Pew

Pew

Book - 2020
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In a small unnamed town in the American South, a church congregation arrives to a service and finds a figure asleep on a pew. The person is genderless, racially ambiguous, and refuses to speak. One family takes the strange visitor in and nicknames them Pew. As the town spends the week preparing for a mysterious Forgiveness Festival, Pew is shuttled from one household to the next. The earnest and seemingly well-meaning townspeople see conflicting identities in Pew, and many confess their fears and secrets to them in one-sided conversations. Pew listens and observes while experiencing brief flashes of past lives or clues about their origins. As days pass, the void around Pew’s presence begins to unnerve the community, whose generosity erodes into menace and suspicion. Yet by the time Pew’s story reaches a shattering and unsettling climax at the Forgiveness Festival, the secret of their true nature—as a devil or an angel or something else entirely—is dwarfed by even larger truths. Pew, Catherine Lacey’s third novel, is a foreboding, provocative, and amorphous fable about the world today: its contradictions, its flimsy morality, and the limits of judging others based on their appearance. With precision and restraint, one of our most beloved and boundary-pushing writers holds up a mirror to her characters’ true selves, revealing something about forgiveness, perception, and the faulty tools society uses to categorize human complexity.
Publisher: New York :, Farrar, Straus and Giroux,, 2020
Edition: First edition
Description: 207 pages ; 20 cm
Copyright Date: ©2020
ISBN: 9780374230920
0374230927
Branch Call Number: Lace

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wyenotgo
Sep 24, 2020

I’m having extreme difficulty writing a coherent review; possibly because this is not a coherent book. By that I mean that it’s a book with no center, seemingly no motivation, no tangible outcome. There’s an ambiguous, protracted build-up to a climax that just sort of fizzles out. No questions are answered, no winners or losers, no insights into the mysteries of the universe. Not even any theory as to what this event was all about. The ambiguity of the protagonist is the least of my concerns: he/she/it/they (whatever) remains a nonentity whose purpose or function in the parable remains unknown (an observer? a provocation? a prophet?) Nor do I find myself the least bit interested in Pew’s origin, nature or fate. All roads lead to nowhere. Most disturbing is the book’s complete absence of a moral code; the inhabitants of this town have adopted a mindless set of religious mantras in place of a set of values, whether they be humanist, naturalist, legalistic or even Platonic. There are echoes of racially motivated injustices, unresolved injuries, cruelties, even crimes. But a ritual of mass absolution appears to accomplish nothing. One is left with a vague sense of unease, disappointment. Perhaps that itself is the book’s intent.
So how can I assign a four-star rating to this oddity? Or any rating at all? Purely on the brilliance of Catherine Lacey’s boldness in composing such a narrative and her mastery of language in doing so. Here are a couple of snippets:
"It seems that time is somewhere else and what I can see here is not the present, but is, instead, the future, an eventual future, and somehow the present moment is back there somewhere I cannot reach and I’m stuck living here, in some future time. This body hangs beneath me, carries me around, but it does not belong to me, and even if I could see them, I would not recognize my own eyes."

"It seems that people who belong to a large church might want that church — so vast, so many rooms — to do the believing for them, but the church is just a building. The church has no thoughts. The church is brick and glass. If they ever slept there they would see that."

"Too much light will blind you and too much water will drown you. It is a danger to accept anything real from another person, to know something of them. A person has to be careful about the voices they listen to, the faces they let themselves see."

"The only thing I can see that a belief in divinity makes possible in this world is a right toward cruelty — a belief in an afterlife being the real life … not here. People need a sense of righteousness to take things from others …. to carry out violence. Divinity gives them that. It creates the reins for cruelty …."

And in the end:
"The ground is silent. I am uncertain. The sky is quiet. It’s never known any of us from the other. We speak with borrowed air. The sky only seems to be blue and have an edge."

So I found myself admiring the book without liking it and yet it held my attention right to the end. Lacey is certainly a writer to be watched with great interest, one who challenges boundaries and provokes the reader.

❓Isn't this the exact same story as that of Kaspar Hauser in Nuremberg? Except that was true. A person who doesn't know his name or background shows up in town. There's a movie about Kaspar by Werner Herzog, the toughest man in the movie business. Pretty good, too.

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