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REVIEWING

The Answers

By Catherine Lacey

Farrar, Straus & Giroux | 2017 |

Reviewed by Janet Garber

Catherine Lacey

Why We Love Whom We Love

People manipulating other people in the name of science

Our narcissistic anti-hero, a film celebrity named Kurt, is determined to “solve love.” Why does love not last but instead dissolves into indifference, boredom, and antipathy? For ten years he has been working on a stalled project, The Walk, trying to capture his own essence on film, staring at photos of himself from every angle, but incapable of finishing his project. Now he decides an inquest into love should take precedence over everything else.

“He did have this hunch that people had been missing some key element of romantic love. He felt sure there was a way to decode our disorganized reactions to partnership.” He assembles the GX team which supplies him with a woman for every need: The Mundanity Girlfriend, Anger Girlfriend, Emotional Girlfriend, Maternal Girlfriend, and so on. The women are instructed to respond positively to all his suggestions and comments and are even given chemical stimuli to alter their reactions.

Kurt, you see, is not quite happy. He experienced some trauma as a child. He changed his name. His relationships have never lasted more than a month or two. He’s ambivalent about all the paparazzi and media attention he receives. He’s seeking answers.

Enter our anti-heroine, Mary aka Junia, a young woman who distinguishes herself by doing almost nothing, saying little, and letting herself be manipulated. She’s had a childhood mildly reminiscent of The Glass Castle and has lost communication with her family in Tennessee. In New York City, she works at a low-level clerk job, becomes seriously and mysteriously ill, and lets her old college roommate talk her into a radical, very expensive form of new-age therapy. Because of mounting debt, she passively signs away rights of all kinds and becomes the full-time Emotional Girlfriend to Kurt.

That’s the story which is told in multiple points of view within the same scene to emphasize the disparate ways communication and action are interpreted by all the players. Can human interactions be reduced to a scientific formula or be subject to hormonal intervention? Is love merely a desire to reproduce oneself in another? Do we just pretend love is about getting to know another person when it’s really about having a foil for our own self explorations?

Catherine Lacey raises these perennial questions about the nature of love, of scientific inquiry, of free choice. She even sticks a toe in the waters of speculative fiction though the type of intervention she describes is probably not far off in the future.

What I found problematic in this well-written novel were the protagonist (Mary) and antagonist (Kurt). Mary, in particular, does not interact much at all with other people; she tends to be inactive and monosyllabic. In a word, dull. We rarely see her take any kind of initiative. She’ll think about what she should do with her afternoon, for example, and then just go back to sleep or lay around. Hardly an inspiring heroine.

By the end of the story, she has perhaps located a nugget of self, a streak of rebellion, but all she does is open a window. Kurt is just your basic monomaniacal egotist, incapable of seeing another person let alone empathizing with her.

Nobody Is Ever Missing, was the winner of a 2016 Whiting Award and finalist for the Young Lion's Fiction Award. In 2017, she was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists.

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