The View From Nowhere

Daniel Green reviews Catherine Lacey’s Pew

Catherine Lacey, Pew.
Granta Books, £12.99.
Buy direct from the publisher.

This might not seem to be the most pressing question to ask of Catherine Lacey’s Pew, but finally I found it to be one I couldn’t avoid asking: exactly how is this story getting told? It seems to be a straightforward enough first-person narrative, but first of all such a narrative must presumably be written (or perhaps, in some cases, spoken). While literary convention has long allowed for narratives originating in a disembodied third-person voice — either presuming the story is told from the tacitly privileged perspective of the author or has also been written down (as history or ethnography of sorts) — first-person narratives are usually framed as the product of the narrator writing: a journal, a diary, a memory. Otherwise, the ostensibly embodied voice of the narrator comes from — where? If we say that it is simply an artifact of the narrator’s consciousness, then we are pretending to believe that human consciousness unfolds in complete, grammatically-ordered sentences, that it manifests an already composed discourse.

This is, of course, an absurdity, although perhaps accepting it might be justified as another illustration of the imperative to “suspend disbelief”. However, to affirm a first-person telepathic narrator as a valid narrative strategy is presumably to further accept a loss of plausibility in the name of narrative cogency, unless the work in question were to deliberately call the reader’s attention to this peculiar quality of its point-of-view for some metafictional effect or experiment in perspective. Pew does not make such a gesture, presenting its story as a more or less transparent account offered by its admittedly uncommon narrator. Nicknamed “Pew” when found sleeping in a church pew by a local family, but subsequently unwilling to provide them with a real name, the narrator literally seems to be without identity (at least one that can be recalled) and of indeterminate gender. For most of the novel’s action, Pew is also mute, responding only to a few questions in less guarded moments but almost as if surprised to be speaking. Thus both the novel’s narrative structure and the narrator’s manner reinforce an impression that the narrator is instead talking to the reader, as in the very first paragraph:

If you ever need to — and I hope you never need to, but a person cannot be sure — if you ever need to sleep, if you are ever so tired that you felt nothing but the animal weight of your bones, and you’re walking along a dark road with no one, and you’re not sure how long you’ve been walking, and you keep looking down at your hands and not recognizing them, and you keep catching a reflection in darkened windows and not recognizing that reflection, and all you know is the desire to sleep, and all you have is no place to sleep, one thing you can do is look for a church.

The conceit animating Pew, then, is that the novel itself is the vehicle for the protagonist to accomplish in the very enactment of the story what seems to be impossible for the character to achieve in the life that is the novel’s subject. Indeed, not only is the narrative a manifestation of the protagonist’s ability to communicate, but the telling of the story of the narrator’s seven-day sojourn in an unnamed Southern small town offers us the only real element of characterisation in the portrayal of Pew, since this character’s essential role in the story is to be a cipher. The tension (if not contradiction) between Pew’s status in the narrative and Pew’s status as the narrator produces an oddly discordant effect. Acting in the former capacity, our protagonist appears blank, utterly disengaged not just from the immediate surroundings but all sense of personal agency; in the latter, Pew seems self-aware and highly articulate, almost as if Pew the narrator remains aloof from Pew the character, not unlike what we might find in a third-person narration.

Such blurring of the line between first- and third-person narration is reinforced by another prominent feature of Pew’s narrative, one that simultaneously emphasises Pew’s status as a passive onlooker and calls into question the plausibility of Pew’s narration. While mostly declining to speak, Pew is apparently a very careful listener, precisely recording the words spoken by the townspeople who attempt conversation. So, ultimately, Pew becomes a novel more about these people than about Pew, as they reveal much about themselves and the small-town culture they represent. Again, however, one is compelled to ask questions about Pew’s role as the conduit for this talk. First, is it really tenable that Pew has such perfect recall of such a varied and protracted flow of spoken discourse, extended over seven days and offered by many different characters? Second, when and where has Pew recorded it? We might think Pew is committing this talk to a journal, or later on has written it down, but the former is certainly not indicated at any time in the story (Pew ostensibly has no possessions) and the latter only makes the accuracy of Pew’s memory seem more improbable.

If these seem quibbling questions that willfully obscure the novel’s narrative illusion, Pew is a novel that would benefit from acknowledging its illusion. Although Pew is clearly an unusual character whose circumstances push right up against the limits of realistic plausibility, the character seems intended to be accepted as an authentic enough figure, if only as a memorable evocation of character markers that are very much resonant in the current cultural climate: Pew as gender-indeterminate, as possibly disabled, as possibly the victim of abuse, and so on. Yet even in these attributes Pew is an inescapably artificial creation, a device that, together with the character’s muteness and apparent amnesia, allows Lacey to achieve what seems to me to be her primary goals — to build a sense of mystery and ambiguity in a story that otherwise has no plot, to focus attention on the citizens of a fictional small town while retaining the narrator-protagonist’s unifying voice, and, especially, to satirise the town itself for its hypocrisies and its generally clueless response to Pew’s radical “difference”.

