There’s a curious contradiction at the heart of I Fear My Pain Interests You by Stephanie LaCava, a novel about pain where the central character is unable to feel it, at least not in a physical sense. Tapping into the ongoing vogue for books about unhappily destructive rich girls, this is Margot’s story. The daughter of a celebrity couple, she has grown up with fame and privilege and an inevitable price to pay for it. A psychotherapist’s dream, Margot’s daddy issues have led to entanglements with unsuitable older men, one of whom attempts to solve the riddle of her congenital insensitivity to pain. Much talked about, this book engaged the brain but left the heart untouched.
A classic example of a nepotism baby, Margot’s celebrity family connections have ushered her to the brink of a high-profile acting career. But in a reversal of the usual Hollywood trope, Margot is fleeing the big city for small town anonymity, the stars in her eyes somewhat dimmed.
The novel opens on board a plane bound for rural Montana, where Margot is ruminating on an ex-lover’s betrayal. Heading for the sanctuary of a friend’s empty family home, she’s planning on a period of hibernation and reflection.
Lost in contemplation, Margot doesn’t realise that she’s accidentally drawn blood by gnawing her lower lip. Blood flows but she feels no pain whatsoever, later casually relating the many similar incidents in her youth. The touch of an electric cattle fence that brought ‘a shiver, a chill, then nothing’, the slip of a knife that took a slice of her finger, a boil that she casually lances with a wall tack.
If the physical pain is non-existent, emotional pain appears to be held at bay with the aid of various pills, a habit picked up from her mother, whose silver stash case she recalls rattling like a ‘pill maraca’.
Coming from ‘a long line of addicts of all kinds,’ Margot is matter-of-fact about her family. Famous musician parents, drugs, drama and dysfunction; her back-story reads like an article from Rolling Stone magazine and squats toad-like in her mind as she ‘zombies’ her way through quiet Montana days.
A disruptor arrives one Friday, in the form of ex-trauma surgeon, Graves, who stops to help after witnessing a cycling accident that leaves Margot profusely bleeding but still standing. Startled to hear that she’s feeling no pain, he posits that she may be suffering from the rare condition of congenital analgesia. Incredibly, this was his specialist subject at medical school. ‘You have broken neuroceptors,’ he tells her. Perhaps she’d allow him to conduct a few experiments?
In this aptly titled tale, Margot’s pain certainly interests Graves to an alarming degree, and after the intense introspection of the early chapters, the doctor’s introduction heralds a disquieting turn of events.
With her intriguing premise, LaCava demonstrates how pain in all its guises can mould and warp our lives. Although a controlled and intellectually stimulating novel, the perhaps inevitable consequence of its studied detachment is that (perhaps cleverly intentioned) it leaves the heart untouched.
A stylish but chilly tale of benumbed modern life.
I Fear My Pain Interests You by Stephanie LaCava is published by Verso, 192 pages.