These are times of deep mistrust. Our leaders seem incapable of presenting a fair and honest account of what is best for everyone. Our news providers have never had more fodder to whip up hysteria and exaggeration. While fringe conspiracy theories used to be confined to the periphery, they are making headline news and rallying enough support for public protests. Because of the capitalist skew of pharmaceutical companies, the dream of a vaccine is scourged with rumours of mass testing and flawed studies. If we can’t trust the establishment and scientific community, how can we successfully navigate a global pandemic?
All of these issues come to the fore in Megan Giddings debut novel Lakewood. Set in the US, it prods at the idea that our state doesn’t necessarily have our best interests at heart and will play on the need our society gives us for money in order to exploit us. It’s a disorientating and troubling book that feels like vital reading in our current climate.
Lena is a college student in the US whose mother has an unspecified condition which means she needs constant care. When her grandmother dies, she leaves the gap of care and a legacy of debt. In a storyline highly resonant of the many disturbing experiments that have been performed on black bodies over the years, Lena is offered a huge sum of money in order to take part in a research study. All she is told is that it will benefit the country, and that she cannot tell anyone about it.
With her financial situation and her mother’s condition, she has little choice but to drop out of her studies and sign an enormous NDA. She goes to Lakewood, where she has a whole fake alternative life working for a shipping company, in order to hide what she is actually doing.
What follows is an increasingly surreal account of her time in the study. Giddings plays around with time, where it seems as though the same day is happening again, or as if days have passed and we have missed them. The line between reality and drug-induced dreams blur as her eyes change colour, a woman’s teeth fall out and she is left in a deserted cabin overnight. She becomes paranoid. Delusional. It’s impossible to tell who is part of the programme and who are local residents. It’s an all-encompassing reading experience.
For me, it was extra disturbing. When I read it I was on the way home from being in lockdown in France with my in-laws. We had gone there at the beginning so we’d have more space with our toddler, thinking it would be temporary. Four months later I was going home on my own so could go into my school and teach. With the quarantine rules shifting I had no idea when I was going to see my little girl again. Having been in a very isolated part of the countryside, it was my first real experience of masks, distancing and sterilising. There were officers walking around the station checking for face coverings and I had a form in my pocket with my name and address on, which gave me permission to travel. Perhaps not the best time to be reading a novel that plays with the idea of reality.
But looking in the news and being unsure whether what you are reading is true or not is now a regular experience. Doubting the decisions made on behalf of you and your safety by those in power has become commonplace. And in the book, as in the real world, it is the fate of minority and black communities that are disproportionately affected. In the study Lena takes part in, the participants are all black or from minority groups, and all the observers are white. We even hear them judging the participants for taking part – “the things people will do for money.” A stark indictment of the US system that leaves a huge proportion of its citizens unable to pay for basic healthcare.
In the UK we see patterns whereby the most vulnerable to the virus and its effects are from black or ethnic minority backgrounds, live in poverty or are immigrants. While it’s appealing to think that overt ‘testing’ on particular groups of people is a barbaric historical practice, the fact is that the very systems we live in continue to perpetuate disproportionate suffering to the same people. What Giddings cleverly highlights is that, even in a modern setting, it’s easy to imagine civil liberties taken away and terrible things done to people in the name of so-called ‘advancement.’ It happens every time a new billionaire is created thanks to the exploitation of their workers and tax loopholes. It happens when landlords evict tenants that are already living in sub-human conditions. It happens when people are forced to work on zero-hours contracts or forced to work in a locked warehouse at the height of a pandemic.
I wish the world of Lakewood were more distant to our own. Unfortunately it is all too recognisable. A shout against injustice, an exploration of the hyper-visibility black people experience every day and a wonderfully-written novel, Lakewood will immerse you in its unsettling world and leave you musing over who we can really trust.
Megan Giddings has degrees from University of Michigan and Indiana University. She is a fiction editor at The Offing and a senior features editor at The Rumpus. In 2018, she was a recipient of a Barbara Deming Memorial fund grant for feminist fiction. Her stories are forthcoming or that have been recently published in Black Warrior Review, Arts & Letters, Gulf Coast, and The Iowa Review. Her novel, Lakewood, was published by Amistad in 2020. She’s represented by Dan Conaway of Writers House. Megan lives in the Midwest. You can find more at http://www.mgangiddings.com
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