There are now, it seems, more ways than ever for a woman to reach or ruin her own potential. Mainstream feminism today hinges upon a vision of woman as rational actor capable of logically and authoritatively plotting her own course through life. Of course, it’s not that simple: women run up against intractable barriers, broadly systemic and merely human, on their way to self-actualization. And as the promise of empowerment is increasingly called into question, the imperative to become one’s best self only grows more relentless.
One way to sidestep the trap might be to forgo identity entirely. “I had come to believe more and more in the virtues of passivity, and of living a life as unmarked by self-will as possible,” declares Faye, the autobiographical narrator of Rachel Cusk’s 2014 novel Outline, a chronicle of life after divorce. She thinks “the whole idea of a ‘real’ self might be illusory,” and, overwhelmed by the gulf “between the things I wanted and the things that I could apparently have,” she had “decided to want nothing at all.”1
She’s not alone. The anonymous narrator of Claire-Louise Bennett’s 2015 novel, Pond, a former academic who now lives alone in a cottage, considers love a “prime agent of total self-immolation” and a “vicious and divine disintegration of selfhood.”2 Not that she’s in love. She’s decided “it’s better anyhow to leave things alone,” and feels a kind of amused pity for those still trying to make their lives work, those who are still “ceaselessly finding ways of getting to grips with the world, of surmounting certain antipathies so as to apply themselves to it that little bit more.”3
Catherine Lacey is uniquely interested in this kind of deadening refusal to exist. The protagonists of her two novels, Nobody Is Ever Missing (2014) and The Answers (published in June) excel only in self-denial. They reject all attachment, try to drain themselves of any lingering desire, and purge whatever of the outside world manages to touch them. Elyria, the narrator of Nobody Is Ever Missing, runs halfway across the globe to escape her dead marriage. Mary, in The Answers, submits to a man’s scientific inquiry into the nature of romance. Hounded by love—or at least, by the idea of love—both protagonists are desperate for an escape from consciousness.
The heroines of Lacey’s two novels are both thoroughly traumatized skeptics of agency.
Nobody Is Ever Missing follows Elyria Riley, a 28-year-old soap opera writer who decides she can no longer stand the Upper West Side life she shares with her Columbia professor husband. “I didn’t just want a divorce from my husband,” she explains, “but a divorce from everything, to divorce my own history.” She unceremoniously departs for New Zealand, where she hitchhikes, works odd jobs, and struggles to imagine a future life.
The novel’s central theme is obsession, the havoc a mind can wreak when it gets stuck on the same jumble of facts, and it’s composed almost entirely of Elyria’s pained thoughts. As seen from the outside, Elyria may not do much, but her thoughts coil and spill out in a torrent of repetition and contradiction. As one exercise goes: “Being alone was what I wanted; being alone was not what I wanted. I didn’t want to want anything; I wanted to want everything.” Her claustrophobic, seething narration is so destabilizing it’s hard not to sympathize.
Similarly, Elyria’s backstory lends a sense of tragedy to a predicament that might otherwise seem only farcical. Her marital angst is also bound up in grief from the marriage’s original catalyst: her younger sister Ruby’s death. In a series of flashbacks, we learn that Ruby, a Columbia student, killed herself on campus. In the aftermath of the death, Ruby’s professor is the only one who can comfort Elyria, and the two begin a relationship built on shared loss: his mother, he tells her, also killed herself when he was young.
The neat symmetry of this pairing suggests either fate or delusion, and Elyria toggles back and forth between the two. Does the marriage sour despite their bond or because of it? This mutual powerlessness is what originally drew Elyria to her husband. She used to imagine them a taxonomy of two, “the kind of people who can never quite get away from our losses.”
As the book goes on, the loss of her sister and her marriage fuse into a single indictment of her capacity to love, lose, and grieve. This is the knot of pain that Elyria picks and prods at, the series of losses so unbearable she’ll do anything to ensure they’re her last, even if it means renouncing desire entirely: “I feared the burden of a plain want,” she thinks, “the frightening possibility of a desire, of a desire that would not necessarily be met or the possibility of that desire being met unpeacefully.”
Elyria returns in Lacey’s second novel, The Answers, as Mary Parsons. The two have some differences—if Elyria’s thoughts are fueled by mania, Mary’s seem slowed by depression—but both are thoroughly traumatized skeptics of agency. The Answers inverts the premise of Nobody Is Ever Missing—Elyria gives up stability for freedom and Mary gives up freedom for stability—but both characters end up in much the same circumstances.
Mary is a 30-year-old New Yorker with one friend and a lot of debt. She has spent the past year in and out of doctors’ offices, seeking relief from a series of mysterious ailments: numb legs, nausea, a strangely cracked rib. Then, in quick succession, she finds an expensive cure and the dubious means to pay for it. Pneuma Adaptive Kinesthesia (PAKing), a kind of massage therapy that involves crystals and chanting, gives Mary the first relief she’s felt in months.
Shortly after her first PAKing session she finds a vague job listing for an “income-generating experience.” This turns out to be the Girlfriend Experiment (GX), a secret project conducted by a celebrity with enough time, money, and vanity to set about optimizing love. This celebrity, an actor named Kurt Sky, hires a number of women to play the different roles expected of romantic partners—an Intellectual Girlfriend, an Anger Girlfriend, a few Intimacy Girlfriends—as well as neuroscientists to monitor (and sometimes alter) the participants’ physical reactions and brain activity.
By allocating roles and isolating variables—is it the sex? his relationship with his mom?—Kurt hopes to solve his problem with romantic love, which he suspects other people had also “been missing some key element of.” In a sly joke of Lacey’s, emotionally stunted Mary gets cast as the Emotional Girlfriend. But the job—highly paid, unskilled, demanding of purity and obedience—suits her perfectly.
