Too Many Girlfriends!
Read an excerpt from Catherine Lacey's wild new novel, 'The Answers,' about romance, big data, and a host of fake girlfriends.
Catherine Lacey. Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz
With her acclaimed debut novel, 2014's Nobody Is Ever Missing , Catherine Lacey announced herself as one of the young American writers to watch. This January, the 32-year-old Mississippi native (and occasional VICE contributor) published The Art of the Affair, an illustrated history of artists and writers' love lives, and just last month she was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.
Lacey's audacious, darkly funny second novel, The Answers, out from Farrar, Straus and Giroux on June 6, follows Mary, a broke New Yorker dealing with a mysterious physical ailment. In order to pay for an experimental medical treatment, she finds herself taking a job as an "emotional girlfriend" to a rich actor named Kurt, who has funded an entire lab full of researchers and girlfriends to satisfy him romantically. Each woman performs a role: Intimacy (a.k.a. sex), Mundanity (being available), Anger (yelling at him), and so on. In this excerpt, Kurt gets the idea to invite a few of the women out, then stand them up to see what happens.
—James Yeh, culture editor
An excerpt from The Answers
The idea came to him in a dream—an experiment in standing someone up, to have a member of the Intimacy Team wait for him in public, some place popular enough for her embarrassment to be felt, as his lateness became a complete absence, her texts and calls unanswered, her waiting increasingly pathetic, a supplication. There was something to learn from this—Kurt was sure—this mixed state of guilt and power in making someone wait, the humbling that came with abandonment.
Lisa was the first to be assigned to this experiment. She arrived at the restaurant five minutes early, took the barstool closest to the windows, and waited as Kurt watched her through the mirrored windows of an SUV parked just outside. She thumbed her phone for a while, ordered a drink, feigned annoyance, sent the requisite texts at the predetermined intervals. The information her sensors collected—easy heart rate, steady breathing, the usual peak and flux of her emotional state—blurred across screens in the Research Division's office, but none took note. They'd humored Kurt in letting him think this was even an experiment at all. It wasn't.
Kurt's adrenaline spiked when a group of suit-y, cuff-linked dudes crowded into the bar near Lisa. One offered to buy her a drink (I've got one), offered to keep her company (I'm good), asked her name, to which she said nothing, to which he said, It's just your name, to which she said , It's just get the fuck away from me.
Kurt relished this moment from the car, watching a woman reject the company of another man for the pointed absence of his, but a moment later an old friend of Lisa's recognized her from the sidewalk and came inside, the two women seemingly ecstatic to see each other, which meant Kurt was no longer watching a woman being stood up by him, just two women enjoying each other's company. And what was the point in that? He told the driver to take him home. Lisa was informed her services were no longer needed, and the next IT Girlfriend put on this assignment was given a longer list of Relational Experiment Behavior Specifications, including not talking to anyone for longer than three minutes.
Rosa was sent to a different restaurant on a low-traffic block of SoHo on a dreary night. She brought a book to read and seemed not at all bothered by sitting in the bar, nursing her wine, occasionally looking up at the door as if she didn't particularly care whether anyone showed up. Eventually it began to rain and the window of the bar fogged up, obscuring Kurt's view, though by then he was already too disappointed by her contentment to care about what he couldn't see. Matheson suggested the women be given even more specific emotional directions—to be disappointed by Kurt's delay and absence—and even though Kurt worried instructions would ruin the authenticity of the data, he agreed.
But Mandi, the last IT Girlfriend on this assignment, overdid the role, checking and rechecking her phone, visibly jolting each time she heard the restaurant door swing open, staring out the window, trying to grimace out tears. Kurt left before a half hour had even passed, calling Matheson on the way home to tell him to cancel the experiment, that Kurt wasn't sure why he wanted to do this in the first place.
In their office the next morning, Matheson noticed something different about the mood of the Research Division, though he wasn't sure what, exactly, had changed. It seemed there were more of them than usual, or perhaps fewer, or something about their uniforms had been altered—had their lab coats been laundered? He stood there awhile, studying the room, searching for what was amiss, but nothing became clear.
But Matheson was right—there was trouble in the Research Division. They had once been united in a single goal: to endure the requirements of this actor's vanity project in exchange for the time, funding, and test subjects needed to develop their sensors, but their unity had been dissolving.
