Ask Catherine Lacey for the origin story of her new novel, The Answers, and she won’t hesitate to give you the short answer: back pain. More specifically, an inexplicable and persistent back pain that greeted her in the midst of an emotionally turbulent period in her life marked by loss, upheaval, and complication; a time which occasioned, for Lacey, a rethinking of her erstwhile understanding of the relationship between mind and body. “As a skeptic and a person that reads and believes in science and wants everything to be verified, I resisted buying into the whole ‘your mind is your body and everything is mysterious energy and spirits’ line of magical thinking,” Lacey says. “But there came a point at which I couldn’t deny that my body was reacting to the emotional things that were happening around it; it was manifesting those things.”
The Answers finds its protagonist, Mary, in a similarly disquieting predicament at its beginning, wondering, “What order, what rules, were there in the world, a body? And why did I still hope for answers that I knew weren’t coming?” By the time we meet her in the novel, Mary has been experiencing mystifying and unrelenting pain for over a year; a colonizing pain that has rendered her body fundamentally inscrutable to her. With remarkable dexterity and prismatic prose, Lacey dilates that site of unknowing—dilates the body itself—and fashions of it a kind of Möbius strip, along which she poses and complicates questions about the nature of our corporeality and to what degree we own or are owned by it. “At some point in your life, your body has or is going to restrict you,” Lacey says. “And yet, at the same time, it’s also the only thing that’s just and only yours. That paradox is something that’s always interested me, and it makes writing the body—at least for me—seem like the entry point to everything.”
For Mary, her body and the pain that sequesters it is also an entry point into the significant debt—to say nothing of the existential dread—she’s accrued in her sundry efforts to treat her pain; to solve for it. Her body is, quite literally, a narrative-maker, a machine of meaning. Lacey dramatizes—without judgment or moralism—the ways in which a profound desperation, born of defeat and helplessness, can engender a profound willingness to develop proportionally alongside it, and it’s stunning to behold on the page. I can’t think of a writer who dances her characters so deftly in the overlap.
That overlap is the space from which Mary seeks out yet another treatment—Pneuma Adaptive Kinesthesia, or PAKing for short, which is at least unorthodox, if not potentially precarious—as well as the space from which she responds to a peculiar want ad for a vague, suspicious but, of chief importance, lucrative opportunity that could finance these expensive PAKing treatments.
To say much at all about what that opportunity entails would be to siphon from the novel its foremost triumph: Lacey’s expertly engineered rate of revelation; her enviable gift for modulation in a novel whose title is, in a sense, the very thing toward which it wants to usher the reader at a precisely governed velocity. Asked how conscious she was in the writing process about this question of tempo, Lacey says it’s something she tried not to foreground too much for fear of overdetermining the narrative itself, and instead took cues from her own responses to the writing as it was happening, be they emotional, intellectual, or physiological responses. “Whenever something feels like, ‘I have to get through writing this part in order to get to the next part,’ I know I’m in the wrong part,” she says. “I’m in the wrong part, I’ve taken a wrong turn, and I need to go back. Because it all needs to be the good part.”
Vincent Scarpa is a recent graduate of the MFA program at the Michener Center for Writers. He lives in New Jersey and tweets at @vincentscarpa.