Reviewed: I Fear My Pain Interests You, Stephanie LaCava, Verso
In The Culture of Pain, David B. Morris offers a provocation: if every era has its ‘characteristic crime’, then it has also its ‘defining or representative illnesses’. And in the Anthropocene, we know pain better than ever. Thanks to increased understanding of how the nervous system works, it is now apparent that sensitisation is the source of chronic pain—with sensation arising in the brain rather than from ongoing physical stimulus. The solution to this is an approach that incorporates medicine, but also psycho-education and community support. This is to say: yes, pain hurts more when other stuff is painful too.
We are in a pain crisis, at the level of the real and of its representations, with the increasing prevalence of chronic pain (a chicken-and-egg situation where mental health is also concerned). It is often the subject of the digital writer’s first essay, the memoirist’s first book, the poet’s blasted landscape. Pain—physical, emotional, sexual—sells, if at most for a few hundred bucks a quarter. For young women writers, or emerging writers of marginalised identities, it seems there is an audience for nothing but their pain and trauma. In the face of this torrent of pain, of about-pain, through-pain, and pain’s-impact-on, Stephanie LaCava asks: what if there were no pain?
In I Fear My Pain Interests You, LaCava’s second novel, Margot Highsmith has known since childhood that she cannot feel pain. She has instead learned to perform it. Early in the book, she describes staging this mirroring as a kid: ‘I kept pretending, taking cues from reactions. I mimicked the onlooker’s level of intensity.’
Margot is the 20-something daughter of famous and neglectful musician types. Swaddled in a world of art-making, she naturally assumes the role of actress. But Margot is not a sympathetic figure; she is shielded by fame and wealth. When she needs somewhere to live, she gets her grandmother to mail her the keys and kick out the tenants—the family owns the whole building. She wears a golden choker that once belonged to Alice Coltrane, stolen from her family’s possessions. Her grandmother, Josephine, orchestrates Margot’s teen acting career down to what she may wear and how she is to conduct herself around a potential employer. Unsurprisingly, Josephine has access to the surveillance cameras where Margot lives.
As a young adult, Margot has a situationship with a man in his fifties she refers to only as ‘the Director’. The Director tells her, before he leaves her without warning, that ‘he’d deliberately created a life for himself that brought people to him’. Likewise, her father shares with young Margot his philosophy on relationships: ‘When someone shows you who they are, you move away. Sever.’ Like many parents who are not good caregivers, he has no concept that she is merely a child; when Margot’s parents go on tour, she has no choice but to ‘pretend the severing was my doing’.
The pain of women and gender non-conforming people is our culture’s favourite ulcer, at once disregarded and feasted upon. Margot reflects on the way the Director has manipulated her, but it could just as easily be LaCava’s perspective on withholding both easy message and scandalous detail in a novel where the protagonist is less actor than someone who is simply acted upon, a flickering point in a constellation of coercion and control. ‘That was the important part about saying nothing,’ Margot notes privately at some point in the novel, ostensibly about the Director’s conduct, but really about far more than that. ‘You could come back and fill in the gaps left unsaid […] Only emptiness as evidence, a void with every version of the worst.’
In Jamie Loftus’s podcast about Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita, there is an episode about online fan communities. It is one of the best ‘histories of online’ I’ve encountered, documenting online spaces such as LiveJournal, Tumblr and YouTube as they were burgeoning in the 2000s. On these platforms, many girls and women used them to express their idolisation and dissections of imagery from the two film adaptations of Lolita—the deeply disturbing 1997 version in particular, as embodied expertly by an adult Lana Del Rey at the beginning of her career—but they also reflected adroitly among themselves about the real-life exploitation they had experienced. This is perhaps not what some might imagine for an online community of young women, that they would move beyond aesthetic fandom to providing one another real space to be heard, and to inhabit the complicated vectors of woman-girl-victim-survivor. Margot could well be reflecting the experience of Dolores Haze—dolorous, pain—when she reminisces about the Director: ‘This is the dangerous thing about a breakup with someone so much older and so much more accomplished when you are young, desirous of credibility and short on self-love: when he goes, he rips those little medals right off your chest and carries them away with him.’
The novel’s epigraph is a quote taken from Reddit: ‘Cows are not sentient beings.’ This is not, as it first appears, an indication of the novel being ‘about the internet’. There are no depictions of technology more advanced than the telephone. Margot sends a few texts, but that’s about it. Instead, the epigraph sounds like a justification—if cows aren’t sentient beings, then this is all the permission we need not to think about how they might suffer. It also gestures to the reality that others with more power than you make, as they obfuscate another’s truth behind their own. Margot’s grandmother maintains that there are 19 cows in a field nearby, though child Margot only ever counts nine. It is forever known as the field with 19 cows.
