As someone with a penchant for taking titles too literally, my desire to read a book called “The Answers” was both tremendous and misguided. It soon became clear that this book would not be answering my most pressing queries. Rather, the book is more interested in posing, not answering, big old questions: What is love? Why do people love? How does one survive underemployment and crippling debt? Is it wrong to manipulate emotions with high-tech electronics?
In addition to making the book’s title perhaps worthy of litigation and a modest settlement, these big questions make the book worthy of serious contemplation. But this isn’t just a philosophical text to be studied by people suffering from crippling debt, it’s also a fantastic story told with sublime sentences. The reader will agree, Catherine Lacey is a writer to watch and admire, and her wordsmithery is top-notch. Here is an example, keep in mind that the character is on drugs in this chapter.
Love is a compromise for only getting to be one person, Mary said, her pupils huge and deep, her whole life, her entire history, Merle and Clara, that tiny dorm room shared with Chandra, whatever happened in that alley, the Paul months, every fact she’d ever learned, every word read or written, every exhale, every blink, every ounce of her pressed forward, pressed her into the present, this patch of grass on his rooftop’s garden, the sky awash in a pastel summer sunset, her hand in Kurt’s sweating hand-the ordinary (hand in hand) turned to remarkable and terrifying, a whole other consciousness trapped in flesh touching flesh, touching the flesh holding her consciousness-and her brain was every ocean and every sea combined and her eyesight impeccable as she felt she could see every ridge of every brick on any building across the river, that she could count each spoke on the bikes spinning across the bridge. Every fiber and cell of her pulsed against the air and she felt true.
Our main character, going by the name Mary in order to distance herself from a childhood molded by her father’s cultish religious fervor, is underemployed and in tremendous pain. In order to afford the bizarre treatments that bring her some relief, she responds to a curious job posting. As she progresses through the interview process, she discovers she’s applying to be part of an experiment wherein one of the most famous actors on the planet is hoping to answer big questions about love. She, given her extreme obliviousness to popular culture (thanks in large part to her unorthodox upbringing), has never heard of the actor and so is a perfect candidate for the experiment. The actor has financed a team of researchers to monitor his interactions with a cabal of women. Each woman has a defined role. Some are there to listen and support, another to harangue and bully, another to mother, and, of course, several to be “intimate.” The actor seems to enjoy this, and his harem of experiments indulge him in order to earn money and healthcare not easily attained outside his employment.
When the book ends, the reader may feel many questions posed haven’t been answered. But as to whether this book should be read, they will receive a resounding “Yes.”