Broke Girl

The Answers: A Novel BY Catherine Lacey. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 304 pages. $26.

The cover of The Answers: A Novel

The index card pinned to an unassuming bulletin board is catnip for lonely women with bad day jobs—the types who spend late nights at AA meetings in church basements and do their own wash-and-fold in sticky, twenty-four-hour laundromats. Listless and desperate for change, bored in depressing, utilitarian cityspaces, they try contacting a stranger.

It’s a lo-fi deus ex machina for novelists who write about wayward New York girls. In Mary Gaitskill’s Two Girls, Fat and Thin (1991), an overweight thirty-four-year-old woman working the graveyard shift as a proofreader answers an index card posted on a bulletin board by a thin (“neurotic”) twenty-eight-year-old woman who works part-time as an assistant secretary at a doctor’s office. They’re single, friendless. Pathetic, pasty, and relatively poor. The plot device has the cloying sheen of a Hollywood log line: After a day running errands, the lives of strangers are irrevocably intertwined.

“I’d run out of options,” explains Mary, the dry protagonist of Catherine Lacey’s second novel, The Answers, with stringy hair and financial ennui worthy of Gaitskill. “That’s how these things usually happen, how a person ends up placing all her last hopes on a stranger, hoping that whatever that stranger might do to her would be the thing she needed done to her.” At a health-food co-op, she finds on the bulletin board an “ad for an income-generating experience.” A job. (In the spirit of late capitalism, she doesn’t ask for whom the income is being generated.) Mary has been doing ill-paid temporary work around New York City, “culled off Craigslist—restaurant hosting, temp stuff, various forms of assisting,” and is thoroughly demoralized from mining the underbelly of the gig economy. Circumstance—the need to eat dinner, say—occasionally forces her to “work” as a Hare Krishna. (Another old-school choice: I’ve only seen a Hare Krishna used in Charles Willeford’s 1984 detective potboiler Miami Blues—also a book about people on the make, in which a devotee from the sect moonlights as a pimp—and in Peter Carey’s 1991 Tax Inspector.)

What can’t you buy? What won’t you do to buy it? These are the kinds of questions an author with a divining rod for satire is drawn to. (The more high-minded Nell Zink is unparalleled in this arena, but Lacey’s good too.) Plotwise, this is a sex-work novel about a man—an “extremely successful actor-filmmaker” named Kurt—trying to build the perfect girlfriend. He “buys” multiple women to fulfill a variety of girlfriendly roles; he also hires a “team of biotechnology researchers” who strap electrodes to the women’s bodies to monitor and manipulate their emotional responses in the name of behavioral science. (If you want your girlfriend to stop crying, just give her a zap.)

Mary’s job description: “Listening to Kurt talk while remaining fully engaged by asking questions, maintaining eye contact, affirming his opinions, and offering limited amounts of advice or guidance that may or may not be entertained.” Shes’s informed that to be paid, she will need to say “I love you”: “You will also need to explain that you usually never say that sentence first, that you have fallen in love more quickly with Kurt than with anyone else in your life.”

Mary joins the anger girlfriend, the maternal girlfriend, the sex girlfriends, the mundanity girlfriend (“She was allowed to read a magazine . . . she was allowed to stare absently out a window”), and others. My personal favorite is the intellectual girlfriend. We never hear her speak! She’s fired almost immediately because Kurt feels “perhaps she was too intellectual,” and she “seemed to intentionally use words Kurt didn’t understand.”

Dru Donovan, Untitled, 2015. Courtesy the artist.
Dru Donovan, Untitled, 2015. Courtesy the artist.

Despite the sex-work theme, there are no prurient sparks to speak of, and although the project—with its electric shocks and structural exploitation of women—is unsavory, you do not feel, at any point, horribly for these women. I feel too outside their emotional turbulence. But it’s the kind of woman Lacey likes to portray: in medias res, a woman already hollowed out. She can’t feel much at this point. Ironic, given that her job is to pretend to be in love. Kurt is personally funding the Girlfriend Experiment to “generate practical, usable, real information about love, making love last, decoding the mysteries of limerence—which was, he said, the psychological and physiological state of a body as it falls in love.” In reality, he doesn’t want to be alone, or disagreed with. Lacey’s approach to Kurt’s proclivities can feel at once labored and opaque. In fact we never learn more, really, than the POV of the girlfriends, who have about as much information as a lab rat. But Lacey makes deft points about power imbalances. Kurt has jauntily sidestepped the economy of scarcity by tapping a historically unlimited resource—women’s patience for blowhards. (“Kurt hated goodbyes, and she was never to make any goodbye-like gesture or even give the impression that she was ever leaving.”)

