Pew by Catherine Lacey
“Can only other people tell you what your body is, or is there a way that you can know something truer about it from the inside, something that cannot be seen or explained?”
Pew by Catherine Lacey hinges on a unique and bizarre conceit. The novel opens with our main character, Pew, waking up in a church. But Pew isn’t a typical main character, because they have no age, gender, or memory of where they’ve come from. From the off then Pew poses the question: who are we if other people don’t have their conventional means for understanding us?
The novel cleverly tackles the subject of otherness in a politically charged climate. Because no other character in the novel can quite come to terms with who Pew is, they are other from everybody. Yet because Pew is our narrator, the reader has no choice but to implicitly associate with them.
We (as Pew) are on the outside, not understanding the world while simultaneously exposing the absurdity in how this town constructs its day to day life. The hypocrisies and fundamental oddness of small-town life are laid bare. The actual surrealism of family is also brought under the microscope. “Did you have parents or just some people who thought they should own somebody?”
Pew’s structure benefits hugely from the ominous, looming specter of the Wickerman-style Forgiveness Festival. We know this festival is coming at the end of the week, and we are spookily told that in the lead up “people tend to have more heart attacks and accidents and such.” This gives the short book a taut, dangerous element. The typographical choice to have the chapter titles (the days of the week) slowly drop down the page helps to reinforce this, almost pulling the reader downwards into a frightening conclusion.
The knowledge of the impending doom makes the reading experience of Pew both menacing and tense. We know something bad is coming, but we don’t know what, leading us to examine every conversation and interaction for clues. “What a terror a body must live through. It’s a wonder there are people at all.”
Pew also offers insight into the limits of language. As the townspeople struggle to describe Pew in words, we realize that perhaps words aren’t such a valuable tool after all. “A word is put down as a placeholder for something that cannot be communicated, no matter what anyone tries, no matter how many words accumulate, there is always that absence.”
Because of Pew’s lack of typical identity signifiers, their existence helps pose a question on the limits of identity politics. Whether Pew actually flits between different states or represents a sort of mythical ‘true neutral,” they evade categorization, destabilizing the concept of different ‘categories’ of humans. Race, gender, class, and age don’t really provide any inherent meaning to life. “Sometimes I think that nobody is just one person, that actually we’re a bunch of different people and we have to figure out how to get them all to cooperate and fool everyone else into thinking that we’re just one person, even though everybody else is doing the same thing.”The one benefit of knowing who you are in Pew, though, is knowing where you belong. Pew is totally untethered, yet seems to miss companionship and home. But then, one downside to having a home is its inherent impingement on total freedom. “What a freedom that was and what a burden that was — to not have a home to go home to, and to not have a home to go home to.”
Annie Walton Doyle is a 20-something writer based in Manchester, UK. She typically writes about beauty and other “personal aesthetics,” with a healthy dose of both social commentary and stupidity. When not touching makeup or reading books, she enjoys pubs, knitting, nature, and mysteries.