September 20, 2020

In ‘Pew,’ a Mysterious Stranger Tests a Small Town’s Tolerance

Does it matter what anybody looks like? Philip Roth wrote that the body’s surface is “as serious a thing as there is in life.” Susan Sontag, in an early diary entry, commented that physical beauty was “enormously, almost morbidly, important to me.”

Michel Houellebecq wrote that the criteria for physical love — youth, beauty, strength — “are exactly the same as those of Nazism.” Barbara Kingsolver wrote that “beautiful people liked to claim looks didn’t matter, while throwing that currency around like novice bank robbers.”

Joyce Johnson, in her excellent memoir “Minor Characters,” spoke for many when she broached a small but real tragedy — that her outsides, somehow, did not reflect her insides.

In Catherine Lacey’s strange, estranging and heavy-handed third novel, “Pew,” there is a lot of earnest talk about whether these three cubic feet of bone and blood and meat, to quote a Loudon Wainwright III song, mean all that much.

“Why did they cause so much trouble for us?” Lacey’s narrator asks. “Why did we use them against one another? Why did we think the content of a body meant anything? Why did we draw our conclusions with our bodies when the body is so inconclusive, so mercurial?”

This narrator — genderless, racially ambiguous and seemingly mute — has a body that makes people nervous. When the narrator is found sleeping on a church pew, a reverend does the narrator the grave disservice of naming the stranger Pew.

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Pew has few memories, has walked a long way, prefers social distancing and seems vaguely lobotomized. Has Pew fallen to earth, like the extraterrestrial in the David Bowie movie? Has Pew suffered a kick from a horse? Has Pew, like Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, come unstuck in time?

The action takes place in an unnamed town in the American South. Pew is taken in by Hilda and Steven and their children; they’re a God-fearing Christian family that hopes to get Pew “appropriate” treatment. They send Pew to counselors, thinking they might have a trauma victim on their hands.

[ This book is one of our most anticipated titles of July. See the full list. ]

They hire doctors to examine Pew. Everyone wants to know what’s between those legs. It’s the tabloid talk of the town, the way Brooke Shields’s virginity was in the 1980s. Pew rebuffs medical explorations. The family puts Pew in an attic room. Sometimes they lock the door.

The town is looking forward to the Forgiveness Festival, around which there is excitement and dread. This novel owes a debt to Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (the novel’s epigraph comes from it), which features a similar festival. The reader will also summon Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” to mind, and the reader is not entirely wrong to do so.

Pew has the ability to peer, if only slightly, into other people’s souls. “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.”

Pew is a blank pawn inserted into the gender wars. Modern-day Phyllis Schlaflys say things to her like: “Now, you might know that some people these days like to think a person gets to decide whether they are a boy or a girl, but we believe, our church believes and Jesus believed that God decides if you’re a boy or a girl.”

This is a novel that takes itself very seriously. The reader who has kept pace with Lacey’s fiction will be willing, mostly, to take it seriously, too. Born in Mississippi, the author lives in Chicago. She is the author of two good previous novels, “Nobody Is Ever Missing” and (better) “The Answers,” and a book of plangent short stories, “Certain American States.”

What works in this novel is its Kafkaesque sense, through Pew, of free-floating anxiety and mortification of a sort that is impossible to define and thus impossible to soothe. Pew will not be characterized, interpreted, diagnosed or annotated. She seems to drift, like the planchette on a Ouija board.

Pew’s muteness draws out other people’s stories, in the manner of the fiction of Rachel Cusk, among others. Some of these are confessional and quite dark, yet few resonate.

Lacey has a mastery of the lives and lingo of the Have a Nice Day crowd, the kind of people whose defensive optimism keeps them from learning about anyone. She stacks the deck so heavily against these hair-sprayed grotesques that they’re brittle, however; they crack like dry spaghetti.

This novel walks a high wire between pretentiousness and a kind of cool, disembodied unease. For me, it fell too often into the goo pit. “Sometimes I think I might be writing a letter to sleep” is a not-atypical comment by Pew. Hilda’s tightly held hair, Pew says, “made me feel the pressure and presence of every person who had never been born.”

Pew feels as if Pew is lying perpetually in a canoe, able only to see the sky above. The reader may feel stuck looking in the other direction, as if his or her face has been inserted into the equivalent of one of those holes at the ends of massage tables, where all one can see is floor tile and dust mites.

Pew is aloof, recessive. People project onto Pew. Some think Pew is an archangel. Others think, with Pew’s brown skin, that Pew should be a busboy or a dish washer. Pew would prefer not to be called anything; to name, in this novel, is to take colonial possession. Names are sorting errors.

Will the town come for Pew with pitchforks and torches? Will this novel find wind and hoist sail? Lacey is such a talented writer that she casts a certain spell, even when that spell is distant and difficult to tune in.