There’s a longstanding literary genre that features protagonists possessed by self-sabotaging desires, and the testimony of Margot Highsmith, the reclusive actress narrating Stephanie LaCava’s I Fear My Pain Interests You, adheres to this tradition. The novel emerges within our trauma-addled, emphatically distressed culture at a time when we struggle to register the significance of pain, and to apply it to our personal moral compass. LaCava’s prose, often abrupt, foregrounds a sense of dread, starting with Margot’s bloodied lip on an aircraft and giving us gorier details as the story unfolds. Margot has a rare condition called congenital analgesia, characterized by insensitivity to physical pain, which renders her oblivious to injury and accommodates reckless impulses.
A “pity guest” at the Montana home of her friend’s film critic father, Margot is fleeing feelings of abandonment triggered by a relationship with an older man known as the Director. In one flashback chapter, surging voltage from a clutched electric fence enclosing a paddock of cows arouses in Margot a fleeting out-of-body experience, described as a transfiguration into a baroque sculpture, namely Bernini’s The Ecstasy of Saint Thérèse. This electrically charged mesmeric spell is broken by the bleating of a cow. Cows reappear at various points in the novel, and though they are not quite talismanic, Margot affirms her affection for them, and prods us to infer an affinity with their stoic responses to suffering, not to mention their being doomed to slaughter.
Pitched in the press release as an “absurdist novel about fame, culture and connections,” LaCava’s book animates its story with something of Patricia Highsmith’s sociopathology and Clarice Lispector’s macabre glamor, filtered through shades of Fifty Shades of Grey-style chick lit. Like Lispector, LaCava takes care to describe Margot’s eclectic outfits and accessories, including her grandmother’s golden choker, a semi-sacred object once worn by Alice Coltrane. Chokers, historically worn by royalty and prostitutes alike, were flaunted by expatriates of the French Revolution paying tribute to those fallen under guillotine executions, centuries later popularized in the 90s in the form of dog collars with connotations of bondage. In this book, chokers become ready symbols for Margot’s disembodied state.
A descendant of punk rock royalty, Margot constantly flirts with danger, minimally keeping herself alive on a diet of cigarettes and the occasional candy bar. Her devotion to inadequate suitors, chiefly older and noncommittal men, is a clear index of her self-loathing. Were it not for said men recreating the dysfunction of her punk-era upbringing, it would be difficult to resist the sense that our protagonist is a self-involved bohemian brat whose degree in Theatre Arts and Performance Studies has prepared her for a life of privileged-people problems. Finding a stable job doesn’t seem to be a concern, since she can resort to stealing cash and jewelry from her grandmother’s safe. She considers writing a screenplay while on this hiatus from city life, though she probably won’t. The flashbacks to Margot’s peripatetic childhood as a receptor-exempt kid, while the least compelling aspects of the book, shed light on her psychological throughline from adolescence to adulthood, wherein she learns to shun any expression of need.
Margot’s friend Lucy is a loyal supplier of advice and insight over the phone: “Trauma can be transformed. Someday, even generations later. Someone decides it won’t be the excuse for their own bad behavior.” Transformation is a tall order given the people surrounding Margot, including the sonic ghosts of her unstable parents, voices that accompany her to a hospital. Margot’s nemesis of a grandmother is her only concrete contact with her suicidal mother, simultaneously imposing a barrier to what might permit Margot to be in touch with her own grief. Nevertheless, the stage, in Montana, is set for adventure, as if our heroine has arrived on a film set, jettisoning life as a “daughter of,” ready for a new and provocative role.
Montana’s standard desert plains and majestic peaks are exchanged for a more domestic landscape; Margot has come to hide out, not to hike and admire sunsets. The few townspeople she encounters react with suspicion toward her, or disinterest, while Margot perceives herself as an oddity and outlier. All the same, her alienation feeds her acting aspirations. In theory, Margot could perform her own stunts on sets, working her “deficiency” to an advantage, even to slapstick effect. Instead, LaCava sets her heroine adrift in a state of torpor. A man she encounters in a meet-cute outside a cemetery—the fittingly pseudonymous Graves—we soon learn is well versed in the art of gaslighting. Seeing that Margot has barely taken note of her leg wound, Graves fixes on her as an object of extracurricular study and initiates a series of “medical” experiments to test her pleasure and pain receptors. A porny nastiness seeps into graphic descriptions of her mangled leg, injured in a bike accident, gashed, oozing blood, inviting infection. She doesn’t seem to practice basic hygiene or wash her wounds, adding to the sense of festering neglect and self-destruction. Margot seems to get off on Graves’s clinical gaze, as she passively consents to his experimentation and willfully ignores Lucy’s warnings that this guy is all manner of bad news.
LaCava, fumbling for the possibilities of painlessness, doesn’t describe Margot’s pleasure, barely accounting for her ability to orgasm, and Margot herself is more interested in assessing whether Graves comes inside her or not. She seems grateful just for the attention, a classic trait of the abused. The most sickening act Graves commits registers to Margot as a vague sense of something being off. What she feels acutely are his silences and sharp departures. While there’s no lurch into romance, LaCava’s story straddles a tenuous faith that through constant debasement and submission a breakthrough can occur, undergirded by a mind/body conundrum: if the pain isn’t felt, is an uninvited infliction technically still misconduct? Answer: yes, yes it is.
In a final chapter, LaCava’s reductive plot summary of Richard Lester’s Petulia (1968) invokes a blurred mirror image of her characters’ coldness and detachment, the abusive male/tragic female dynamic. Petulia (Julie Christie) is a frustrating and irritating character, a tease who chooses to stay with her abusive psycho husband rather than risk an escape with a damaged yet adoring doctor (George C. Scott). Lester’s film revels in its screwball aspects while being weighted with a haunting score by John Barry. Margot, like Petulia, is willingly hapless—both characters set themselves up for tragedy and disappointment, and both stories carry a mood of angst and imminence. In both cases, there’s only so much patience and sympathy you can have for a woman who continuously makes the wrong decisions and returns to her abuser. Another parallel, given Margot’s apathetic existence, is Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, which is similarly punctuated by a final encounter with annihilation, watched at a distance on a screen.
Margot may remain disenchanted with her life and estranged from her family, and she is no doubt further tarnished by her dark escapade with Graves, but she’s by no means a worse person than he, the depraved exploiter of her vulnerabilities. Pointedly, no “me too” crusade comes to pass within this story, as Margot discreetly accepts complicity. Bearing witness to her own victimization on a surveillance tape induces not so much a refund of dignity as an incentive to tidy up her act. LaCava offers a satisfyingly lowkey conclusion, an acceptance of our sadistic and sad world–and yes, a breakthrough, of sorts. Whether Margot will make a grand comeback in a subsequent novel, as chokers do once every decade, remains to be seen.