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She’s Insensitive to Pain, but Only the Physical Kind


Stephanie LaCava’s poignant, filler-less second novel begins with Margot Highsmith, an actress in her early 20s, flying from New York to Montana after a vague breakup with a much older man identified only as the Director. Margot is going to stay indefinitely at an unused rural house owned by her friend Lucy’s parents. In a story full of emotional pain, with family and relationship dynamics ranging from moderately to very dysfunctional, Lucy seems to be the one consistently positive presence in Margot’s life. “She said to beware of casting myself as a victim,” Margot reflects. “I may have wanted something else, but I stayed for what wasn’t offered. It wasn’t abuse. Not this time, anyway.”

We then turn to vivid scenes from Margot’s childhood for around half the book. Her parents are extremely famous musicians who were in a punk band together until, some time after Margot was born, her pill-addicted mom, Rose, left with another man and later started her own band. “A big withholder, she was never affectionate towards me,” Margot recalls, “but I sensed her behind my eyes as I fell asleep.” Margot was raised full time from age 9 by her mom’s mom, Josephine, who encouraged her interest in acting but was controlling, manipulative, “easily set off” and, like Rose, unaffectionate.

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Josephine chooses Margot’s college, Brown, which quickly expels her. “Someone had reported me for keeping drug paraphernalia in my room,” she explains. “I had found that stuff in my mother’s pantry, brought it up to school and never even used it.” She moves into her dead grandfather’s place on 13th Street in Manhattan, where she lives alone for a while. She and the Director see each other intermittently. The relationship seems to end at one point, and then Josephine says Margot can’t stay at the 13th Street apartment anymore.

And so, the novel resumes the narrative in the first chapter and continues linearly to the end. In this second half, while living in a small town in western Montana, Margot (1) learns, weeks after it happened, of a tragedy involving her mom, and (2) meets a former trauma surgeon in a cemetery. Though he doesn’t practice medicine anymore, Graves, as Margot calls him, diagnoses her with “congenital analgesia,” a rare condition in which one doesn’t feel physical pain. The condition seems to partly explain Margot’s tendency to stay in hurtful relationships: “The circuitry for physical and emotional pain is the same,” says Graves. “You’re addicted to people who ignore your needs,” says Lucy.

Margot is drawn to Graves’s knowledge, while Graves is interested in experimenting on and learning from Margot. The analgesia theme is treated subtly; it doesn’t flatten the characters or overtake the realism. In fact, my favorite aspect of the book was the careful, realistic telling of familial and romantic relationships. The calmly wrought dialogue and lifelike interactions were unexpected and ambiguous to the point of seeming documentarian. I believed it all really happened (though LaCava was born in 1985 and Margot seems to have been born around 2000).

LaCava’s taut, sheared prose often seems like lines of poetry collapsed into paragraphs. This quality is enhanced by recurring words, images and ideas — cows and trains, CDs and backpacks, blood and ancientness, pain and confusion, the number 57 — and references to past scenes. Some sequences that take up whole chapters are later referred to as “that day”: “Ever since that day with my father when he showed me the booklets that went with the CDs, I had started to write down the words to songs.” In this respect, “I Fear My Pain Interests You” is meticulously constructed, with each part supporting and supported by the others. Controlled self-awareness like this in novels makes me pay close attention, enriching my experience.

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The only thing that broke the spell for me was the last three sentences. I didn’t understand what they meant until three-quarters of the way into my second read of the novel, which seems OK, even ideal, since LaCava’s novel is substantial, heartfelt and concise enough to be worth reading more than once.

Tao Lin is the author of “Leave Society” and nine other books.

I FEAR MY PAIN INTERESTS YOU | By Stephanie LaCava | 182 pp. | Verso | Paperback, $19.95

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