The failure of women to succeed—financially, but also spiritually—is Lacey’s favored fictional motif. “Am I the sort of person who makes life harder than it has to be?” Mary wonders. In Lacey’s celebrated debut novel, Nobody Is Ever Missing, a wife leaves, and begins hitchhiking; her husband, though worried at first, doesn’t chase her. The protagonist thinks to herself: “I walked toward the ocean, my brain somehow calm and empty, sick of itself, taking a sick day.” They divorce. In this second novel about female malaise, Mary explains herself: “You know, I’ve really never known what to do. I just keep making these decisions or not, making right and wrong turns that are never really right or wrong. I had a job, then a different job, then I was jobless.”

Only women answer the opaque ad, and they do so out of a desperate attempt to alleviate multiplying pecuniary burdens: “their rents, their debts, their ailing parents, their families and their constant bills, tuitions, payment plans, groceries.” Mary initially takes the “economic opportunity” to offset the debt she has incurred in ridding herself of an illness that seems fake not because of the symptoms but because of the cure. In a perfect example of Lacey’s fluid and quirky imagination, Mary begins paying for PAKing (“Pneuma Adaptive Kinesthesia” or “neuro-physio-chi bodywork”). A man touches you in ways you don’t understand, and you feel better. At one of her first “sessions,” Mary states her gendered vulnerability mildly, as if passively weighing the pros and cons of eating a suspicious local delicacy in the third world: “I considered the legions of semiconscious and desperate women who had likely come before me, it wasn’t hard to imagine he might fondle their feet while pretending to read their auras.” She closes her eyes, doesn’t know what happened to her, and wakes up in debt. Because of the PAKing sessions, she has “twenty-five days to come up with $1,575 in cash.” And she begins frantically plotting whether or not, feeling ill, she can “host seven nights a week at a pan-Asian restaurant.”

Lacey is particularly attuned to the emotional elasticity of her female characters, especially as they face problems that can feel physically taxing (poverty, listening to men, loneliness, being alone with a man in a room with a closed door). They’re susceptible to the kinds of emotional entrapment that poverty can compound: hokey doctors, abusive “boyfriends,” cults. Much of the novel is about women feeling ill and not knowing why. “For a year I’d had no life, just symptoms,” says Mary. Doctors say she’s fine. I idly wondered if she perhaps caught this “bug” from her wealthy best friend, Chandra, just as one might be inspired to wear a beret, and put inflections where one otherwise would not, after a friend returns from abroad. Chandra’s sickness is decidedly more chic than Mary’s. She has “an herbalist, a Reiki master, a Rolfer, a speech therapist, a movement therapist, an art therapist, and a therapist. . . . First she swore by ayahuasca, then it was all about sensory deprivation chambers or MDMA, wheatgrass, body alkalization, or a certain guru.”

Lacey makes it very easy to believe women, which has been, as we all know, perhaps the hardest thing to do from a narrative standpoint at any particular time in history. And she mines a lot of humor from her self-serious characters. Chandra’s spirit guides have told her:

They were preparing her for incalculable fame and financial wealth, that her accident was part of a strengthening regimen for this future greatness, that she was going to eventually have her own talk show.

I didn’t know you wanted a talk show, I told her, but she just smiled.

It’s not about what I want.

Lacey deftly manages to entertain us as she makes a point about women on the fringe. (Chandra ends up in a cult; Mary just left one.) As I read, I thought often of urging the educated but underemployed Mary—in fact, every woman Lacey puts on the page—to pick up a hairbrush and fix her hair. The solution to their waywardness seems, however irrationally, cosmetic. We register only a passive indifference to their fates; they’re “like almost every other woman living in this late patriarchy,” as one of the girlfriends snidely notes. “I had the sense that I was a stranger living as a stranger in a stranger’s body in yet another stranger’s home,” Mary muses. Lacey is onto something with her particular brand of disaffected characters. They believe they deserve everything that happens to them—and if that’s not a portrait of women today, I don’t know what is. As Rachel Cusk pointed out in a recent interview, “Fate is a female system of self-deception.”

Kaitlin Phillips is a writer living in New York.