Pew is what happens when you take a vague figure—genderless, young but hard to pin an exact age, racially ambiguous—and throw them into the most certain, socially-structured place you can think of: a small, evangelical town in the South.
Catherine Lacey is at home writing about the self, gender, and depression, but here she tackles a new kind of self-awareness, and a new kind of nothingness.
In Susan Sontag’s journals from 1966, she says:
“Imagine an attitude in which one’s total attention is fixed on an other (not just to see one’s own image reflected in the eyes of the other), an attitude in which consciousness of self (though hardly self) is obliterated. Is this the aim—to abolish consciousness of self?”
I can’t tell you for certain that Lacey read that paragraph and decided to write a whole book about it, but it feels like a thesis statement to me.
You open Pew with a blindfold on; your narrator has one too. Together you sort of, kind of wiggle out of it. But you have to earn what you see. We meet our narrator as a formless voice with nothing to tie it to. With no age, physical description, or personal history, there’s nothing you can picture. Your narrator isn’t performing a social experiment of self-knowledge with intentional obfuscation—it’s true absence, unbothered absence.
Soon after we meet our narrator, they wake up on a church pew in the middle of Sunday service. They’re flanked on either side by a family—a dad, a mom, and two sons. The family takes our narrator to lunch and tells them, with great ceremony, that they’ve decided to take our narrator in, “as long as it takes…as long as you need.” It’s almost troublingly on the nose that the narrator will be out of the house by the end of the book, before the week is out. That night, the family has the Reverend over for dinner, who gives our narrator the name Pew because that’s where they were found, citing a story about his daughter’s cat who she named Gutter.
Before this church Pew spent nights sleeping in fields, in buildings, in other churches, bouncing place to place. But now they have landed themself in this insular, religious town. Somewhere in the South, somewhere idyllic and creepy. Our story is told over the course of a week, the week before “the festival.” We can’t help but be curious about this festival, a specter that looms over the book, even if Pew isn’t.
Pew has the confessional tone of Rachel Cusk’s Outline series, a narrator that moves through invisible rooms to concrete settings, just a window for us to listen in. The confessional stakes are raised because our narrator, Pew, is mute for most of the book. Listening is all they will do.
As we shift from observing Pew alone, moving through the world, to Pew in this town, being shuffled from person to person, we start to get a better sense of who they are. We grow more comfortable with Pew’s anonymity and muteness, while the townspeople grow more suspicious. To them, Pew certainly knows the answers to their questions, they’re just unwilling to reveal any information.
In contrast to Cusk’s wine-soaked, swept-up storytelling, Lacey’s comes with a sharp edge. Pew’s confessors demand reciprocity; after Pew listens, they ask (or beg or persuade or command) Pew to share. Each character—a beleaguered housewife, a children’s therapist, a housekeeper that pulls Pew aside and whispers to them in Spanish—lowers their tones, says you can tell me. Each person, who to Pew is just one of this rotating cast, another person who they can see clear-through, is convinced they are the solution, the key. They can fix Pew; Pew will finally see them as safe and share their secrets, and thus the problem of Pew will be solved. Pew will finally open up, reveal their personal information, and thus will be saved from pain and confusion. But Pew isn’t feeling pain or confusion.
This “problem of Pew” feels engineered for our political moment. Pew’s hosts beg them to share their biological details, saying they won’t be able to help them without more info. Without knowing gender, race, age, they’re not sure they’re behaving appropriately.
The townspeople, even the ones we find sympathetic, read into Pew’s muteness, finding their own brand of kinship in Pew’s silences. They see their loneliness in Pew’s aloneness, their fears in Pew’s silence, their vulnerability in Pew’s youth.
But as the book progresses and Pew refuses to be solved and remains mute, they transform from vulnerable victim to uncooperative villain in the eyes of the town. This is no longer a person who is scared and broken, like them. This is a person who is refusing to play by the rules, and everyone must play by the rules. Doesn’t Pew understand who has the power?