The disagreements were petty at first—their uniforms, their official titles, whether they should name themselves as a group, something more specific than the Research Division. Then there was the ongoing question about what to name the sensors—some believed they shouldn't be named until the development was further along, that perhaps they did not yet know what they were making, and others believed their research would be stymied if the technology remained nameless and some suggested possible names and others shot those names down but didn't offer any of their own and eventually someone would point out how much time had already been wasted on this debate and could they please table it and move on?
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Data collected had been either inconclusive or overly conclusive. There were disagreements about statistical analysis, hypotheses formulation, approaches to software coding, ethical concerns, and so on. Some of the subjects responded immediately and clearly to the Internal Directives, while others seemed to have a more disorderly response. One of the women hired on the Mundanity Girlfriend track began quietly weeping when they sent an Internal Directive meant to synthesize limerence. Matheson reported that she'd quit on the spot after this experiment, which made no sense—they'd used the same Internal Directive on Jenny, during an Intimacy Team Relational Experiment, during which she and Kurt were alone in an unlit room monitored by infrared as they each used small devices to convey to each other, through a sort of Morse code, what level of physical intimacy they each consented to. Though Jenny had first only consented to kissing Kurt, once the Internal Directive was administered, she gave him her full consent and moments later broke the Relational Experiment Behavior Specification that required her to be silent.
I'm in love with you, she shouted mid-experiment, to which Kurt said nothing, finished, and left the room, leaving Jenny to quiver, ill with love. She was fired on the spot and two Research Division members had to escort her from the building.
There has to have been some mistake, she said in the elevator, eerily calm, just ask him, he'll know. This is different. (She seemed brainwashed, one of the researchers later said to another. Don't call it brainwashed, the researcher said in response, and the other wanted to know why. It just sounds dumb, don't call it that.)
In the lobby Jenny locked her knees, braced herself into a corner, and held herself there for several minutes before flinging herself at the potted ferns, ripping the plants up, throwing them across the room, then dashing from the building.
Since then, everyone in the Research Division had been more hesitant with the Internal Directives. Perhaps they needed to rewrite all the coding, some suggested, or employ a screening process. Subtler experiments were attempted, turning up someone's heart rate to see how it affected her mood, decreasing or increasing one hormone in tiny increments.
The Jenny Incident, as it came to be known, was referenced often, though each member of the Research Division had their own interpretation of it. Some thought it proved the efficacy of the Internal Directives to create a feeling from scratch in a person, but others were sure that Jenny must already have been in love with Kurt of her own accord, and the Limerence Internal Directive had just let that feeling be revealed.
You can't feel something you don't feel, the least-liked researcher said, though he was in the minority.
Feelings are adjust data, not mysterious, not immeasurable, another said. This is the entire point of all of our research. You can't possibly think that a human feeling is anything more than information, electrical currents, controllable under the correct circumstances.
That's not what I said, the least-liked researcher said.
That is what you said. That's not what I meant.
I'm going to have to ask you to only say what you mean and mean what you say when you're in our lab—is that clear?
Of course. It was a mistake. I won't let it happen again. The least-liked researcher had long hoped that he might one day be able to discover a sort of special neurochemical reaction that only could happen in the brains of people who were really in love. He imagined it might be like mirror neurons, but much more rare and strong, something almost holy, though he'd never use such a word in the lab, and wouldn't dare tell anyone of this desire. He was a very romantic, almost silent person. He tied his shoes very slowly.
In meetings many complained the experiments had become overly cautious, that the results were pointless, that the inquiry would have no direction if no one was willing to take a risk. One researcher, the one who often suffered from sudden nosebleeds, spoke up quietly and slowly, about her fears that perhaps the Internal Directives were flatly unethical, that perhaps the means did not justify the—but someone else spoke over this meek voice, persuaded the others to turn against her.
Factions began to form. Some believed that some of the Girlfriends' data was so inconsistent that those Girlfriends should be let go, or that their files should be thrown out, but others believed that collecting the widest sample of data could only help the analytics. Some thought that the Internal Directives were to blame for the symptoms some of the Girlfriends had complained about, but others held that there were too many factors to draw a causation. Some thought Kurt's uninformed and self-serving ideas for Relational Experiments shouldn't be tolerated and some thought letting him think he had an impact was strategic. Some believed they could come up with some statement or discovery that could at least appease Kurt, but most were sure they never would, that they were working on borrowed time until Kurt figured out his objective—to solve love—was impossible. Most believed that Kurt and Matheson were at least a little sociopathic, but only a few thought this was a problem.
