A stranger turns up in a small town somewhere in the US one Sunday morning. They don’t speak and are of indeterminate gender, age and race – but since they were found sleeping under a pew, Pew is how they come to be known. A churchgoing family, Hilda and Steven Bonner and their three children, decides to take the outsider home: “God sent you to us for a reason.”
But the wider religious community feels an urgent need to establish who Pew is, starting with their gender. “God decides if you’re a girl or boy,” the Reverend claims. “Did God make you a girl or a boy?” He receives no answer. Nor does Pew enlighten them as to their intentions or origins. Did they come here illegally? Are they the second coming? Are they on the run? Does it even matter, if “God loves all his children exactly the same”?
So begins Catherine Lacey’s short novel, which on the surface appears to be an exploration of identity and conformity – but which defies easy interpretation.
Lacey is a 35-year old writer, born in Mississippi, who in 2017 was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists. Still, she’s not particularly well-known in the UK. Her first novel, Nobody Is Ever Missing (2014), was a postmodern tale of a wife who abruptly runs away from her stable life and husband, while The Answers (2017) followed a lonely woman who signs up to a quasi-scientific romance experiment. Her playful collection of short stories, Certain American States (2018), contained plenty of characters with a fragile sense of self and a desire to walk away from their own lives. “I keep sleeping in the wrong places, I think, or maybe I’m just waking up not where I am,” one says.
Lacey’s characters are typically seized by an urge to flee, both from their circumstances and their bodies. These are desperate people: the missing, the confused, wandering without any plan and often at the mercy of strangers. But there’s rarely any sense of resolution in her fiction; answers are deferred or displaced. She specialises in precise prose about people who feel muddled.
Pew is a novel full of jarring, surreal encounters and surprising turns. Dead people turn out to be alive. Stories don’t add up. People materialise and dematerialise in confusing ways. In one scene, Pew watches as a girl suddenly appears in a bathroom from an air vent. In another, Bonner climbs into the trunk of car. Actions have a weird logic. You can absolutely imagine the novel being made into a dark indie film by the Coen brothers or David Lynch. But it also has something in common, too, with Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector, in which a stranger unwittingly draws out all the demons from a backwards provincial town in Tsarist Russia.
The setting hovers between fantasy and reality. On the one hand, the claustrophobic, religious setting is remote and eerie enough to feel like a parallel world: “People don’t really pass through town so much,” says one local. But on the other, the novel is firmly set in the here-and-now of modern America, specifically a Southern town still bearing the scars of slavery.
The action takes place over a week as the community prepares for what it calls the “Festival of Forgiveness” – an ominous-sounding event that “outsiders don’t always understand”. Meanwhile the townspeople take collective care of Pew, who is moved from household to household. Most of the residents imagine that the stranger must have endured some terrible trauma, but we soon realise they are projecting their own. The elderly Mrs Gladstone tells Pew that her gentle husband confessed to a series of brutal racist killings on his deathbed. Hilda tells a different but equally horrifying version of the same story. Other residents are convinced Pew is the “new Jesus”.
Over time, the community’s Puritanism surfaces – and tensions simmer as the Festival of Forgiveness draws near. Pew, who is assumed to be a teenager, only speaks to a handful of young people. Nelson, “an orphan from someplace having a war”, has been taken in by the town’s wealthiest family but warns Pew that the congregants only hear what they want to hear. Like Pew, Nelson is not as stupid as people think: “My whole family was killed in the name of God,” he says “and now these people want me to sing a hymn like it was all some kind of misunderstanding.”
Lacey’s novel has the feeling of a modern-day morality tale, only you’re never quite sure what the moral is. At times, it’s a bit too self-consciously enigmatic. Listening to the bugs singing one night, Pew observes: “There were many kinds of insects, I knew – I had seen many of them – but how many different kinds of respect existed?”
But such lapses are rare and Lacey sustains the doleful atmosphere to a climax that is both cathartic and creepy. Pew senses the town’s collective anguish “roaring like heavy rain, a storm of it”. There are obvious echoes of Shirley Jackson’s 1948 short story, “The Lottery”, in which a small-town’s annual rite turns out to be a stoning. But Lacey’s book is also reminiscent of the recent Kafkaesque fiction of American author Jesse Ball, with whom Lacey is in a long-term relationship. Ball’s last novel, The Divers’ Game (2019), is about a society in which citizens are allowed to use a lethal gas to kill refugees with impunity. His dystopian parable features a festival where all sins and obligations are wiped clean – and there’s talk of a child sacrifice ceremony too.
In Pew, we hold on to the voices and distinctive speech patterns of the townspeople, the half-opened windows into their lives. Many start talking and discover through their testimonies that they are strangers to themselves. Some experience crushing epiphanies. It’s a gift to “see these silent things in people”, Pew reflects. But Pew also experiences it as “an affliction”.
The idea of the protagonist as a listener, collecting others’ stories, has become a strong current in contemporary fiction, notably in Rachel Cusk’s “Outline” trilogy, Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness and Miranda Popkey’s Topics of Conversation. Since the figure of Pew is such a silent, enigmatic void, Lacey takes the idea of the passive protagonist to an extreme. She is good at capturing speech, simple statements that are imbued with years of pain, trauma and thwarted hopes. The people Pew encounters are in search of a meaning for what they’ve endured. But what if, she suggests, there isn’t any?
Granta, 224pp, £12.99
This article appears in the 10 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, A world in revolt