As I read Pew my opinion of it swung wildly. One minute I thought it ground-breaking and brilliant, the next it disappointed. I do not usually have two minds about books, but then Pew is not your usual book.
The first-person narrator is an amnesiac with no idea of their past, their age, cultural or ethnic background. Furthermore, they may or may not know what gender they are, but either way they are not letting on. People in the book who meet them come up with different answers. Pew very rarely speaks, so such questions are left to guesswork by other characters. The reader is often none the wiser. This shape-shifting character, stumbles into a picturesque Bible-belt town in the US a week before its annual ‘forgiveness festival’, in which its citizens full of righteousness and zeal will reach the point of hysteria.
The novel opens when our protagonist is woken on a church pew by one of the town’s prominent Christian families. The family promptly names them Pew. This reductive, dehumanising naming sets the tone. The family means well, but are simply hypocrites, as shown through the events that follow. While the family endeavours to rescue and ‘civilise’ Pew by taking them home, when they cannot manipulate Pew into divulging their gender or to succumb to medical tests to make this known, they spurn Pew. The message is plain: only identified binary gendered people belong among them. Pew is shunted from one house to the next, dropping down the town’s social hierarchy. A similar downgrading occurs due to the lack of clarity surrounding Pew’s skin colour.
With its emphasis on gender fluidity, Pew sets itself up to be a tale of our times. Its fable-like story delivers a strong message: one shouldn’t discriminate against people based on age, gender, colour or ethnicity. The trouble is if one is already a convert to such thinking, this can seem heavy-handed.
The town’s brutal history
In this town, despite its quaint churches and the townsfolks’ purported humanitarian attitudes, the place’s dark history is not far beneath the surface, where lynching and other abuses to people of colour form the novel’s macabre backdrop. The impending forgiveness festival brings this history into consciousness—in fact it is this dark history that sees to have given rise to the festival. This aspect of the novel is compelling and well-drawn.
Pew as witness
Pew’s tendency is not that of a typically fictional amnesiac who investigates the mystery of their own identity. Instead, Pew adopts the role of witness to the townsfolks’ confessions and faults. The festival’s arrival brings the book to a denouement, the details of Pew’s identity are never handed to the reader. I am in two minds about the lack of character development in the protagonist. At its best it dashes readers’ expectations and gives the novel, in this age of creeping commercialism and predictable format, a sense of the experimental. At its worst, there is a thinness that makes Pew appear on the page as merely an idea, and not come to life as a character.
A foreboding fable
In his review in The Guardian, Chris Power 1 highlights the ways in which the townsfolk view Pew differently from one another, setting up the sense that Pew’s identity shifts or oscillates.
“The townsfolk can’t agree on anything about Pew: some think he’s a child, others believe she’s a young woman. The colour of their skin is also confusing: ‘But now that I see you again – I don’t know – you seemed darker the other day. It’s weird.’”
As discussed, this is exactly what Lacey skilfully creates: an oscillating subject, neither boy, girl, man, woman, black or white, old or young individual.
Power’s concluding words on the book are effective in pointing to one of the novel’s paradoxes. On one level the novel operates to explore and evoke the troubled history that spawned the black civil rights movement, but on the other hand it works as what he terms a ‘confusing fable’.
Is Pew the scapegoat, taking on the burden of the town’s sins? Determining that is less worthwhile than trying to understand what the novel is most interested in. In the final pages, at the festival, a child asks: “Where is the voice coming from?” This sentence is also the title of a feverish 1963 short story by Eudora Welty, written in response to the murder of the black civil rights activist Medgar Evers. Shortly afterwards someone chants the name “Edward Earl Johnson”. Johnson, a black man executed in 1987 for murder and sexual assault, was the subject of the BBC documentary Fourteen Days in May, which argued that the death penalty is structurally racist. Pew is a confusing fable – there’s too much messy realism in it for its lesson to be easily understood – but it is within its messier reaches, and its concerns with inequality and prejudice, that its boldest and most brilliant effects are found.
While I agree the novel offers too much ‘messy realism’, I also believe that Pew does address important concerns relating to inequality and prejudice, and is indeed bold and brilliant in its vision.
Does it matter what anybody looks like? So begins a New York Times review of Pew by critic Dwight Garner.2.
“In Catherine Lacey’s strange, estranging and heavy-handed third novel, Pew, there is a lot of earnest talk about whether these three cubic feet of bone and blood and meat, to quote a Loudon Wainwright III song, mean all that much.”
In describing the protagonist Garner says:
Pew’s character is indeed portrayed as a quintessential mysterious outsider, but no matter how many speculations one makes about who Pew is, or what their origins might be, these are not the focus of the novel. Rather, what is challenged is our desire to know Pew in these terms.
In reviewing Pew for the London Review of Books, Nicole Flattery 3 says:
Ultimately, Flattery’s is a tough review, yet he clearly has much respect for Lacey overall, speaking highly of her earlier two novels. However, he gives this book a mixed reception, by the review’s conclusion calling for humour and something unexpected to satisfy the reader at the end of the novel.
Despite its imperfections, I find it interesting that yet again an amnesiac character is used as a device for Lacey to explore contemporary social issues of the day and provide commentary. More subtlety might have driven her points home more effectively, but tackling this terrain is ambitious, and these issues not easy to address.
- Fri 22 May 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/may/22/pew-by-catherine-lacey-review-a-foreboding-fable
- The article: In ‘Pew,’ a Mysterious Stranger Tests a Small Town’s Tolerance https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/13/books/review-pew-catherine-lacey.html
- London Review of Books, Vol. 42 No. 14 · 16 July 2020