“A body is like outer space,” muses Lena Johnson, the protagonist of Megan Giddings’ debut novel, “Lakewood.” “The more you actively think about it, the smaller you feel, the more detached you feel from the business of living.” Yet no matter how distant, a body requires care, which in this country costs money: Even before the coronavirus pandemic, nearly a third of Americans had medical debt. Lena is up to her neck in it: Her mother has been mysteriously ill for years, and after her grandmother dies, it becomes Lena’s responsibility to pay the bills, even if that means taking time off from college.
When the Lakewood Project invites her to participate in a series of research studies, which pay well and provide healthcare benefits, the whole thing sounds too good to be true. Readers know it. So does Lena. Nonetheless, it looks like her best and maybe only option. She moves to Lakewood after signing a thick NDA and shortly discovers that like her, nearly all the other research participants are people of color, while those who are studying them are uniformly white. What’s done to her ranges from just a little weird (having her eyes turned blue) to uncomfortable (being left in a cabin alone for days) to deeply destabilizing for both Lena and the reader. The receptionist, named Judy, keeps being replaced by other Judies; time seems to skip without consequence. But there’s the pay — and the insurance. How could Lena stop? Would you?
Recently, I reached Giddings by phone — calling from one idled university town to another. Below is an edited version of our conversation about “Lakewood,” human experiments, capitalism and the virus that now looms over it all.
What kind of research did you do for the book?
I enrolled in several contact lens studies so I could experience being a subject, but also so that I could learn what actually happens in a well-run, well-managed study. I also did a lot of research on how a lot of the things that we know about gynecology today [emerged from] forced experiments on enslaved women. These things combined made “Lakewood” feel more urgent and real to me.
Lena and her peers seem to give consent when enrolling in the Lakewood Project. How were you thinking about the concept of consent in the novel?
When you’re in a legitimate research study, the doctors will walk you through every possible thing that could happen. Someone sits you down and says, “This is everything that I can tell you about why we’re doing this. This is what could possibly happen negatively, but what will probably happen is this, and at any time you can leave, no questions asked. And if anything happens to you, we’ll provide for you.” I can’t think of any other situation where you get that much consent. At Lakewood, I don’t count it as consent, because everybody who works at the facility always has more knowledge than Lena. They don’t really tell her the risks.
The characters explicitly ask each other and themselves, “How much will people do for money?” Another question at the center of the book is never spoken aloud: “How much will people do to other people for money?” Why is the latter kept implicit?
I think it’s because in our society, the second question is always implicit. As long as you live under capitalism and you’ve fully bought into the idea that there is a meritocracy in this country and that money is deeply important, then on some level you’re always being asked how far will you go to be rich. So if I asked the question explicitly, I would not be writing a novel. I’d be writing a rant, a screed.
While the main plot deals with Lena’s experiences inside the research study, money — the lack of it, what it means, what it really costs — is a major underlying theme.
I wanted to write about something I understood deeply, which was having to think every single day about money. I think there’s still this misconception that you have to be in poverty or broke to think about money all the time, but the average person I know in this country is still living paycheck to paycheck. They can be making $60,000, even in the Midwest, and they’re living paycheck to paycheck because of student loans, health bills — all sorts of reasons. Most of us are just one health emergency or one bad boss away from being in a total crisis. It’s just something that I emotionally understood and felt a lot of readers would too.
There are elements of both the surreal and the hyperreal in Lena’s experiences as a human subject. How do these parallel or echo her — or your — experience of being a black woman in the United States?
Anxiety happens in the body and it happens in the brain. So when my anxiety is very bad, it feels like anything is possible. Like on a plane: I know intellectually the plane probably won’t crash, nothing will happen, it’ll just be another flight. But my emotions, my body? They can’t get on board with that message, and the fear will build and build and build and it starts to warp the way I see or react to things. “Lakewood” is about grief and about anxiety, and I don’t know if I can separate those two things in my brain, because they push and pull in very similar ways.
When I was rereading the book, I realized I kept capturing how often my body has always felt on display. Especially my hair. I don’t straighten my hair. I have black hair. I’m sure some people say it’s good; I don’t even want to get into that. But my entire life people have felt they can tell me what to do with my hair — how it needs to be tamed or how I’ll need it to look a certain way to succeed — and every way I’m told to succeed it’s to look a little less black.
Now that COVID-19 is officially a pandemic, everything around us feels as hyperreal and surreal as “Lakewood.” How do you feel about the novel coming into the world at this moment?
I’m hesitant to say this because it feels like it could jinx the book, but I think “Lakewood” asks a question that most Americans are asking now: How far can I go to keep myself alive? How far can I go to keep my loved ones alive?
Masad is a critic, author, podcast host and PhD candidate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.