Later, Margot has her legacy admission to a fancy North American college informally revoked when someone snooping through her stuff finds drugs in her room. She flees the expulsion, and subsequently her rumination on the Director’s abandonment, to a friend’s family’s property in rural Montana. This friend, Lucy, is another child of famous artists. We learn that there are film reels from the cancelled 1968 Cannes Film Festival in a studio out the back.
In Montana, Margot is very depressed. She gets to be depressed and disorganised in a way that readers with similar experiences will find joy in. But this is not the kind of malaise that involves wine in the bathtub and crying then back to a full-time job. It’s months of not showering or eating, going outside in the cold with shirt on and underpants off. Of course, it goes without saying that someone without wealth’s safety nets would not have the privilege of falling apart and staying undone so long or in such well-appointed surroundings; in a house stocked with enough supplies for months of solitude in the name of making art, Margot leaves only filth in the conversation pit.
Much of the novel involves Margot glacially exploring the enormous country house. ‘What’s behind painted door number eight? Each day, I’d be allowed to crack open a cabinet. A lottery to occupy the what’s next.’ The house is isolated and slightly dilapidated from disuse, but filled with cultural artefacts. She serves her only guest, an alleged ex-trauma surgeon she meets after a cycling accident, a drink in an irradiated glass from Lucy’s mother’s collection. He becomes fascinated with her inability to feel physical pain. It turns out it was his area of specialty. He suggests experimenting with emotion and feeling to see if it affects her ability to feel pain. She is noncommittal. He does it anyway, but without telling her.
For those who understand the emotional turmoil that is naturally a spillover effect from abusive family relationships, there is a certain recognition that comes from seeing the hypervigilance it instils replicated in art. LaCava writes it well; the reader almost inhabits it. Child Margot says of her mother that it ‘was easier at home when she wasn’t around. I wouldn’t have to wonder about her state of mind, worry I might say something to upset her, something apparently harmless; she was easily set off.’ In her rural exile, Margot notices distantly that she has not heard from her mother in a long time. Margot dials, and no-one answers. If she feels fear or trepidation about this, we don’t hear about it. Anxiety is displaced onto the reader; the suspicion and fear are ours, and we gradually find out we are right. Meanwhile, Margot keeps having sex with the alleged ex-trauma surgeon, who lectures her about the significance of the old film reels from the shed. He enjoys the access fame provides to a world of representation in parallel with his vicarious enjoyment of Margot’s inability to feel pain, which makes her his perfect subject.
LaCava’s depiction of depression behaviour is particular, ritualistic and perversely delightful, if only because it’s so true to life. Margot’s ‘standard evening meal’ is a smashed frozen chocolate bar in a plastic bag, with Benadryl mixed in: ‘On very bad days, grind them with the bottom of a can, my makeshift pestle. Then put them in the plastic bag, shaking it up so that the hot pink dust stuck to the white nougat.’
I Fear My Pain Interests You revolves around experience and experimentation. LaCava seems to suggest that these may bring harm, knowledge or both. Margot’s family are ‘obsessed with control’, ‘simultaneously harping on about resistance to state or corporate interference’ even as they exert control over others. Margot sees her two terrible older lovers observe her, watches them watching themselves use her. They are both drawn to her proximity to her famous family, of course—she is not the point of any of it. Although she knows well how and why they treat her as they do, she is deeply destabilised by the loss of these people anyway, whether by distance, abandonment or death. She doesn’t know how to conduct relationships otherwise. But Margot does not wallow in feeling, she reports actions. Her parents’ neglect, and other formative events alluded to be worse, are bloodless. Assaulted during sex but not feeling the pain of it, she notes only that her back is wet.
How we represent and anticipate pain has real effects on the treatment that people who are not considered a ‘neutral’ subject (i.e. white cisgender male) receive. In The History of Pain, Roselyne Rey notes that culture shapes how we anticipate women’s experience of pain. Either they ‘had a lower pain threshold than he and that, consequently, little notice should be taken of her cries and tears’, or women are ‘more used to suffering’ and ‘ultimately more resistant’. The most affecting details in LaCava’s novel could be missed by a reader primed to look for physical violence alone, but as we now know, physical pain interstices with the emotional. Numbness is the star of the book, not Margot. Margot feels pain at the end, but it is not an epiphany or breakthrough or healing or development. It’s just something that happens. No longer sensorially unusual, Margot withdraws from the reader’s view—privacy, at last.
Alex Gerrans is from Meanjin. She has a Certificate III in Horticulture.