The town’s identity is essentially the sum of its provincial attitudes toward race, sex, and class, as well as its Southern religiosity. Some of the characters could be called Southern grotesque types (Mrs. Gladstone, an old woman whom Pew visits, immediately and unprompted tells Pew the story of how she discovered that her late husband might have murdered several people), but most of them express views that are partly reflective of modern therapeutic notions (concern for Pew’s wellbeing) and partly a kind of creepy fascination with her “in-between” status. They are not malicious in intent, but their curiosity about Pew’s difference never leads to more than a collective effort to make that difference tolerable by assimilating Pew to community norms if at all possible. Pew is not strongly judgmental about this behaviour, but focuses on the inner conflicts they appear to be hiding. At one point, Pew tells us: “I don’t know how it is I can sometimes see all these things in people — see the 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.” Still, these unmet needs are obvious enough that most of the people Pew encounters never rise above their emblematic familiarity to become actually interesting characters.

As if conceding that the characters themselves can’t really sustain the thematic burden of Pew’s narrative, the novel concludes with a scene that strongly echoes Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’: a festival in which all of the assembled townspeople confess their sins, from the most trivial to the most heinous, and in the process receive blanket forgiveness from the community. Pew here is most conspicuously reduced to the role of human tape recorder, providing several pages of overheard professions of bad behaviour — “I beat that little girl”, “lie all the time about everything”, “never actually read the Bible” — but, after someone begins reading aloud a list, Pew also overhears a parent explaining to a child that it is “a list of the dead”, ominously adding, “the ones who were killed”. The conversation finally releases Pew from the passivity exhibited throughout the rest of the novel, as presumably the suspicion mounts that Pew might be an ideal sacrificial victim. “I knew I knew I wasn’t supposed to be here,” Pew declares. “It was all an accident. All of us were meant to be somewhere else.”

It is almost as if Pew as a character has been set down in the wrong story, though in fact this is precisely the character the author needs for the sort of social critique presented in Pew. But if the Forgiveness Festival is meant to elevate the novel beyond such a critique to something more metaphysically frightening, it doesn’t really succeed at the task. The novel’s parallels with both ‘The Lottery’ and Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas’ are really too overt to provide real climactic power, not so much updating the themes of these stories for twenty-first century America as simply using them to invoke the horror that can lurk in cloistered human societies, but the Southern small-town version hardly seems either more or less horrible. It remains most palpably a depiction of a familiar sort of cultural dysfunction.

During the course of the novel, Pew expresses ideas and predispositions that are recognisable from Lacey’s previous fiction, which is, in fact, quite focused not on social analysis (although her second novel, The Answers [2017], certainly is at least partially satirical) but on her protagonists’ psychological dilemmas. In Nobody Is Ever Missing (2014), her début, the protagonist is a young woman fleeing her failed marriage, the world at large, and, ultimately, herself. Both she and the protagonist of The Answers are women profoundly alienated from their own bodily wellbeing (one consistently struggles against the “wildebeest” that lurks within her, the other is in perpetual therapy to ward off myriad unnamed illnesses) and in Pew this malady evolves into a nearly complete disconnection from the human body. Near the beginning of the novel Pew looks at their reflection in a gas station’s bathroom mirror and tells us: “I saw these legs, these arms. I shut my eyes and tried to remember that body, but under shut lids the mind saw nothing, could not remember in what it was living.” Both of Lacey’s earlier narrators, however, are intensely focused on their own pain and confusion, a subject that Pew all but abandons, to give priority instead to events outside the narrator’s personal drama.

This is not to say that those first two novels, as well as the story collection Certain American States (2018), are wholly preoccupied with internal states. Nobody Is Ever Missing makes effective use of the picaresque form (with a woman as the rogue hero, a relatively rare phenomenon) and The Answers in particular, through the depiction of its protagonist’s experiences as a participant in an elaborate if bizarre “experiment” involving multiple women and centred around meeting the various emotional needs of a Hollywood movie star, could be called an examination of gender roles in the United States. Yet even though the choice of protagonist in Pew clearly invokes issues of gender ambiguity, the exploration of these issues in this novel is surprisingly muted. While the people Pew encounters are aware of this ambiguity, and to a degree raise it when speaking to Pew — at one point Pew is sent to a doctor for a physical exam, but whatever curiosity might be satisfied by this is frustrated when Pew declines to undress — finally the townspeople’s gender confusion seems just one part of the puzzle that Pew presents. Both Nobody Is Ever Missing and The Answers present narrator-protagonists who, in their provocative amalgam of vulnerability and a kind of stubborn self-sufficiency, are memorable and distinctive. The protagonist of Pew is certainly distinctive, especially in the contrast between Pew the narrator and Pew the character — one is articulate, self-possessed, the other silent and essentially lacking a self. Perhaps it is this puzzling contradiction that makes Pew memorable, too, if in a different way.