: “Cows are not sentient beings.” The quote is attributed to “Reddit”—not a specific person on Reddit, but the platform itself, the amorphous, faceless chorus of fifty-two million very opinionated daily active users. It’s an enigmatic piece of front matter for an enigmatic story, and one that successfully primes the reader to enter the world of LaCava’s protagonist, Margot Highsmith, who, in a way, lacks sentience of her own.   

Margot—an actress, early twenties, privileged, and very thin—is an iteration of the Downtown New York archetype who walks a fine line between beauty and unwellness. She was born with a rare condition known as congenital analgesia; she cannot feel physical pain. Although neither Margot nor the reader fully understand the nature of this condition until much later in the novel, it is hinted at in the first chapter—an unsettling, highly visceral set piece that finds her on a plane, absconding to Montana after a breakup, bleeding from an open bite mark below her bottom lip. The gash, it seems, was a self-inflicted accident. Margot’s insentience soon reappears more overtly, in a flashback to her falling off a luggage cart as a child, only aware she has badly cut her knees when the adults notice her dress is soaked bright red. These moments of sensory detachment, when Margot either unknowingly injures herself or, in a few instances, knowingly tests the limits of her mysterious condition, are scattered throughout, establishing a vague but pervasive mood of danger, heightening the stakes of the novel. 

Braided into the main action, as it unfolds in small-town Montana, are several narrative threads concerning Margot’s past, without which she might be a frustratingly inscrutable protagonist. We get a sense of her unusual childhood, how she was raised primarily by her controlling maternal grandmother, Josephine, because her parents, the legendary musicians Rose Reeder and Steve Highsmith, were generally physically or emotionally absent. We learn about her fraught romance with a manipulative and withholding older man she refers to as “the Director,” and how its warped power dynamic leads to the unceremonious dissolution that sparked Margot’s escape from New York. And we hear about her relationship with Lucy, a classic best-friend type who demonstrates a level of support and generosity toward Margot that sometimes borders on servility, as if she knows who this story’s main character is.

Stephanie LaCava. Photo: Roe Ethridge
Stephanie LaCava. Photo: Roe Ethridge

It’s not until more than halfway through the novel, when Margot encounters a new love interest while hiding out at Lucy’s parents’ empty Montana home, that LaCava brings Margot’s analgesia to the fore. On her way back from picking up groceries, Margot falls off her bike, suffering a somewhat severe leg wound. Of course, she doesn’t realize she has an injury until it’s brought to her attention by a man she encounters in a graveyard and who, going forward, is simply known as Graves. In an awkward but charged seduction-via-rescue scene, Graves, a former trauma surgeon, deduces that Margot’s inability to feel pain isn’t a product of normal adrenalized shock, but a more exotic neurological disorder—Graves’s focus in medical school was, coincidentally, congenital analgesia. The ensuing affair, a romance inextricably tangled with scientific intrigue, is, much like Margot’s affair with the Director, difficult to parse. Shortly after they first sleep together: 

“You look cute.” His delivery made it seem only half a compliment. For some reason everything he said felt barbed. We barely knew each other. Holding back would have been best, yet also risky. I could lose his interest, and I needed his knowledge. I never felt that way with anyone so quickly: Another audition. Was I worthy of his attention? It would be hard to sustain the drama of our first graveside meeting. 

It’s never quite clear how Margot feels about Graves, and it’s even more unclear how he feels about her. A postcoital moment: 

“I love you, Margot. I love you.” He said it twice, as if feeling it out. 

“Because I am statistically an anomaly?”

“Yes and no.” 

Earlier, in a different postcoital conversation, Graves says, “You’re lucky you never got an infection. I can’t believe no one tested you or noticed.” Margot responds, “My parents were too busy making music.” Is it realistic that Margot could have grown up with an extremely dangerous neurological condition—according to the internet, 20 percent of people with congenital analgesia die before the age of three—and made it to adulthood without being diagnosed? No. This unlikelihood would be a problem if it were distracting, if it resulted in the reader being pulled out of the fiction to cross-check the circumstance against a real-world rubric. But facts like these aren’t LaCava’s concern because Margot’s medical disorder isn’t just a detail or device; it is an orienting condition of the novel itself. A dull, nagging alienation infuses every word. Margot’s lack of feeling informs what it feels like to read the prose, where pain always occurs with enough remove for it to be, as the novel’s title suggests, interesting. 

This quality of distance—distance from sensation and experience, from self and others—manifests most effectively when characters are talking; no one writes dialogue quite like LaCava. In I Fear My Pain Interests You, she uses a similar dialogic tone and style to that of her first novel, The Superrationals, in which many interactions read more like abstract collages of communication than everyday conversations. She achieves this effect by having her characters, who are usually smart, aloof, and a little snarky, speak in subtly dissonant cadences, a little out of rhythm with each other. Their exchanges are rarely linear and are punctuated with non sequiturs. This can be disorienting, especially if there are more than two voices in a scene, but it can also create an acute sense of miscommunication, as if characters aren’t in dialogue exactly, but parallel monologue. LaCava is at her dexterous best when writing people trying—and often failing—to connect.

Although Margot’s analgesia colors the lens through which we see her, it’s possible that a different rare and inherited condition sits closer to the novel’s dark center: fame. The only child of extremely famous parents—and easily identifiable to paparazzi, strangers, and wannabe boyfriends thanks to a signature birthmark on her hairline—Margot exists in the world as “the daughter of.” She cannot feel physical pain, but the quiet tragedy of I Fear My Pain Interests You is really one of existential identity. Margot’s inchoate notions of who she is and what she represents have had to compete with an unusually heavy onslaught of outside opinion since the day she was born: “Everyone who looked at me—even the Director—came loaded with ideas about me.” 

These imposed ideas have apparently eclipsed Margot’s, whose defining characteristic is an unmooring lack of self-definition, a profoundly weightless sense of self. As a result, she becomes a vessel for others: for Josephine’s familial projections; for the Director’s erratic, erotic desires; for Graves’s informal medical experiments; for the public’s celebrity obsessions. In short, Margot, not unlike the cows that appear throughout the novel—and who are, according to most studies, undeniably sentient—doesn’t get to tell us what it feels like to be her. This makes her useful to the people in her life and, in a different sense, on a different plane, to LaCava as well. 

Gideon Jacobs is a writer who has contributed to the New Yorker, the Paris Review, Artforum, Bomb, among other outlets, and is currently working on a collection of short fiction.