How do two people fall in love and what is love anyway? In The Answers, Catherine Lacey proposes a bizarre way to find out as she creates a dating dystopia with scientific inquiry into questions impossible to explain. As Lacey describes the subservience of the women forced to play roles, albeit for money, the timeliness of their interactions with the self-serving, egotistic male protagonist seems eerily timely.
Jaded movie star, Kurt Sky, decides to conduct a scientific experiment to decode the brain’s function during limerence—the physiological and psychological stage of a body as it falls in love – by hiring a harem, with women fulfilling specific functions for one man: Anger Girlfriend, Mundanity Girlfriend, Intimacy Girlfriend – and Maternal Girlfriend (who cooks him grilled cheese sandwiches) – each playing a specific role. Mary Parsons, young and sick, and desperate to make money, takes the job with the “Girlfriend Experiment” as the Emotional Girlfriend, whose duties involve listening attentively to Kurt, nodding at the appropriate moments, and responding with supportive scripted interactions.
To pay her expensive bills from a holistic treatment called Pneuma Adaptive Kinesthetics (PAKing) – a loose cross between reicki, massage, meditation, and aura readings – a cure for her unexplained and constant health problems that have stumped the orthodox medical profession, Mary answers the ad posted in the health food store. After signing a nondisclosure agreement, she begins her daily routine in her new job, blandly observing Kurt as he rambles on about his dead mother and his issues with fame. Mary, as are all the other Girlfriends, is wired to monitor her electromagnetic brain waves, body temperature, heart rate and other organ functions. Her responses are analyzed by behind the scenes researchers who monitor her every move with invisible cameras and computers.
Mary’s off-the grid past with a manically religious father, along with her unsuccessful relationships with men, is slowly revealed through her silent thoughts, – ““Every minute of her life had been rented or given to someone else,” and her interaction in the experiment becomes a coping mechanism for her to keep her secrets. On the surface, her demeanor seems the perfect counterpoint to Kurt, and she eventually displaces the other Girlfriends to become his “true love.”
When the neurobiology researchers decide to play with emotions by issuing “Directives” through the wires attached to the participants, the story reminded me of the science fiction movie hero WAL-E and his robot girlfriend Eva, with her “Directive.” The reader will need to suspend belief to enjoy the action, but Lacey makes this easy to do with her humor and subliminal forays into the minds of men. Although Lacey has a clear agenda, the story line is compelling and entertaining with an ironic note in the ending.
Lacey raises questions that can never be answered. Mary’ s PAKing guru assures her:
“…no matter how much we want it, nothing is ever fixed or final, and all the answers we get are the ones within us, and they change. So often they’re not the ones we want to hear.”