Catherine Lacey’s last book, Certain American States (2018), a short story collection, began with an epigraph from Annie Baker’s play Circle Mirror Transformation:
LAUREN: Hey. Um. This is kind of weird – but do you ever wonder how many times your life is gonna end?
SCHULTZ: Uh … I’m not sure I know what you –
LAUREN: Like how many people you’re … like how many times your life is gonna totally change and then, like, start all over again? And you’ll feel like what happened before wasn’t real and what’s happening now is actually …
(She trails off.)
Baker’s play takes place in an amateur dramatics class in Vermont and the excerpt is characteristic of its halting and elliptical dialogue. ‘I would like to say that I write for everyone,’ Baker has explained, ‘but I probably just write for depressed people who enjoy ambiguity and long silences.’ It’s no wonder Lacey is an admirer. Many of the stories in her collection are about reshaping an emotional life after loss – in ‘the silence that comes after something has shattered’. ‘Please Take’, perhaps the best of them, is about a widow mourning, or failing to mourn, her husband: ‘Some nights I wake up and panic, thinking he’s truly gone, for real this time, and I lie there shaking, all my organs going wild in me for hours until I roll over and see he’s been beside me all along. I keep sleeping in the wrong places, I think, or maybe I’m just waking up not where I am.’
Baker’s influence – the tolerance for the undefined, the measured silences (‘a “silence” should be approximately five seconds long’) – can be felt again in Lacey’s new novel. Pew is about an amnesiac child found asleep in a church and taken in by the God-fearing people of a quietly menacing American town. They call the child Pew. Pew is mute, a speechless narrator whose bottomless silence prompts other characters to speak. The child’s past life is only hinted at. A TV on in the background of a clinic waiting room mentions ‘the missing’, but nothing is made explicit. Descriptions of Pew’s physical appearance vary and the child’s age and gender are never defined, and this is the point: ‘There were many writers – especially throughout the 20th century – who were very comfortable with places of irresolution,’ Lacey told the Paris Review in 2018. ‘The last twenty years have somehow been more of a conservative swing, towards a conservative technique, so things that are old, techniques that are old, now seem rather weird.’
The novel takes place over the course of a single week, as the townspeople prepare for something called the ‘Forgiveness Festival’ and Pew moves from person to person giving each character an opportunity to open up. The most compelling sections involve Hilda, the woman who half-heartedly takes in Pew. Mrs Gladstone, Hilda’s stepmother, delivers her life story unprompted as a sort of searing stage monologue. You can imagine her shyly facing the audience and you hear the perfectly placed pauses: she’s an actress waiting for her Tony. She talks about Hilda’s father and about the fact that, on his deathbed, he confessed to a litany of unimaginable crimes – then had the indecency not to die. Later, Hilda tells Pew that after her father survived, he viciously stabbed Mrs Gladstone in the eye: an event her stepmother has chosen to forget. ‘Thank God,’ Hilda says, that he didn’t manage to kill her, ‘because our family – our reputation – well, I don’t think we would have recovered from something like that.’ There is an appeal to expiation but someone must always bear the weight of your sins. Reputation, or the abstract idea of it, is the real burden in Pew. The fear of losing their reputation, more than any oppressive faith, prevents the people of this town from living completely.
The novel is a study in community dynamics. ‘Everyone knew everyone and they all belonged to another,’ Pew thinks on witnessing the townspeople gathered together.
There was a certainty, a clarity, a real joy, that fused them all into one, into one massive entity, the weight of their years all pressed together, thousands of years in the room, all together like that, entwined with one another, no distance between any of them, no loneliness, no solitude – and it was easy to see, just then, how intensely one could want to belong here.
