In 2017, it has become commonplace simply to order a human for a few hours. Someone to hang pictures on your walls, or deliver banh mi, or pretend to love you. The marketplace of mediated intimacies so gently referred to as the “sharing economy” has changed how we buy things and the way we work. Once-unpredictable, even languorous experiences with food and sex and shopping have been replaced by discrete, algorithmically-directed transactions.

THE ANSWERS: A NOVEL by Catherine LaceyFarrar, Straus and Giroux, 304 pp., $26.00

We know that technology can dampen authenticity—that is by now a familiar, almost reflexive, lament. But accounting for what has truly been lost is difficult. Which is why The Answers, Catherine Lacey’s stark second novel, is so haunting. It’s a quiet, calm, somewhat circuitous rumination on what we miss and miss out on when our connections to other human beings are synthetic. And it serves as a reminder that sometimes the fiction that feels most relevant to a hallucinatory political moment is not itself overtly political.

Lacey established herself as a skillful chronicler of female melancholy with her 2014 debut, Nobody Is Ever Missing. That book’s brooding protagonist, 28-year-old Elyria, departs the safety of work, marriage, and life on the Upper West Side, for aimless travel in New Zealand. Like the heroines of many novels of domestic unease, Elyria is propelled by an unhappiness she can’t fully understand—the paradoxical restlessness that sets in just as we seem to have found a way to “have it all.” It’s a story of a sullen, detached individual’s attempt to further disengage from her life—to disappear—and it finds some echoes in this lonely, puzzling new book.    

The Answers follows Mary Parsons, a peculiar, morose, blank slate of a girl from Tennessee. A “homeschooled, semi-orphan from a barely literate state,” she was born to domineering, fanatically Christian parents, but broke ties with them as a young adult, even changing her name. Though single, college-educated, and living in New York City, Mary is a walking anachronism. She works at a travel agency, a choice she hoped would enable globetrotting but actually entails pushing invoices around in a fluorescent-lit office. She’s a plain Jane and a Luddite, owing to a life of freakish non-exposure to culture, technology, or taste. She’s never heard of US Weekly. She walks through life with a combination of awe and deep suspicion, naiveté and superiority, qualities that make her a keen observer.

Mary is also beset with chronic pain, a health mystery no mainstream medical doctor seems able to identify. “Whole hospitals shrugged,” she says of the maddening quest for a diagnosis. When her new age best friend Chandra—whose life is devoted to chakras and auras, tinctures and tech detoxes—recommends a treatment called PAKing, Mary desperately tries it. The treatment, administered by a quiet, shaggy-haired weirdo named Ed, is an “odd blend of exercise, therapy, first date, and ceremony,” which involves being “stretched and pushed and pinched.” Ed chants, rolls spherical objects along Mary’s skin, places small crystals on her forehead, asks her things like “Have you ever taken nettle root?” and sometimes engages her body in ways she can’t fully comprehend or remember. As in so many forms of therapy—and so many relationships—Mary marvels at “all these hours they’d spent together, two adults in a room, half-clothed, trying to make life better.”

Disconcerting as they are, the PAKing sessions offer the only relief Mary has found, but they’re wildly expensive. To pay for one uncanny form of intimacy, Mary must sell another. Broke, she scours craigslist and applies for an enigmatic “income-generating experience,” which, it turns out, after an arduous and bizarre series of interviews, is called the Girlfriend Experiment, or GX. It “wasn’t really sex work and wasn’t really not sex work.” Hello, gig economy.

GX is the brainchild of a narcissistic and very famous movie actor named Kurt Sky. (I kept picturing Tom Cruise, though I really didn’t want to.)  Taking off from the creepy notion that “feelings are just data,” and love but a “neurotransmitter cocktail,” Kurt and his research team are attempting to whittle a romantic relationship down to its components and delegate them as separate roles to a range of young women. The goal is to reverse engineer the disorder that is love, and to harness and prolong limerence, that early state of obsession and infatuation that humans are perennially chasing.

Mary becomes Kurt’s Emotional Girlfriend, a job that requires bolstering his ego with a steady stream of yeses. (Kurt also employs an Intimacy Girlfriend, an Intellectual Girlfriend, a Mundanity Girlfriend, a Maternal Girlfriend, and an Anger Girlfriend.) For Kurt’s purposes, Mary is perfect. Even though he is Clooney-level famous, she didn’t even know who he was. “You’re completely uncontaminated,” he tells her, smiling. She is compensated handsomely enough to leave the travel agency (in a rare, badass gesture, she quits via Post-it) and to afford a full PAKing package, which is to say, to keep getting relief from what ails her. 