One of the not-twins had been developing a theory—that a brain in limerence believed itself to occupy two consciousnesses, that falling in love was, in some ways, a temporary suspension of the limitations of being one person—but he feared the others would find the evidence he'd collected in forming this theory to be strange, so he just kept quietly collecting his data.
As a test subject, Ashley was particularly divisive among the researchers. The least-liked researcher had the idea to do a case study on her, something about the interaction of love and hate in a brain, something that might prove how compassion was more powerful than anger. But others shot it down as too sappy, reductive. The physiological states and biometrics of compassion and anger would vary greatly among people and over time and Ashley was only one person. There couldn't be much to learn from this.
But this was only intended to be a case study, the least-liked researcher argued, a starting point.
Others wondered how he'd even been allowed to join the Research Division to begin with.
Ashley's resting data showed that she had a baseline disdain for Kurt, he continued, a consistent hostility, no physical or emotional attraction to him whatsoever, and her assignments were always to attack him, nag him, pick emotional or physical fights with him. What if an Internal Directive could soothe her enough to make fighting him not worth it?
Those opposing the idea cared so little that they didn't even dissent, and the least-liked researcher covertly began a series of experiments the next day. The Anger Girlfriend had a Relational Experiment that required her to burst into Kurt's bedroom as he was waking up, then pelt him with an armful of his shoes, one after another, screaming that she knew what he'd done, that he better tell her exactly what had happened, that she'd know if he was lying, that if he lied, it would all get worse. From their office, the least-liked researcher gradually sent her an Internal Directive meant to mimic the compassion and kindness of a long and well-built relationship, but Ashley's activity feed didn't change in the way he'd expected. She didn't soften or smile or stop screaming at Kurt and instead became louder, threw the shoes harder, breathed more erratically. Later that week during a Relational Experiment that had Ashley verbally abuse Kurt, the least-liked researcher found that the more he increased the concentration of her Compassion Internal Directive, the more vicious her attacks became, as if loving him a little had increased her ability to insult him.
In outgoing interviews that week Ashley reported a lingering nausea after each Relational Experiment, almost as if she'd had too much caffeine, she said, but otherwise she was fine. She didn't report how she woke each morning thinking of Kurt's face, thinking of his little expressions, the way he pronounced certain words, the hard/soft place where his neck met his jaw. She began mindlessly using the GX phone to look up pictures of him, a habit she sometimes began before even getting out of bed, her eyelids barely parting. At all hours of the day she would think, neither lovingly nor hatefully, of that mole on the right side of his neck. She would wonder where that mole was at that exact moment. She felt sometimes haunted by it—flat and dark, a perfect circle. No matter how absurd she knew it was to fixate on such a thing, she thought of it constantly. That fucking mole.
Yet she still felt sure that she hated him, hated his pretension, his vanity, hated that he'd hired all these women, hated that mole, hated the neck under the mole, hated the voice that came out of that neck. But this was unlike any hate she'd ever felt before. It was gleeful and all-consuming, an unlikely companion through her days. He was every character in her every dream and sometimes he sprouted out of walls, and sometimes every surface was covered with his image, and sometimes she dreamed in circles of nothing but the mole.
At the gym she felt stronger and faster, felt her body move with more urgency and strength. One afternoon she accidentally clipped some guy in the shoulder who was standing too close while she did drills, and the hit surprised him enough that he tripped on something, fell to the floor, and busted his lip. He bounded back to his feet, acted as if he were fine, though his eyes were rattled and wide. But Ashley didn't even apologize to him, indifferent to the pleasure or suffering of anyone but Kurt. Though the Internal Directives were synthetic, even a synthetic love, it seemed, had made her a monster.
At dim sum with Vicky the next week Ashley avoided speaking of the GX entirely, though they'd spent half the previous month's dinner talking shit about Kurt. But something was different now and Ashley didn't want to see what Vicky's face looked like when she mentioned Kurt. She wondered what Vicky's experiments might entail, wondered if her work was more or less important than Ashley's work and how could you even measure such significance and she felt her stomach seize, all appetite gone, and wondered why she was even wondering this. In the back of her head, the mole bounced along, taunting.
Is something wrong? Vicky asked, noticing Ashley's full plate, but she just made something up about the gym, about her training, a strained muscle, an upset stomach.
Yeah, you don't really seem like yourself, Vicky said, to which Ashley nodded, a constant No and a constant Yes running in her.
What a danger it is to love, how it warps a person from the inside, changes all the locks and loses all the keys.
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Excerpted from THE ANSWERS by Catherine Lacey by arrangement with Farrar, Straus and Giroux.