“The Answers” blows those sorts of questions out of the pond — it makes you feel embarrassed for thinking them. This is a novel of intellect and amplitude that deepens as it moves forward, until you feel prickling awe at how much mental territory unfolds.
On a certain level, “The Answers” is a dystopian project; it borders on science fiction. It’s about the neurobiology of love. You remember Raymond Carver’s formulation: “It ought to make us feel ashamed when we talk like we know what we’re talking about when we talk about love.” In Lacey’s novel, that shame vanishes into M.R.I.s, facial-detection software and artisanal electromagnetic pulses that can make a person weep or flush.
This is a “neuronovel,” in other words, to borrow the critic Marco Roth’s somewhat disparaging term for certain novels by writers like Ian McEwan, Rivka Galchen and Richard Powers. But it’s a neuronovel that floods with tangled human feeling.
Like Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” it’s also a novel about a subjugated woman, in this case not to a totalitarian theocracy but to subtler forces its heroine is only beginning to understand and fears she is complicit with.
This heroine is Mary Parsons. She’s 30, underemployed, deeply in debt. She lives in New York City, and is sick with a raft of symptoms doctors cannot explain.
Lacey does not overplay her hand in terms of this book’s politics, but it becomes clear that men have tried to fiddle with Mary, mind, body and soul. “Every minute of her life,” she thinks, “had been rented or given to someone else.”
Her mind was mishandled by her religion-deranged father, from whom she is estranged. He home-schooled her, kept her hidden,…