Exploring the true nature of love is a complex thing to do — mix that in with dystopian fiction, and you know things are about to become bizarre. Catherine Lacey’s The Answers is an intriguing novel that exposes the complications of living in a data-obsessed world, striving for perfection and why it’s impossible to have the answer to everything (particularly love).
The book leads with the story of thirty-year-old Mary, who has become overcome with a series of troubling symptoms, which have no root cause and can't be solved by Western medicine. Her eccentric friend Chandra recommends Pneuma Adaptive Kinesthesia (or PAKing), which is extremely expensive. To help pay for the sessions, Mary takes up another job, becoming the Emotional Girlfriend in the Girlfriend Experiment, led by the famous and incredibly narcissistic Kurt, who hires a harem of women to meet his needs as a man and attempts to solve why he’s had issues in past relationships. Along with the Emotional Girlfriend, there’s an Anger Girlfriend who nags and becomes infuriated with him, an Intellectual Girlfriend to assert her intellectual prowess (which bothers him), A Mundanity Girlfriend who doesn’t talk to him and sits there an stares at absolutely nothing, A Maternal Girlfriend to nurture him and an Intimacy Team to fulfil his sexual needs. Mary’s role as the Emotional Girlfriend is to listen to stories of his dead mother, cry, listen to him ramble about his fears or insecurities (without sharing her own) and give him constant reassurance. The experiment is conducted by a team of researchers who measure physiological responses, plan ‘experiments’ (not dates) and act as gatekeepers — without Kurt’s knowledge, they’re also testing out mind manipulation.
Though the move from first-person to third-person voice felt slightly disruptive, the rest of the book followed like a lucid dream. Much of the book provided flashbacks to the past, which was essential and provided a context into the histories of Mary, Kurt and the other women. One of my favourite parts of the story was how the plot would transition into a flashback with ease.
Unlike many books where there’s an emotional pull towards a certain character, I didn’t feel this with The Answers and I wouldn’t say this was necessarily a bad thing. I found myself drawn to the ideas Lacey explores but not to the characters. In a way, I felt like one of the researchers who was forming hypotheses in my mind and conducting my own analysis without any emotional attachment to the characters in any way.
Reading The Answers evokes deep reflection about the quest society goes on to find a perfect match, especially through algorithms on dating apps, and how this ultimately tarnishes the organic nature of love. Kurt wants to find the ingredients of the perfect girlfriend, and by testing out his needs, he seems to think that women performing restricted and controlled roles will solve all his problems — it’s not as if he can type all the qualities that fulfil him romantically into the computer and then create the perfect girlfriend.
The Answers is a thought-provoking and immensely intelligent read, which will leave you with a string of your own questions that will presumably be difficult to answer.
Release date: Published June 8th 2017 by Granta