Who Do You Confess Your Sins To?
Catherine Lacey's novel "Pew" centers around a silent mysterious newcomer
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
Set in a small town in an abstracted American South, Catherine Lacey’s Pew traces a week in the life of its eponymous narrator, shortly after they are discovered sleeping on a church bench by the congregation and promptly nicknamed—like a dog—after the place they were found.
Pew is difficult to classify: androgynous and ethnically ambiguous, itinerant and without memory of either past or origin. They become first an object of Christian charity, and soon, a challenge to conservative Christian values and the townspeople’s need to “know what kind of person” a person is, in order to know how to treat them. Tension rises as the book approaches a mysterious “Forgiveness Festival” and Pew hears the stories and confessions of the town’s inhabitants. Pew, whose face cannot be pictured, presents a portrait of a community faced with the impossible: a body, bare of signifiers, that is only human.
I spoke on the phone with Catherine Lacey about complicity, forgiveness, growing up in the South, and more.
Olivia Parkes: From the moment they are discovered, Pew refuses to speak. Why and how did you make that choice?
Catherine Lacey: I think this is the first time I wrote something where I just knew the container of the book from the very beginning. I just had this question of what would it mean if we weren’t able to determine someone’s gender, race, background, or age? What would it mean to look at a person who was like that? And I think that once I had that question, it basically required this person not to speak. Because speech carries these different indicators in it. So the whole conceit of the book sort of required the central character not speak. And I was interested in the challenge of that.
OP: One function of that choice is that the book is made up largely of the monologues of other characters. Many of those monologues end up being confessions of one kind or another. It emerges over the course of the book that certain kinds of crimes have in fact been committed and are still being committed by the community there. How were you thinking about the ways in which the crimes of the individual and the crimes of a community intersect?
CL: It’s interesting that you frame it in terms of a crime that has been committed, and these different people having to confess to different ways in which they’ve been a party to these crimes. Because I do think that’s a part of any society. Being a part of any government, being a part of history, being a part of the community means that you are a party to all different sorts of violence and oppression that occurred long before you’ve gotten there. And so how do you reconcile that? Especially if you’re confronted with what in one way is just a sort of void. You know, this person, this character, this body in need or body in an absence of context. I guess it seems like the appropriate place to confront your position in this society, or for these characters to confront their positions in their society.
OP: The book moves towards a mysterious Forgiveness Festival, which is framed by the townspeople as a way of trying to “actively reconcile with the past” and “unite both sides of the community.” But it emerges that that’s not really how the festival is functioning. Could you talk about your skepticism of forgiveness as it’s handled in Pew?
CL: I remember having this question really early on: If all sins can be forgiven, then what is the meaning of justice? In the town that I grew up in, in Mississippi, every single person went to a church. It was not a weird question to ask somebody what church they went to. There was an assumption that you belonged to one. So from a really young age, because I believed the adults around me, and because I was a reader, I read the Bible quite intensely. And it was really hard for me to reconcile the world that I was living in with the messages as I understood them in the Bible. To me, that’s the interesting question of the South. How do you have this place that’s so built around the teachings of Jesus, ostensibly, and yet has some of the most vile human rights problems in the country? I can’t stop thinking of that question but I also can’t answer it, but fiction never answers anything directly.
OP: Pew gets taken in by a traditional cis-gendered hetero white family, and the problems of the book begin as soon as they try to identify Pew, or in the face of Pew’s inability or unwillingness to answer the question: What are you? Why is it so dangerous to this community to leave that question unanswered?
CL: Well I think it would be dangerous in any context. You know, the conceit of the book is one that’s basically impossible. There’s no such thing as a person who has no racial background, gender, no identifying anything. There’s always something, right? But if we could imagine what it would mean to interact with someone who we knew was a human being, but we didn’t know anything else beyond that, I’m not sure if any community would know how to deal with that in a way that would be comfortable or reasonable. I don’t think there’s anything about the South or about this abstracted community that is more poorly suited for it than anywhere else. It’s just the place I know the most intimately.
OP: One of the ways the book dramatizes Pew’s indeterminate appearance is by having them look different ways to different people. What other characters see seems like a projection of their own minds, which affects how they want to “deal” with Pew. For example: Do they see a white female child of twelve, or a black male teenager of fifteen? How were you thinking about projection or that range of identity in Pew?
