Catherine Lacey’s second novel has the effortless sparkle and speed of something written by an author with a dozen novels behind her instead of just one. It is funny and eerie and idea-dense — a flavor combination that turns out to be addictive ... Kurt, as you may have guessed, is a certain kind of male idiot: too frivolous to be despicable, too self-aware to be blameless. It takes a skilled writer to summon such an individual in detail without dehumanizing him. It also takes a skilled writer to make Mary, saddled with the curse of being young and sick, as compelling as she is ... This is a breathtaking leap to witness, and a promising trajectory to follow. On the basis of The Answers, I’d read anything Catherine Lacey tried her hand at.
The genius of Catherine Lacey lies in the fact that her new book, The Answers, doesn’t feel like too much; the pieces are bizarre and timely and fit together like puzzle pieces into a somehow timeless examination of humanity ... Lacey’s prose radiates elegance beneath its unassuming, unflashy surface; there’s nary a maladroit word or an unrevealing detail. She skillfully balances a truly absurd array of hot-button topics and weird narrative twists, playing them off each other virtuosically to weave a surreal-feeling story with deeply pragmatic concerns ... The Answers offers no answers, of course. Instead, in its stark portraits of bewildered, alienated people, it lays bare the unresolvable paradoxes of need that we all hold in our hearts.
Lacey’s sentences are long and clean and unstanchable. They glow like the artist Dan Flavin’s fluorescent light tubes. In her new novel, The Answers, she sweeps you up in the formidable current of her thought, and then she drops you down the rabbit hole. She’s the real thing, and in The Answers she takes full command of her powers ... This is a novel of intellect and amplitude that deepens as it moves forward, until you feel prickling awe at how much mental territory unfolds ... it’s a neuronovel that floods with tangled human feeling. Like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s also a novel about a subjugated woman, in this case not to a totalitarian theocracy but to subtler forces its heroine is only beginning to understand and fears she is complicit with ... It comes to be a meditation on fame and art as well as love. A suspension of disbelief will sometimes be required. Lacey makes you happy to submit. She casts a spell.
In her ruthless self-liberation and her willful ignorance of the world she’s entered, Mary blends cynicism and innocence, the rival spirits that govern The Answers, managed by Lacey to woozy and disquieting effect ... Kurt is a hodgepodge of Hollywood clichés dipped in a batter of solipsism. As such, he’s perfectly designed for the elegantly executed plot that drives The Answers, but he’s a drag on the novel when it enters his head ... Lacey pulls off a diverting and provocative satire, studded with episodes of real gravity, without engaging in slapstick. The ironies are buried deep in the novel’s symmetrical structure and never played for laughs, though there are enough deadpan comic revelations to qualify Lacey, as some critics have already suggested, as an heir to Don DeLillo in White Noise mode. (A nearer precursor is Tom McCarthy’s recursive simulation novel Remainder.) But The Answers spends a lot of time in each character’s head pondering the nature of love and gets clogged up with trite false epiphanies.
It’s a quiet, calm, somewhat circuitous rumination on what we miss and miss out on when our connections to other human beings are synthetic. And it serves as a reminder that sometimes the fiction that feels most relevant to a hallucinatory political moment is not itself overtly political ... women in The Answers seem to exist to be done to. They possess a keen awareness, some street smarts, even cynicism. And yet, wherever they go, things happen to them, to their bodies. Objects find their way into women’s personal space ... A thoughtful, complex, feminist book that artfully mines the fun-house insanity of 21st century American womanhood by a uniquely talented writer who knows not to put forth any answers, only more questions.
The Answers is in part a sparkling satire of our era of big data, sending up the all-too-believable idea that, by optimizing human emotions, technology can be put to use 'solving love.' But the novel is also a poignant spiritual lament, deepening the themes of Ms. Lacey’s excellent debut, Nobody Is Ever Missing ... The specter of holiness haunts Ms. Lacey’s book like a phantom limb. 'I came close to praying a few times,' Mary says during a period of acute suffering, 'but everything felt unanswered enough and I didn’t want another frame for the silence.' These searching, religious dimensions add to the fresh commentary on present-day godheads to make The Answers not just one of the most ingenious novels of 2017 but also one of the most moving.
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 ... 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) ... 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.'”
While it rarely has the stunning, labyrinthine sentences of Nobody Is Ever Missing, it directs that energy into an unpredictable, layered plot that will likely take most readers by surprise ... While the forward propulsion of the novel is undeniable, Lacey operates as an essayist as often as she operates as a novelist, seeking to raise questions that can never be answered. And this, of course, is the joke of the book’s title: the answers are not answers at all ... There’s no doubt that this toe dip into genre fiction will be as divisive as Nobody Is Ever Missing’s lyrically driven internal world, but it’s also clear that Lacey didn’t take the toe dip lightly; it’s well thought out and she’s careful not to let it overwhelm the book ... no matter how you categorize them, it seems inevitable that her books will find a larger audience. Her sentences are like reading an iconic prose style before it’s become iconic. Her work’s divisiveness, if anything, will only build her cult appeal.
