‘The Answers’ Raises Questions

Something I’ve noticed in a lot of millennial literature, as it were, is a thread of dystopia interwoven into what begins—and often ends—with the illusion of being contemporary or realistic. Like Ling Ma’s Severance, about a young woman who keeps her dead-end job after the rest of her office flees in a deadly pandemic in order to keep up with her rent and student loans, which seems almost aggressively ordinary but gets progressively more grim until it reaches actual dystopia status. The Answers by Catherine Lacey takes a similar, if less cataclysmic, approach, but instead of rent being the driving factor for our heroine to take unusual vocational steps, healthcare is in her sights.

The Answers is a novel in three parts, the first and last of which are told in first-person through the eyes of Mary, a sheltered, low-level ad agency employee who develops a perplexing and painful chronic condition. The only treatment for her condition seems to be a strange, aura-adjusting treatment called PAKing. But PAKing is expensive, and her job doesn’t even begin to cover the bills. In her search for a side-hustle, she finds a mysterious ad promising lots of money for a easy, and totally legal! Really!, work. Given the choice between moonlighting as a waitress and that, she chooses that.

Between her and the gig is Matheson, who asks cryptic question after cryptic question before finally revealing the details of the job. World-famous actor and director Kurt Sky is filthy rich and horribly lonely, and has decided to take a scientific approach to companionship (dubbed, creatively, the Girlfriend Experiment). Mary is offered the role of Emotional Girlfriend, part of a fleet of women who will cater to Kurt’s specific needs.

She takes the job.

If you’re looking for life advice with this book, you’re better off with a Magic 8 Ball. But if you’re looking for uncomfortable questions, read on!

Within this second section, our view of the Girlfriend Experiment broadens to encompass more of its participants in near-omniscient third-person. There is Ashley, the Anger Girlfriend, whose duties include nagging and arguing. There is Poppy, the Neutral Girlfriend, who is supposed to merely sit quietly in the background as Kurt goes about his day. And Rachel, the Maternal Girlfriend. We hear from Matheson; we hear plenty from Kurt himself. These perspectives all lend themselves to filling out this strange endeavor, showing the reality of it is even stranger than it appeared on the surface.

But it doesn’t take long for the experiment to break down. Lisa, the IT Girlfriend, is fired for talking to someone else too long and “ignoring” Kurt; her replacement is fired for more or less the opposite. The Intellectual Girlfriend is dropped for being too intellectual. Jenny, the Intimacy Girlfriend, is fired for falling in love with Kurt. The research team begins infighting. And when things fall apart horribly (which, let’s be honest, is pretty obvious from the outset), it’s easy to see who the winners and losers are.

I’ve already given some spoilers, and there will be a few more minor ones to come, but I think very little of the punch in The Answers is contingent upon the plot not being “spoiled;” rather, its strength is in the disquiet that grows steadily throughout the book and stays with you after you think you’re done with it. The Answers is a story about a lot of things, but at its heart it is about power inequality in financial and social standing and emotional freedom. Kurt can hand-pick women to sit and read while he thinks, or to engage him in intellectually stimulating (but not too intellectually stimulating!) conversation, or nag him about his long-overdue project, because they have bills and he has cash. Lacey writes at one point that Kurt tells the story of his mother dying when he was twelve so often because it was the one anecdote he has that makes him feel human; later, Kurt weaponizes that long-ago moment of grief to devalue Mary’s recent loss, since he’s the only one who, according to the rules of the game he invented, has emotional needs to be filled.

Considering the dialogue we’ve finally started to have surrounding the idea of emotional labor and how it’s primarily undertaken by women—especially during the pandemic—this narrative thread is at once familiar and grim.

Another recurrent thread is remembered sexual assault, in which we are explicitly told and showed that two of the participants have been victims, one by a stranger in an alley and the other from a bad boyfriend. Both take what they want from the woman in question, and in both cases, the women’s respective actions are only met with more violence. In each instance, the women clean up and move on (in strangely identical ways), but are allowed to do so only because that man is done with them.

Although this theme is certainly reflective of the type of emotional use and abuse actively being levied against them throughout the novel by Kurt, I’m unsure it was necessary. As a reader, I am always leery of the inclusion of sexual assault, because it seems like it’s frequently gratuitous or otherwise unnecessary, and directs leering focus onto the victim as a victim rather than a person outside of that act. I’ve been thinking about the inclusion of those extremely similar encounters described in The Answers and still can’t decide how I feel about their presence. Unnecessary ogling or sharp parallel to the plot? I don’t know. Can something be both?

The narrative distance created or destroyed by going from first- to third-person and back again keeps us off-balance, and reinforces the loss of personhood and autonomy Mary, and the others, inherent in participation in the Girlfriend Experiment. It’s effective in that way. But the multitude of perspectives also thins the richness of them. I wonder if one of the points Lacey was attempting to make was suggesting the potential for any of them to be a “leading” voice, or if she felt Mary’s perspective wasn’t rich enough to carry an entire novel. Either way, there were certainly things gained as well as lost. Once, when turning to a new chapter after hearing from Poppy and Kurt and Ashley, I asked myself, “Who is Mary again?” 

There’s no way for The Answers to end happily, though I’m not sure anyone would have that expectation past the first page. There are so many other odd elements that bob against the surface, too, including Mary’s rich former roommate joining a cult, that I can’t place within the main narrative. But The Answers is overall solid and haunting.

When all falls apart, Mary is left with only money—her feelings are not considered, her family situation is dismissed, her contribution to Kurt’s new projects ignored. Which, in many ways, is the same with all the Girlfriends: they existed to provide a specific experience to an emotionally stunted man surrounded by other emotionally stunted mostly men accustomed to brewing able to buy anything they wanted, and being proven right that this, too, had a purchase price. A dystopic thought, but also one far too realistic for comfort.

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