Review: ‘I Fear My Pain Interests You’ by Stephanie LaCava

I Fear My Pain Interests You

I Fear My Pain Interests You centers its storm on twenty-year-old Margot, the daughter of a renowned musician and his fickle ex-wife. Margot’s walk down memory lane leads her to a series of unsettling encounters with the elusive Graves. Partly a film buff, partly a neurosurgeon, the older man lodges the anchor of his fascination within the constraints of her body’s unresponsiveness.

Her path is flanked by tales of wealth and misfortune, privilege and disaffection. And, with a romantic history marred by the absence of reciprocity, she slowly begins to explore the incompatibility between her physicality and feeling.

LaCava’s prose draws its strength from the use of nominal sentences, the staccato beat of which carries the air of a memoir, or a dispassionately penned diary entry. With names assigned only to a select few characters, and small talk encompassing the innateness of verbal communication, we’re often steered by formless voices and shapeless chatter.

This lack of tactility is willful; all sensation is suffocated with solemn tenderness. But then, with touch and desire stripped away, a protective layer is called for; one that can be draped over the bare bones of the story. What we end up with is a rather morose superficiality. 

The prose, though artfully presented, betrays a preoccupation with the external. Margot comes across as directionless, her path appears inaccessible. Action is suspended, then takes on a more abstract form.

Meanwhile, the narrative is seduced by various depictions of material splendor and the emotional emptiness it fosters. It’s certainly an important point to raise, but one that has been anatomized countless times before. As a result, the vast majority of Margot’s quandaries could be —  rather blandly —  referred to as “rich girl problems”.

And yet, her acute awareness of her privilege saves her from morphing into a grotesque protagonist. It also helps that the story’s flowery pieces trim a rather glum recollection of Margot’s childhood, monopolized by a cunning grandmother and unenthusiastic parents.

But, while succeeding in laying a solid foundation for what’s to come, this meandering fails to atone for the interruption of Margot’s escape, which triggers the beginning of the tale. Violent and erratic, it also marks the height of her excitability.

The Director, a key participant, leaves a rather disjointed impression on Margot’s life. As the older gentleman with all the pull but none of the tact, he plays an integral role in the young woman’s mental instability. Time and time again — tormented by his mind games — she falls prey to the allure of his physicality. 

But since his moniker and age are the only details we’re ever entrusted with, his presence proves too elusory to grasp. Faceless, shapeless, and voiceless, he dominates a space we can only monitor, never enter. In the end, we’re left with wispy sensations and foggy movements across the plane of desire. Arid and untrodden, it proves more intriguing than inviting.

In time, Margot’s self-awareness shifts from impressive to contrived, with its depth leaving little room for growth or reflection. Noting how much validation can be gained from serving as a willing pawn, and how her parents’ affinity for drugs and despair functions as an excuse for her own blunders, Margot comes across as preeminent and, therefore, utterly unreachable.

Fortunately, her self-perception does — ultimately — falter. That’s because, about halfway through, I Fear My Pain Interests You officially begins. When Margot runs into Graves, the dislocated nature of her passion is repositioned. In fact, it’s only when Margot’s circumstances point to an inevitable seduction that her thought patterns come alive, and the prose begins to stir.

Erratic, creepy, and exploratory, Graves steps in to jolt Margot’s state of complacency. Their sexually-motivated interactions do rely on some suspension of disbelief, particularly when Margot takes note of the flies clinging to her musk and her unbrushed teeth, but this can be forgiven in the name of progress.

However, when Graves gifts Margot with a diagnosis, which happens to embody the story’s central hook,  things take a turn for the fantastical. Despite the best of intentions, it seems nigh on impossible that — in the thick of the Information Age — Margot’s grasp of her physical anomaly wouldn’t have sent her scouring the Internet for answers.

This cluelessness, instead of fulfilling the purpose of its instrumentality, leaves her looking oddly regressive; particularly in light of her previous self-awareness. Still, with certain inconsistencies overlooked, a timid sense of tension begins to build. In fact, the last stretch of the novel proves almost electrifying.

With Graves remaining only slightly less obscure than the Director, his mood swings and dubious intentions mold the narrative into a captivating, thrilleresque take on the anguish of intimacy. It’s a shame, then, that these sinister explorations of the body — and, in turn, the psyche — are not allowed to materialize until the last conceivable moment.

Because of this, a profound lack of fullness can be felt; one that divests both the characters and the narrative of the anatomy they crave. Character development is smothered early on, and events are rushed only to shrink the distance between the scope of the novel’s inscrutability and its inevitable end.

Had it not been for this apparent lack of interest in its continuity, I Fear My Pain Interests You would emerge as a bristling literary triumph. Relentlessly stimulating, the novel assaults with questions long after its end, turning the misery of its incompleteness into an acute sting. Admittedly, though, the last line is quite satisfying.

Publication date: September 27, 2022 (Verso Books)

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