Such an inventive setup isn’t merely an excuse for Lacey to show off her considerable inventiveness. It also allows her to dig into some fertile philosophical ground, raising questions to which the novel, against its title and like all good art, offers no final answers: Is love merely a script, provided to us by biology and culture, that we follow unthinkingly? Or is it the most singular experience we ever have? Or is it somehow both? All too often books with a killer premise languish at the level of the sentence, where great fiction really lives. The Answers succeeds at this level, too ... Love is a strange, strange thing, and so is the self. No one in contemporary fiction does a better job of showing us these facts than Catherine Lacey.
Lacey is at her best when she is skewering, and while the emotional dystopia she constructs is not necessarily the core of the novel, it is the most successful part. She transitions artfully from lampoons of sexism (Kurt and the GX) to clear-eyed scenes of misogyny and her supporting cast of characters is a biting commentary on the various ways people have succumbed to the 21st century ... The true focus of Lacey's interest, though, is Mary, which is difficult because she belongs to a recent cohort of female anti-protagonists: Devoid of personality and interests, they are not so much characters as devices through which the author can funnel observations about modern life and thoughtful plots ... Lacey deftly examines the effects of fame, trauma, heterosexuality, social media, and technology on women, only to conclude, 'Now what?' Reading The Answers is a bit like falling out of love: To paraphrase something Mary once told a boyfriend she was breaking up with, you feel like something's missing, even though it's right in front of you.
The Answers features a large cast, and Lacey’s depictions of everyone from Kurt, a narcissistic, pseudointellectual movie actor, to Matheson, Kurt’s devoted assistant, are deliciously shrewd ... This isn’t the stuff of easy, overly broad satire — it’s devastating because, damning as it is, it feels accurate ... With so many story lines, it’s almost inevitable that not all are resolved by book’s end. We never do find out, for example, what happened to some of the characters or how others are connected to one another...Lacey is an extremely talented writer, but The Answers is a little less than the sum of its many excellent parts.
Lacey’s prose especially shines when describing the strange physical sensations Mary experiences during the PAKing sessions, though the author doesn’t display the same wild abandon in her writing here as she did in her Whiting Award-winning first novel, 2014’s peripatetic Nobody Is Ever Missing, which was full of long, winding sentences that tumbled forth with unrestrained verve. Those inclinations occasionally pop up here, but the screws are tightened in favor of plot; the novel’s abundant, penetrating thoughts on love and self; and in-depth characterization of even ancillary players ... Lacey writes loneliness and solitude with a profound depth, injecting life into the anxious fluttering of those wondering, wandering individuals who just don’t know what to do with themselves and who can’t stop asking life’s most impenetrable questions.
The result is a kind of postmortem on human intimacy, as Catherine Lacey examines, with clinical chill and precision, late-capitalism's perversions of love ... There's a lot going on in this book (Alzheimer's, Eastern spiritualism, cult religion, rape, and viral celebrity gossip populate backstories and subplots), but part of the sheer pleasure of The Answers is that its cultural influences reach high and low—Lacey is as fluent in feminist critiques of 8½ as she is in the most satisfying tropes of genre fiction ... Through the aperture of Mary's ennui, it would seem the 'late-capitalist, late-patriarchy' has already won. It's only when we break out of her point-of-view that The Answers turns wonderfully, nimbly subversive, gaining traction as a genuine satire with emotional and philosophical punch.
Lacey is better at building an intriguing setup than she is at delivering on plot. The one she assembles here, however, is an ingenious sci-fi scenario that tweaks at the edges of what we believe about that part of us we call a self ... Male brutality and sexual violence erupt into the novel, sometimes luridly. Why things should be this way, and whether they can be better, are great questions. Maybe, if Lacey had put them more precisely, she could have given more in the way of resolution.
Mary is to play the Emotional Girlfriend, who should ‘never disagree, challenge, or complain’; other girlfriends include the Maternal Girlfriend, and the less compliant Anger Girlfriend … The satire in these scenes is sharp and funny. The pious transactions of dating culture are taken to their logical absurdity, the search for love becoming negotiations over a contract of employment … In its second and longest section, The Answers makes a surprising switch from Mary’s point of view to an omniscient third-person narrator. Here, the novel enters the minds of the other girlfriends, particularly that of the Anger Girlfriend, traumatised in a similar way to Mary. The leap is particularly apt, occurring at the moment the sensors attached to everyone are turned on, providing Kurt and the Research Division with what they hope is a God’s-eye view of love.
Startling and stunning and compulsively strange, Lacey’s sophomore novel is a haunting investigation into the nature of love ... With otherworldly precision and subtle wit, Lacey creates a gently surreal dreamscape that’s both intoxicating and profound. A singular novel; as unexpected as it is rich.