Book Review: The Answers, Catherine Lacey; Kingdom Cons, Yuri Herrera

Nicola Balkind dives into the experimental imaginative worlds of Catherine Lacey and Yuri Herrera

The Answers, Catherine Lacey’s sophomore novel, is closely tied to film. Set out in three parts, which function as acts, in the first we meet Mary, a lonely and debt-ridden young woman with only one friend to confide in. Struggling by in an admin job and a mountain of debt, she answers a job ad and embarks on a series of strange interviews. Part two begins as she’s hired onto the ‘Girlfriend Experiment’, run by film star Kurt Sky, as the actor’s ‘Emotional Girlfriend’.

The extended second act becomes an ensemble piece along with his ‘Anger’, ‘Maternal’, ‘Intellectual’ and ‘Mundanity’ girlfriends. The goal? To divide the labour of emotional relationships into individual facets to crack the code of the neurobiology of love.

Characters’ interior lives are well-drawn and the life choices that lead them to this strange career ring true

Though its structure is strange, the characters’ interior lives are well-drawn and the life choices that lead them to this strange career ring true. The ‘Relational Experiments’ these women take part in become increasingly eerie as we learn more about self-aware, emotionally troubled Kurt and grasp his true motivations.

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At its best moments, the narration takes on an edge of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York – a film in which the main characters’ lives are contin-ually recreated until multiple actors are following the same motions. All this is wonderfully orchestrated, giving a sense of how scripted experiments begin to entangle with true emotion.

What works less well as the story progresses are clashes between the textured story world and the real world. Real film stars are mentioned to make points about expectation and provocation, like Shia LaBeouf’s flouting of Hollywood convention.

These moments often feel more like something the author, not the character, wants to express. These hints feel clunky and call the story world into question. Ultimately, the third act also weakens this process of creation and, as the purpose of the experiment unfolds, the book’s message on the mysteries of love is undermined.

Simple turns of Herrera’s phrase can astonish as much as the plot does in its gravity

Yuri Herrera’s approach to his latest novel, Kingdom Cons, takes a different approach to the real world versus story world conundrum by mythologising Mexican drug cartel culture. Though it’s his third novel to be published in English (translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman), it was actually his debut novel.

Our hero, a street singer named Lobo, sings an off-the-cuff corrido (a traditional Mexican ballad) for the head of a cartel in a cantina. Taken by the gangster’s charisma (in the Godfather sense), Lobo follows him into the cartel’s border kingdom. There, the characters shed their names for titles: the cartel leader becomes the King and Lobo is the Artist, a sort of court jester whose job it is to sing the King’s praises – quite literally.

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The clear hierarchy and the price of disobedience feel almost medieval and, as in Herrera’s previous novels, each shift in place marks a shift in the rules. The constant knowledge of a fabled land across the border and how it threatens and compels is a foundation of this novel. The border marks a line between cultures, politics, and even the notion of life and death.

His story world is brutal but makes room for art, both in the Artist’s personal growth and in Herrera’s sparse yet powerful prose. Simple turns of phrase can astonish as much as the plot does in its gravity. Herrera has distinguished himself as one of Mexico’s finest contemporary writers.

Nicola Balkind @robotnic

The Answers, Catherine Lacey, Granta, £12.99; Kingdom Cons
Yuri Herrera (translated by Lisa Dillman), And Other Stories, £8.99