CL: I’m really interested in the psychological concept of dysmorphia—both physical and mental. At different times in your life, even different moments of the day, you might see vastly different people in the mirror. It’s difficult to reconcile the difference between the self you invent and the much more mutable, unknowable self that is actually out here living your life.
With the fact that the characters all see something different in Pew, I never envisioned each character seeing what they wanted to see, just that their interpretations would conflict. In some ways, I think you can read a novel as a kind of dream in which you’re being asked to identify with every character. In this novel, however, the main character you’re being asked to identify with has nothing for you to latch onto. What does it mean to confront a void or an absence or the part of you that isn’t gender or the part of you that doesn’t have a background? Where is that in your body and in your psyche?
OP: Pew is an impossible person—a person with no background or fixed characteristics–and also an unconventional character. They don’t really want anything, and are often passive—they stay, for example, in the town, even when it becomes unpleasant for them to do so. How conscious were you of playing with literary conventions around agency, or the idea that narrative is driven by a character’s wants and the thwarting or forwarding of those desires?
CL: I’ve always had a hard time with this concept of agency. I did an MFA, but in creative nonfiction, and I would overhear conversations between fiction people about this at the bar. This whole concept that every character in a story has to have something they want, and try to go get it—I just never liked that idea as a rule. Maybe some books function that way, but not all books. It’s a very alpha male view of the world and of narrative and what narrative is supposed to do. There are so many books that have no fucking clue what the main character wants the whole time, and I’m willing to follow them.
OP: As you said earlier, you’re from Mississippi. This is the first novel you’ve written that’s set in the South and is perhaps also the first book that is explicitly political in this way. What prompted that turn for you?
CL: I think the fiction I’ve written in the past has been more obliquely political, but in general I’ve been much more focused on interior, psychological questions. You might say my first novel was about the psychology of depression and abandonment and the second was about the psychology of heterosexuality. The later contained more social questions, and now Pew, I guess you could say it’s about the psychology of how we judge others.
I’ve always been very hesitant to write about Mississippi, or maybe just too hurt by that place, too exasperated, but ultimately it’s more a portrait of an idea than it is a portrait of a real place. It’s a portrait of white supremacy short-circuiting.
OP: Despite having no memory or past to draw on, Pew seems to address the reader from a position of experience, proffering statements about life, or people and their condition. Without those conventional anchors of background, how did you understand for yourself where Pew was speaking from?
CL: I’ve been feeling these two, conflicting feelings as I get older—One, I’ve started feeling more capable, more willing to dig into an idea and get to the bottom of it, and two, I suspect that this capability and this ambition or drive is probably hindering me from knowing more subtle, silent things I already know. Part of the problem is that as you learn to navigate the world, you also acquire all this other crap that inhibits you from what you know innately. Things everyone knows. Things a person knows in a way that is wordless and completely without context. So I think I wanted to have a character that was made up of just that – all the stuff that people already know.
OP: I think that’s a great answer. It’s funny because it maps directly onto the Clarice Lispector story that prompted me to ask the question— “The Smallest Woman in the World”.
CL: I love that story. It’s the story of hers that’s stayed with me the clearest and longest.
OP: That makes sense. The story has a lot in common with Pew. It catalogs reactions to an explorer’s discovery of a foot-high woman from a Lilliputian tribe, which range from tenderness to unease. Like Pew, the tiny woman does not speak. There’s a line in the story after the woman experiences equal love for both the explorer and the explorer’s boots: “This love might be must be called profound love, since having no other resources, she was reduced to profundity.” That idea, of being reduced to profundity, is pretty much exactly what you said.
CL: Well I’m glad you gave me that quote because now I can just use the Clarice Lispector answer.
OP: Reduced to profundity. Thank you Clarice!
CL: Yeah, I think that’s the funny thing about reading. I haven’t thought about that story in several years, but I totally see how it was like a pea under the mattress. It’s a reminder that you have to be very careful about what you read, because everything goes in and you don’t necessarily get to control what comes out. In my 20s, I read a bunch of Thomas Bernhard back to back, and four years later when I was writing Nobody Is Ever Missing, all the Thomas Bernhard was being expressed—it had that same kind of ranting cadence—but I really had no clue until I had published the book and somebody asked me about him as an influence. And I had nearly forgotten that I had even read him. So, you know, everything goes in, and you don’t really get to decide what comes out. You have to be careful about what you put in.