A lesser writer would have taken the concept behind The Answers and used its strangeness as a vehicle for quirk and comedy. But in Catherine Lacey’s hands, the story is explored with complete seriousness and a mournful melancholy that manages to make even the most exaggerated moments deeply touching.
Mary Parsons needs money. A decade of post-college traveling around the world has resulted in a mountain of debt, and now she is suffering from an endless number of strange medical symptoms that no doctor can diagnose. The only medicine that relieves her pain is an obscure treatment known as Pneuma Adaptive Kinesthesia (PAKing). There is no information on the bizarre treatment that is a mix of massage therapy and meditation, but it works and it is expensive. In desperate need of a second job, Mary responds to a ad for an ominous sounding social experiment. After a series of interviews that require her to answer questions revolving around celebrity culture and a pseudo-psychological profile, Mary is hired. She learns that she will be the Emotional Girlfriend for Kurt Sky, a massively famous actor.
The thing is, Mary has never seen Kurt before. She grew up in the woods with her parents who decided the only way to serve God was to reject modern life, lead by her mentally unstable father who made his life’s work a manifesto that would show the rest of the world the error in their ways. Eventually she is taken in by her aunt, but the wounds of her childhood remain, and eventually she escapes to New York City and doesn’t look back. But still she doesn’t own a TV, doesn’t read magazines, dislikes movies, and is entirely ignorant of mass market/media culture. And in her, Kurt Sky sees the perfect supporting performer for his ambitious social experiment exploring the nature of relationships and love.
It has all the ingredients for easy comedy: the goofy medical treatment performed by a Keith Raniere-esque weirdo named Ed; narcissistic, mom-obsessed celebrity paired with woman devoid of culture of family; and romantic relationships treated as something out of Pixar’s Inside Out (Mary is Emotional Girlfriend, then there is Anger Girlfriend, Maternal Girlfriend, Mundanity Girlfriend, etc.). It’s not hard to imagine the satiric heights it could have been taken in the hands of writers such as George Saunders, Helen DeWitt, or Rivka Galchen.
However, as mentioned before, Lacey sees the disorientation of modern life not as comedy, but as tragedy. Outside of one friend, Chandra, a privileged hippie who is eternally on the verge of losing her mind, and then Ed, her PAKing instructor, Mary is isolated from social interaction. When not filling all of her time with travel, she reverts to complete solitude. And it is this escape from the rabbit hole of distractions and superficial pleasures that consume everyone else’s life that makes Mary the most emotionally stable person. Kurt Sky is the polar opposite, yet Lacey rejects turning him into parody and treats him with equal empathy. He knows he is broken emotionally, and through his narcissistic perspective he sees the world as broken as him, and so his Girlfriend Experiment becomes a way of fixing not only himself but the entire world.
For brief chapter interludes, Lacey follows other characters involved in the experiment: most notably are Kurt Sky’s devoted assistant, Matheson, whose entire life revolves around making Sky’s life flow smoothly in every minute detail. He fears he is being outsourced by the Girlfriends. Then there is Sarah, Anger Girlfriend, who finds herself driven crazy when the researchers managing the technical aspects of the experiment begin testing mental augmenters. Lacey’s one significant misstep is introducing these characters fairly early, and then letting them fade into the periphery as the experiment devolves.
But how minor these issues end up being reveal how deeply complex Mary as a protagonist is. She is emotionally remote, often to the point of detachment, but, like Lacey’s writing style, she is the empathetic and skeptical narrator needed to decipher the maddening times we live in.