Lacey delicately weaves in the generational war I feel when surfing my parents’ Facebook profiles. Only a few characters stay sympathetic to Pew in their silence, and it’s noteworthy that they’re mostly Gen Z. Nelson, a refugee and orphan who’s been adopted by one of the town’s wealthiest families and now spends his nights pretending to play checkers on the back porch and drinking whiskey that his adopted father slips him. Annie, another daughter of the family who spoke up in class about wishing that everyone started on the same economic playing field and was sent to the office for being a communist. An old man who lives on the fringes of town, spending his days walking through the woods and showing the trees extra kindness because the people of this town spend all their time within the walls of the church instead of out in nature. They’ve all refused to submit themselves to the order, in big and small ways, and they’re all paying for it.
These moments with Lacey’s characters are her strong suit. The townspeople that spill their guts to Pew are interesting and complete, archetypes without falling into predictability. The middle of Pew reads like a connected book of short stories, mapping out the inner lives of a disparate group. Lacey’s more unsubtle points—the looming spectacle of a forgiveness festival, some heavy-handed declarations about righteousness, the hypocrisy of Pew’s host family—are effective, if brash. But her characters dance softly, making their points without knocking us over the head with it.
Pew floats as an observer, mostly avoiding editorializing. The one subject that plagues them is that of their body. Pew tells us,
“Anything I remember being told about my body contradicts something else I’ve been told.”
People in Lacey’s world don’t sit comfortably in their bodies. One man is convinced he’s living slower, so slow that he’ll live to 200 the way people used to. Annie’s mom has cajoled her into doing a face mask to keep her from aging, as she puts it on she tells Pew how she thinks everyone is a bunch of different people and your whole life is just getting them all to cooperate. Nelson has a dream where someone turns into a horse. A woman’s son sees a lion at the zoo and cries for hours because he looked into the lion’s eyes and knows that he’s no different than the lion.
Bodies in this story are false, and they’re resented for being a representation at all. Pew wonders what a world would be like where we don’t have bodies, we just see people’s thoughts and intentions, that would be a truer world. If to Pew, bodies are mercurial and untrustworthy, to everyone else they’re the standard of fact. The townspeople have fixated on Pew’s body as if it will answer the questions Pew will not.
Lacey is able to make these points, writing this book that in deduction feels so political because Pew seems as apolitical as one could be. It’s not body positivity, it’s the innate knowledge that our bodies don’t represent who we are.
The lack of certainty about Pew’s body is what allows them to be the perfect vessel for the townspeople’s thoughts. If their body was darker or more male or older, the townspeople likely wouldn’t have been hospitable at all. The fact of Pew’s vagueness and muteness is what allows for the original hospitality, they’re a canvas for everyone to project their confusion and weakness. But later, this vagueness is otherizing, an affront to the town’s certainty.
Pew has been thrown into a place that couldn’t be more certain. The townspeople always know the right thing to do; they know the right way to live. They don’t doubt themselves.
Close to the end of the week Pew is moved to the other side of town. We’re made to understand that the town is segregated, with Pew’s ambiguous race and lack of cooperation, their hosts have decided it’s best for them to move to the other side of town, the Black side of town.
Pew meets a pastor on this side of town who helped to found the festival, something he’s come to regret.
“I felt so sure then—of course I was younger. It’s easier to be certain of things then—and the older you get, the more you see how certainty depends on one blindness or another.”
Pew has no certainty: they don’t know their age, where they came from, the answers to any of the questions people will not stop asking. But they have no blindness. In this town where everyone is reacting to each other, playing a role, being a good Chrisitian, subbing in their feelings wherever there’s an opening, Pew is the only one who can see them.
This ability to see makes Pew uncomfortable:
“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. People wear those masks for a reason, like river dams and jar lids have a reason.”
As the book moves forward, as Pew is interrogated and hears confessions and sees people’s silent things, they remember their life in pieces. It almost seems like they want to remember. But really I think that’s just our longing, our desire, just like the desire of everyone in the town, to understand Pew. To categorize their trauma, to get a key so we can see them clearly, and to finally get the context we’re so hungry for.
The human condition—not to understand, but to categorize, is impossible to escape. The only way to avoid it and achieve true objectivity is to become Pew. Sontag, “Is this the aim—to abolish consciousness of self?” Lacey doesn’t let us know for sure. Pew, in their absence, seems neither happy nor unhappy. The townspeople are rabid, but familiar. If we want to see others clearly, we have to give up ourselves. But we’re still not sure if it’s worth it.
By Catherine Lacey
224 pages. 2020.