The Answers is more densely plotted than Nobody Is Ever Missing, and its story relies more heavily upon its protagonist’s unusual past. Our heroine, born Junia Stone, was raised in an isolated Tennessee cabin by militant Christians determined to save her from society’s corrupting influence. Her father, who believes that all forms of government are “spiritually bankrupt,” encourages his daughter to be like Jesus: “radically self-reliant.”
Mary plays a character twice over, both in the novel and in her father’s story of himself. “His plan was to raise me in a state of complete purity,” she says, “to protect me from the terrible world, and my life would prove his point.” At 17 she’s rescued by an aunt, renamed (“You could be anyone you want with a name like Mary”), and, improbably, sent off (again) to Columbia, where she does not become anyone.
Instead, she avoids most all forms of personal interaction or engagement with mass culture. She meets Chandra, a well-off girl with a penchant for herbal cures and self-discovery; argues with a man after he goads her into watching Citizen Kane (she falls asleep); and, early one insomniac morning, is raped by a stranger in an alley. Her father was right: the world outside his kingdom is treacherous and ugly. It’s also absurd, a source of endless bafflement and invented torments. When Mary learns about the celebrity tabloid Us Weekly, she wonders if she will “ever stop being surprised by the ways people make hell?”
Mary is flat as a mirror, buffed and polished to reflect her environment. After discovering that “the first thing you learn when traveling is that you don’t exist,” she spends the years after college maxing out credit cards on airfare. When the story begins, she’s still never seen a movie, doesn’t know the names of any celebrities, owns no cell phone, computer, or television. She has no confidantes and no personality to speak of. In other words, she’s good at nothing but being Kurt Sky’s Emotional Girlfriend.
Fame has wounded Kurt (whose face “was so symmetrical it almost called his humanity into question”) as much as it’s helped him, and he wants to be seen for who he believes he really is. His experiment, then, is as much healing exercise as scientific inquiry, a way to interact with women paid to pretend they’ve never fantasized about his digitized face. Mary, however, doesn’t need to act. Up in his penthouse, Kurt is just another rich guy. Mary listens to him and looks deep into his eyes, puts her hand on his, tells him he’s been through a lot.
Lacey is uniquely interested in a kind of deadening refusal to exist.
The precious data generated by these interactions—the chemicals Kurt’s brain releases when Mary says, “I love you”; how much Mary’s heart rate increases when Kurt looks at her—get sucked up by cameras and sensors into the GX’s Research Division database for expert scrutiny. And when passive data collection doesn’t suffice, the scientists can deploy little messages to the brain (known as Internal Directives) to achieve desired results.
The GX is a codification of the monogamous dogma we already imbibe, but it’s also broader than just romantic enhancement and subjugation. The project’s real goal—“to optimize human emotions, to discover ways that we can use technology to better understand our decisions, our mistakes, to make the human mind and body healthier, more logical”—envisions a rational, autonomous individual. If recording and quantifying your sleep patterns, eating habits, and exercise routine help you become your ideal self, so too will measuring your emotions as manifested in physical and neurochemical reactions.
By reducing feelings to material, the GX promises a less opaque, risky path to fulfillment, and a Faustian bargain of sorts: you get full control of yourself, but only half of you gets pulled ahead into your brilliant future. It’s a tidy metaphor for the reality Mary dodges, the forces her father wanted to protect her from: the fetishization of individuality, abetted by an obsession with productivity and perfection.
Mary’s too good to be tempted by the quantified life. Or maybe too pure, resilient, selfless? In a minor twist, it emerges that the Internal Directives deployed by the scientists have no effect on her emotions. The Research Division wants her out (“her data, in general, was boring”), but Kurt thinks he’s in love. He’s so oblivious and self-obsessed that he thinks Mary must feel the same way. He’s content now that he possesses “a love that asks for nothing.”
Yet for a novel ostensibly concerned with the nefarious and puzzling effects of technology on love and relationships, its characters sure don’t take the bait. There’s no evidence that Mary and Kurt love each other, no rule-breaking sex that defies the experiment’s rigidity. The very qualities that made Mary perfect for the job also insulate her from its implications, and we don’t have to contend with a protagonist who’s manipulated into love either by chemicals or by her own human weakness.
Over the course of the book, Mary occasionally ponders the hole that Jesus’s love left in her, the belief “that love belonged only to the divine, not here on this broken world.” She still thinks this way, which is the novel’s real tragedy, but Lacey keeps her heroine’s past at arm’s length, pulling it in closer when she needs to move the plot forward and pushing it away when Mary begins to lose her sheen of universality. As much as Mary is meant to represent a legion of broke, adrift New York women, her experience is almost ludicrously specific. Her dullness feels like a way of balancing out the specificity of her past: her powerlessness and lack of identity are what allow her to be the novel’s everywoman, trick the GX, and gain a kind of freedom.
The Answers ends with Mary fired and promised lifelong financial support in exchange for her silence. Her PAKing sessions have healed her, and she spends her time cleaning house and reading. She’s no longer in financial free fall, too ill to live, but now she has no reason to be alive. Chandra has disappeared and her family members are all dead, dying, unreachable by telephone. “I wondered if I should go out somewhere,” she thinks, “try to meet a person to put in my life, but I never did.” Now comfortable and enlightened, Mary doesn’t have a life, but an afterlife.
How much agency do women really have? Elyria and Mary certainly don’t have much, and Lacey suggests there might be a kind of power in powerlessness. After all, both women are forced into better circumstances by the end of their stories: Elyria must return to New York when she’s deported from New Zealand, while Mary is liberated into a precarious financial dependence. Lacey seems to place faith in the benevolence of fate or social systems to deliver her heroines from danger, which begs the question: why bother trying at all?