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'Pew': Catherine Lacey's Fable About How A Nameless Character Changes A Small Town

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's Sunday morning in a small town in the South, and as families filter into church, they find a person sleeping on a pew. The person has no name. Their age, gender and race are all ambiguous. So the townspeople call the stranger Pew. That's the jumping-off point for Catherine Lacey's new novel also called "Pew." Nearly every review of the book describes it as a fable.

CATHERINE LACEY: Some review described it, I think, as a fable without a moral, and I thought that was an even better description of what it is.

SHAPIRO: Lacey told me the seeds of this novel were planted long before she wrote the first word.

LACEY: I think the ideas underneath it came from growing up hyperreligious in the South, you know, as a bookworm. And the main book around was the Bible, and so I read it very carefully and became kind of a - in my head, sort of a fundamentalist Christian, even though that wasn't really the environment that I was in. And I think I've been kind of sweating that out since then.

SHAPIRO: Why write a book that centers around a character with no identifying characteristics?

LACEY: Well, it's difficult, and I think it opened up this type of book that I'm really interested in, which is when a narrator remains almost entirely silent and can listen to the other characters speak to them, having a narrator remain passive and having other characters speak through them.

SHAPIRO: But Pew does end up having humanity.

LACEY: Yeah, absolutely. At some point, in conversation with marketing people or with, you know, the publishing side of this, somebody described Pew as a creature, and I am very vehemently against this idea. I mean, Pew is absolutely a human, and that's their main role in the book - to be a human without qualities and for the people in the book to have to find their place in relation to that person without qualities.

SHAPIRO: Well, so much of how we relate to people in the real world is in categories of us and them, ingroup and outgroup - my tribe, your tribe. And when your central character isn't clearly a member of any tribe, all of the people that interact with them are unable to categorize Pew as an us or a them, an in or an out.

LACEY: That's right. I think in general, though, it doesn't take such an extreme symbol of a person in order for us to see that human beings are so much more complex than our reactions to them really allow. And I think we do this kind of needing to categorize people all the time, unconsciously. And it's - you know, it's a very human violence that I think we're all engaged in all the time.

SHAPIRO: Everybody seems to tell stories about themselves in the book, and sometimes the stories that they are telling about themselves seem to be untrue on their face. I mean, like the family that Pew stays with for a lot of the book keeps saying, you're always welcome here; you can stay with us. And at the same time, that welcome seems to be about to be revoked any minute. I mean, it almost becomes like a comic motif.

LACEY: Yeah (laughter). I guess it is sort of comedic. And part of that function within the story really goes back to the fact that Pew was discovered in a church, and so the people that are interacting with them first are the people of that church. And they're having, basically, the values that they profess actually called into action. And I think it's easy to go to church; it's difficult to actually respond to it and integrate those beliefs into your life. I think to actually follow the tenets of the Bible is - should be an incredibly difficult and philosophical and intellectual experience if you're doing it right. I don't think that being religious is necessarily easy if you're actually paying attention. So I think that the townspeople are sort of - they're realizing the difficulty of living by the standards that they think that they believe.

SHAPIRO: Forgiveness looms over this entire book. Why?

LACEY: While I was working on it, the Forgiveness Festival was sort of this black hole, and I didn't really know why it had emerged in the writing process, and I didn't really understand what its function is.

SHAPIRO: We should tell listeners this is the festival that everything in the book builds up to. It's the climactic final scene.

LACEY: Yeah. Reflecting on it, I think a majority of white Americans and Christian Americans really crave a kind of absolution right now for something that they actually haven't apologized for and something they haven't done anything to help - I mean, namely, like, chattel slavery in America. But I think even beyond that, there's a kind of pervasive desire for forgiveness in the culture right now that I think we're all engaged in, and I don't really know how to describe it beyond that.

SHAPIRO: It's a little bit uncanny of the way the scene that you've written, which you wrote long before the racial justice protests we're seeing now, ties into this moment where it does feel like white Americans are trying to be absolved for something that they haven't actually done the work to remedy.

LACEY: That's right. But I think that, really, the moment that we're in or the protests of late are - they're a continuous event that has been going on for hundreds of years. And so I don't think that the book is particularly timely because it's coming out in the summer of 2020. I want to write books that engage with the world as it is and as it's unfolding, and so it's never important to me to try and write a timely book because I think if you are interested with the continuation of history as it's - as we're living in it, then the book will remain timely.

SHAPIRO: So is wanting forgiveness without doing the work to get it just a true fact of history and our present that will remain unchanged?

LACEY: I hate to be so pessimistic to say that it would remain unchanged...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

LACEY: ...But I do think that, in some ways, like, we - as human beings, we're just so messy, and we really just make the same errors over and over again. And - but at the same time, like, I do think we make tiny, little glimmers of half a step forward in some moments. And those can be such a relief. And I do think that it's possible that we're maybe experiencing a half of a kind of a nudge of a step somewhere in a direction towards more kindness.

SHAPIRO: I guess that'll have to pass for optimism for now.

LACEY: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: Catherine Lacey - her new novel is called "Pew." Thank you for talking with us.

LACEY: Thank you so much, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF WIDOWSPEAK'S "NARROWS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.