As the child of famous punk parents, Margot Highsmith is a daughter of privilege. When we first meet her, on a plane from New York to Montana, she seems in a bad way, though it’s not apparent why. What follows is a retrograde retelling of Margot’s life leading up to the moment when she abandons the New York acting scene and a relationship with an older director to stay at her friend Lucy’s family home in rural Montana.
Like LaCava’s debut novel, The Superrationals, this new offering reinforces the author’s signature minimalist style, where skin and bone chapters are dominated by dialogue and narrative self-reflection. I Fear My Pain Interests You is raw and uncomfortable. One part family memoir, one part body horror, LaCava’s style lands somewhere in the vein of the New French Extremity and New Narrative traditions. Much like The Superrationals, I Fear My Pain Interests You orbits around one of the most underrepresented topics in contemporary American fiction: class.
From the outset, Margot struggles to shake the silver spoon. She’s controlled by her grandmother as much as she’s raised by her, ignored by her mother as much as she’s becoming her, and running from the fame her father generated from his music career. Over the course of her upbringing, among a chorus of family friends, awkward conversations, and failures to connect with her family, we slowly begin to realize that Margot can’t feel pain. Figuratively, of course, but also literally. She skins her knee on tour with her mother in one moment, grabs an electric fence in another, and fails to react when her grandmother slams her finger in a door. It’s all part of a numbness that’s sieved through again and again over the course of the book, as if tracing these moments enough may one day allow her to feel something.
Perhaps the decline in class consciousness among the literati developed during the era when Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Alan Greenspan were busy selling a model of capitalism for the masses on either side of the Atlantic. Or perhaps there’s been a turn since John Prescott proclaimed, “we’re all middle-class now,” at the start of his term as the U.K.’s Deputy Prime Minister in 1997. Or maybe American readers, in particular, still believe in some part of the American dream—that old puritan ideal: salvation through hard work—shielded from class struggle in a way that readers across the pond just aren’t.
Many of the conversations in I Fear My Pain Interests You waltz around their true topics the way the symbolic content of a dream moves around its latent core. When anyone does decide to speak to Margot—rather than forcing her to eavesdrop—they are almost always shielding her from something, usually about her mother Rose, who continually seems in free fall, a la Courtney Love. But when Rose commits suicide, her mother, Josephine, hides this from Margot. It’s never clear whether she’s shielding her granddaughter in order to protect her or from fear of losing her, fear of losing control.
The only person who’s honest with Margot is Lucy, her best and maybe only friend, who she meets at Brown before being asked to leave for popping pills in the dorms. It’s Lucy who tries to warn Margot about the director and about the trauma surgeon turned grave digger, Graves. Like the women in her family, most of the men in Margot’s life are withholding and manipulative. Just as Josephine wields her class privilege to get Margot into Brown or to arrange meetings for her among the New York elite—the sort of advantages Margot has grown numb to—the men in Margot’s life wield their privilege at the expense of her body. Graves, in particular, becomes increasingly interested in Margot’s congenital analgesia—her inability to feel pain.
I don’t mean to suggest that American literature has gone completely without class consciousness. Upton Sinclair produced work that, at least politically, might bear some comparison to the novels of Dickens or Zola. But the U.S. tends to produce class-conscious fiction in fits and spurts, like a toddler choking down broccoli. Unlike Sinclair or Zola, LaCava doesn’t indulge her readers with well-researched voyeurism into working class lives, but makes tangible the presence of class from within the American upper crust, and in doing so interrogates her readers.
In I Fear My Pain Interests You, classism and sexism overlap, one illuminating the other. LaCava borrows an old trope—society girl meets working class guy—squeezing it dry of any class fetishism. Even Graves is only taking a break from his supposed life in the operating theater to dig holes for a living. He condescends to the work, as if it’s a vacation and he’s a tourist, or maybe an anthropologist digging up bones. In the same way, Graves fetishizes Margot’s condition, taking an interest in her body, the female body in equal parts sadism and clinical curiosity.
LaCava has tapped into something here, and it’s supposed to make us uncomfortable because it’s about us, the parts of ourselves we’d rather keep numb. In the process, her voice is deft, precise, and sometimes hilarious in the way our group texts and Reddit feeds often are. I Fear My Pain Interests You blows like a thin wind, reminding us of the air in our atmosphere. We can’t hope to see it, but maybe—one day—we will feel it.
About the Reviewer
Alec Witthohn is the Social Media Manager and an associate editor at the Center for Literary Publishing/Colorado Review. He is currently an MFA fiction candidate at Colorado State University. Before joining Colorado Review, Alec worked with Copper Nickel for several years as an assistant/associate editor.