The Girlfriend Experiment carries the obvious echo of the “Girlfriend Experience,” or GFE, a sex work transaction characterized by some degree of emotional intimacy. As sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein puts it, the thing for sale is not merely a sex act, but an experience of “bounded authenticity.” As an increasing number of male clients grew weary of “clockwatchers,” Bernstein writes, they began to seek a “real and reciprocal” connection, “but a precisely delimited one.” For sex workers, this means selling something more amorphous, and being—or at least appearing—more emotionally available, perhaps more themselves. (The low-lit, soft-porn Starz series The Girlfriend Experience is a surprisingly satisfying investigation into this sultrily obsequious role.)

The way a chef might serve a deconstructed version of a dish, Lacey’s GX is like the girlfriend experience reduced to its constituent elements. A scoop of intimacy, a dollop of motherly care, a sprinkle of intellectual stimulation. (But just a sprinkle. Kurt finds his Intellectual Girlfriend obnoxious—she “undid his ideas with the ease of slipping a button through its eye”—and promptly fires her.) Both the GX and the GFE are distinct from either no-strings sex or romantic entanglement, and both are designed to maximize a man’s comfort. Mary is not permitted to mention any of Kurt’s other girlfriends. Many of her movements are scripted, and all are observed by the researchers. She’s given a list of words she cannot use with Kurt, and a series of phrases she’s encouraged to say frequently, like “You’re right.” 

Kurt, sucking green juice through a straw, enlists Mary to do things like sit with him in darkness while he edits a film, staring for hours at images of himself. The weakest parts of the book are those told from Kurt’s perspective. He is amusingly familiar—a self-involved bro hyper-committed to the optimization of the self—but still insufferable company.

Is the GX a solid side hustle? A degrading distraction? A simple means to an end? For Mary, “circumstance had whittled her options...her body needed PAKing, PAKing needed the GX, and the GX needed her.” Both because of the pain she’s in and her odd, disconnected manner, she scarcely seems able to make decisions, let alone evaluate them. She blankly recalls the time she was raped shortly after arriving in New York, bits of her austere childhood, a brief relationship with a man. We also learn about the rape of Ashley, Kurt’s Anger Girlfriend, and the two events form a haunting diptych, as they’re represented as both world-shattering and utterly banal. 

The novel’s theme is subjection. Like feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey’s formulation of the male gaze, in which women connote “to-be-looked-at-ness,” women in The Answers seem to exist to be done to. They possess a keen awareness, some street smarts, even cynicism. And yet, wherever they go, things happen to them, to their bodies. Objects find their way into women’s personal space.

But just as subjection is complicated here, any facile notion of female agency, that appealing analgesic applied in college women’s studies classes, is also exploded in these pages. After all, agency isn’t an especially useful concept for thinking about messes like commerce, health, sex, and love. It isn’t useful when bill collectors are calling. And Mary doesn’t know if she wants to exercise agency, anyway. Antisocial and dissociative, she has no idea what she wants, or whether wanting or getting anything is sane, just, or even possible.

This sad, meditative book frequently spirals into questioning, lulling the reader almost rhythmically with its queries about the nature of love—whether it’s simply a “long manipulation,” whether it can be brought under human control. In an interview discussing her first novel with Electric Literature, Lacey cautioned against a reading of the book as straightforwardly feminist. “Elyria’s just a human being who leaves a relationship,” she said. “Her being a woman is not a huge part of the story.” (The comment parallels Elisabeth Moss’s recent deflection about The Handmaid’s Tale, which she said is “not a feminist story. It’s a human story.”)

Lacey also chafed at the suggestion that her debut might be autobiographical. In 2014, she wrote in Buzzfeed about a reporter who asked in an interview whether she’d ever been diagnosed with clinical depression. The reporter was assuming that “the novel was, like many first novels are, memoir in dark sunglasses and a headscarf,” Lacey wrote. Lamenting the frequent and audacious conflation of a female novelist with her narrator, she called the experience a “reminder that everyone sees the story they want to see.”

I don’t claim to know the first thing about Catherine Lacey the person, but ambling through this heavy, strange novel, I’m sure I saw what I wanted to: a work of fiction that indirectly but deftly skewers our moment—data-mania, rising health care costs, the tyranny of wellness, the illusion of choice, the pointless cult of celebrity, the pervasiveness of violence against women—without mapping directly onto a political agenda. A thoughtful, complex, feminist book that artfully mines the fun-house insanity of 21st century American womanhood by a uniquely talented writer who knows not to put forth any answers, only more questions. That may just be what I went looking for. But I’m okay with that.