But anyone from a small community will be equally aware of its hazards: fanatical groupthink, cruelty, lack of freedom. The struggle of Pew is one that first occurs to brooding teenagers of the community: what would you do, and who would you be, if nobody was watching? It’s a question that’s no less sad and degrading for adults, but one Christians can’t dwell on for long. Someone – the Big Someone – is always watching. The Forgiveness Festival, which takes place over the final few pages, is impressive: a cacophony of voices confessing to sins both large and murky, small and bitter, creating a final tragic picture of the town. On the way to the festival, Pew and Hilda pass a sign. Forgiveness: For or Against? The paradox of Lacey’s novel is that for a book about the dangers of judgment it’s remarkably judgmental. The child is used to appraise the town, a ghostly presence who watches and assesses. Pew begins as an object of sympathy, but becomes an instrument of merciless high-mindedness.
In one section, Pew is welcomed into the home of a wealthy couple who have raised a refugee child, Nelson. It’s explained that Nelson’s family died in a foreign war and that initially, despite speaking English, Nelson was also mute. On first seeing the sprawling house, Pew thinks: ‘Could a person really walk up to this thing and believe it to be a person’s home, larger than a school, larger than most churches?’ Kitty, the matriarch, is depicted as banal and domineering, concerned only with status and appearances. When Pew meets the remaining family members they are gathered around a massive television like ‘an altar’; the father is chomping on a cigar butt. Cokes are offered. The food is served in ‘soft heaps leaking oil’. Unsurprisingly, given Lacey’s unappetising descriptions of his surroundings, Nelson is contemptuous of his new home. He’s plotting his escape from the peculiar predicament of having been rescued. Now old enough to be getting moderately drunk every day from a hidden plastic cup, he speaks with the clever, lonely cynicism of a thirtysomething. ‘My whole family was killed in the name of God,’ he tells Pew, ‘and now these people want me to sing a hymn like it was all some kind of misunderstanding.’ Nothing is explicitly stated, but Lacey couldn’t be clearer on the family’s political inclinations if she had had them all go into the garden, take out their guns and fire off a few rounds. She repeatedly equates bad taste with a lack of moral goodness. The whole chapter is a deliberate, protracted wink.
On the inside jacket of Pew there’s a quote from the Irish Times that describes Lacey as ‘intelligent, articulate and sure of her gifts’. Out of curiosity I looked up where the quote came from and was surprised to discover that I had offered the phrase in a review of Lacey’s earlier novel The Answers, about a broke and despondent woman who in a misguided experiment becomes the ‘emotional girlfriend’ of a movie star. (‘How many times is your life gonna totally change and then, like, start all over again?’) And then I remember. Both The Answers and Lacey’s first novel, Nobody Is Ever Missing, had the advantage of style – deliciously long, weaving sentences – that made the intricacies of their plots seem redundant. Pew is less playful than this earlier work and wears its influences, including Ursula Le Guin and Flannery O’Connor, heavily. Pew is like O’Connor in the way a Netflix Shirley Jackson adaptation is like Shirley Jackson – which is to say not very – and its failings are only made more obvious by the similarities. O’Connor would have savagely skewered Kitty too, but would never have allowed Pew to remain the pinnacle of integrity.
The real problem with Pew is Pew, whose pseudo-philosophical musings are sometimes intolerable. ‘I had to tend to this flesh,’ Pew thinks while undressing, ‘as if it had all been worth it. Why did living feel so invisibly brief and unbearably long at once?’ The faults of others engulf this solitary narrator:
I don’t know how it is I can sometimes see all these things in people – see these silent things in people – and though it has been helpful, I think, at times, so often it feels like an affliction, to see through those masks meant to protect a person’s wants and unmet needs. People wear those masks for a reason, like river dams and jar lids have a reason.
Pew is never allowed to be lost but instead becomes a vessel for spiritual meanderings and riddles. I began to feel as if I was babysitting a child who keeps asking questions like: ‘Why is the moon in the sky? Where do the stars go when they are asleep?’ Lacey seems to have forgotten the greatest weapon of a writer like O’Connor: humour. Every thought Pew has is deeply earnest. Humour would rupture the reverential atmosphere; it would be a hideous distraction from the momentous sense of purpose. Anyone who has ever had a fit of giggles during a sermon knows that religion is funny: it’s funny because it’s treated with such seriousness. Some playfulness wouldn’t have undermined Lacey’s intelligence. What I was really praying for by the end of Pew was one unexpected moment.