Lena Johnson receives an invitation to take part in the Lakewood Project, which purports to be a series of research studies relating to mind, memory, personality and perception. There is something about the letter that makes her uncomfortable – but with paid expenses, housing and perhaps even life insurance, Lena finds the offer more enticing than the alternative prospect of working minimum wage selling burritos.
March 24, 2020
Right from the start, the conditions of the project turn out to be disturbingly intrusive, as when Lena is forced to provide the passwords for email and social media, asked questions about her sex life, and patted across her intimate areas by a female doctor to ensure that she is not carrying a phone. She is then confronted with seemingly unrelated questions about her perspective on life, which evolve into specific ethical quandaries (would she kill a person who was plotting a terror attack?). At one point Lena is shown a list of meaningless word-combinations and subsequently injected with a fluid that causes her body to convulse in pain, after which she must recite the words from earlier.
All of this is just the beginning. She is invited for further tests, this time in a special location at the small town of Lakewood. Despite the disturbing nature of her initial test – along with an intimidating contract that includes possible jail-time for violating an NDA, and references to brain damage and limb-loss in the section on compensation – the fees she is being paid persuade her to take part. Lakewood turns out to be a strange, out of-the-way place with more animals than people; cut off from wider society, Lena is left at the mercy of the researchers whose end goal remains an enigma.
Lakewood, the debut novel of Megan Giddings, is an emotional kaleidoscope. It is often a funny book, with the mundane struggles of Lena’s life the basis for dry observational wit – as when she is interviewed for the burrito-selling job:
“Smile like you’re looking at your best friend.”
She pictured an alligator plotting against her enemies. A large, openmouthed grin.
“People like to feel invited.” He gestured at her mouth. “Keep trying.”
She stretched her lips the widest they could go, knowing she was making more of a welcome-to-my-death-house face than a spend-all-your-money-on-these-burritos face.
The novel’s humour is offset with moments of deep melancholy. The story opens with the death of Lena’s grandmother, who raised her as a child. Lena is then left as sole caregiver to her mother Deziree, whose mental health problems prevented her from looking after Lena herself.
Above all, Lakewood is disturbing. This should not be surprising, as it is after all a horror novel; what is more remarkable is how neatly its creepier elements dovetail with its humour and pathos. One of the novel’s main virtues is the way its horror blends into satirical observation.
The Lakewood compound itself is all too recognisable as the sum total of corporate and government PR-speak, the manipulation of society by people on a completely different strata of human experience than those they seek to control. Lena, our sardonic protagonist, has much to say about such phenomena even before her journey takes its most disturbing turns.
Hearing staff involved with Lakewood deliver a presentation involving words like “innovation”, “excitement”, “prosperity” and “solutions”, Lena wonders if this is simply marketing culture, or the result of the Internet distorting everyday conversation: “Even when they weren’t online, people spoke as if they were bots designed to get clicks. Phrases repeated to get a person’s attention, with nothing substantial beneath them. Jokes that meant we have seen the same image on the internet. Lena’s grandmother used to say she was part of the last generation that could go for as long as 15 minutes without talking nonsense.”
In exploring this all-too-real sense of cultural uncanniness, the novel freely twists and distorts the world around Lena, creating something that remains disturbing despite elements of humour. The tests at Lakewood not only raise the question of what reality the examiners are living in, but also prompt Lena to doubt her own lived experiences. In one scene she is shown a video of herself being repeatedly slapped by an unidentifiable man, yet she has no memory of the event taking place, and is provided with no explanation – merely a questionnaire gauging her reaction to the video.
Elsewhere, the compound plays host to bewildering events that may or may not be tests. At one point Lena watches with horror as receptionist Bethany inexplicably loses her teeth one by one, like something out of an anxiety dream. Inevitably, Lena is given a questionnaire asking her to rate her sense of disgust at this spectacle on a scale of 1-10. Bethany later vanishes, replaced with a cheery new receptionist; meanwhile, a poster over Bethany’s desk – a picture of a cake with a caption pointing out that “stressed” is “desserts” spelled backwards – is covered up with a new poster, bearing the exact same caption with a photograph of a different cake.
The boundary between the real and the uncanny is explicitly tied to boundaries that exist between class, gender and, above all, race. Lena herself is African-American, and her daily experiences with racial prejudice are a frequent topic for her wry observations. While discussing her job-hunting tribulations, her internal dialogue notes that “there was no point in trying to joke around with an old white man who thought you were an idiot.” Meanwhile, almost all of the researchers at Lakewood – and almost none of the subjects – are white.
For one experiment, Lena is given drops that turn her eyes blue and then driven to a bar so that she can gauge whether people treat her differently. Men of different races find her alluring, while a Black woman advices her to “get rid of those contacts” (“You know, you don’t have to look white to look good”). A Korean woman, drunk, tells Lena that “Toni Morrison would be ashamed of you.” Lena is reminded of how, when she was 16, she heard a debate between her mother and grandmother about how her race would lead to her being forced to work harder than her white peers.
After this, one of the researchers – nicknamed “Haircut” by Lena – gives her a survey on her experiences:
“My eyes will be brown tomorrow, right?” Lena asked while filling out the sheet.
“Don’t worry, if they’re still blue, you’ll get a bonus.”
“I would prefer to look like me.”
Haircut snorted. “Yeah, over $20,000. Sure. For $20,000, I would have an operation that turned me black.”
Lena’s face fought between a What-the-hell? Expression and an Oh-no-that-can’t-be-possible expression with an I-am-too-emotionally-exhausted-to-have-a-real-conversation-with-you expression. “Okay.”
The plot of Lakewood has a number of obvious comparison points in fiction – Kafka, The Prisoner, Black Mirror, Get Out – but none are truly satisfying. This is because Megan Giddings builds her world not from genre stablemates but from stark reality. The experimental glandular transplants performed on San Quentin prison inmates by the eugenicist Leo Stanley; the deliberate spraying of the San Francisco Bay Area with bacteria during Operation Sea-Spray; the CIA’s experiments with mind-alteration in Project ARTICHOKE; the notorious “Tuskagee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” – each of these true-life atrocities is namechecked by the novel.
Lena has been brought up to be aware of such matters; to know that those in positions of power will use vulnerable people as test subjects, playthings, slaves; and that her race, along with her gender and family income, mean that she is a vulnerable person. A crucial aspect of the story, one that edges the novel from horror to tragedy, is that for all her savvy Lena still ends up at Lakewood – because she needs the money.
The more time Lena stays at Lakewood, the more her world becomes distorted. Reality blurs into surreality, with fantasy characters like Bigfoot and Ronald McDonald being spotted around the remote town, and it becomes impossible to distinguish manipulation from delusion. Amidst all of this Lena starts to have trouble speaking, using meaningless words that she has been forced to memorise rather than words that she needs to articulate herself. These symptoms are markedly similar to those exhibited by Lena’s mother Deziree, whose mental health problems are possibly (as the novel suggests at one point) brought on by trauma, raising disturbing implications: how many generations shall be doomed to this abuse?
Lakewood‘s plot boasts a strong central concept, but the novel’s true trump card is its main character. Lena Johnson is a well-rounded protagonist with convincingly complex emotions, her feelings are linked to experiences ranging from day-to-day strife to her ordeal as a test subject. Her observational wit serves as a constant reminder that, for all of its surreal detours, Lakewood is a novel grounded in reality. She is a heroine we can truly feel for – and fear for.