REVIEW: Does Not Love by James Tadd Adcox
James Tadd Adcox’s Does Not Love is a novel of pharmaceutical oligarchies run amuck. It’s set in an alternate Indianapolis, an Indianapolis much like our own Indianapolis — except it’s teetering on the precipice of a vague apocalypse. Philosophical mariachi bandleaders, militant experimental test subjects, and a fur-coated and be-goggled assassin roam the night streets. There’s a secret law enforced by a sinister FBI agent born somewhere deep within Kafka’s feverish nightmares. An instructional DVD on rough sex is there too. But all of this is background, a strange, enthralling, looming background that seems not unlike how I’d imagine the endgame of a Fritz Lang/Wes Anderson collaboration scripted by Donald Barthelme. But it’s still background to the foreground, an even more compelling story about Robert and Viola, a young couple sifting through the sprawling emotional wreckage of three miscarriages.
Robert is a milquetoast lawyer bent on repairing their relationship without doing anything drastic, or sometimes, without doing anything at all. On his best days, Robert is an even-keeled, stable, and dependable partner — a grounding force, a ship’s ballast, the anchor amidst a tempest, the cement base tether of a tetherball pole, and so on. On other, lesser, days he’s emotionally stunted and numb, struggling, in his unfailingly polite way, to reach the escape velocity on the nightmarish tedium that is his life. Yet, Robert remains an oddly compelling character. He longs for reconciliation for reasons he doesn’t seem to understand — and stays reliably Robert, even as he finds himself offering tepid assistance to an underground rebellion.
Viola is more decisive of the two, where Robert is the one that dithers, searching rather than hoping to find. She begins an affair with the gruffly authoritarian FBI agent, longs for rough sex — enthralled by its capacity for titillation, but also for the break from monotony it offers, and grapples with her feelings for Robert, and whether these feelings even exist. Viola is an archivist by occupation (she works at a library), and she serves this role in their relationship — she’s a repository of their shared history, her every waking moment lived in constant juxtaposition to the past and the alternate present it failed to produce.
But the propulsive force of Does Not Love is the voice. Sentences are short and direct, and adverbs are thrown around like manhole covers — characters do not do things adverbially; they are done or not done. The brevity of Adcox’s prose can be heartbreaking — the only two sentences on an otherwise desolate page describing the aftermath of their latest miscarriage:
“They give the child a name. There is a small ceremony.”
Or humorous, like Robert’s fond reminisces of his halcyon college days:
“Conversations about me often mentioned my level-headedness in celebratory terms.”
Like Donald Barthelme or George Saunders, there is a surreal uniformity of dialogue. Protagonists and unnamed hoodlums are governed by the same wistful self-reflexivity, paralyzed by the same incessant rumination. The effect is hypnotic, setting Does Not Love in a universe of inescapable homogeneity.
There’s a moment in the first half of the book when Robert and Viola watch Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood and, during the appearance of the ghost in the banquet scene, the ghost of her mother visits Viola. It’s a dream sequence, one of many, but it signifies the thematic triumph of the novel — how the private and the external bleed into each other. In doing so Adcox assembles a world that reverses one of the foundational tropes of narrative conflict, characters internalizing external conflict; in Does Not Love, they externalize it — projecting it outward onto their Indianapolis home, which becomes increasingly aberrant and dystopic as their relationship frays.
Does Not Love is funny, surreal, satiric, pensive, and strangely haunting. It’s a novel that comments incisively and acerbically on the world as it is, as it could be, and as it almost was. It’s a novel of the very real and the very not real, of loss, absence, and the quixotic ways we attempt to fill the vacuity inside. It’s a novel where the world might sort of end and a troubled couple may reconcile and they both feel equally important. But more than anything, it’s a novel where you can receive sage advice from literal emptiness without completely misusing the word literal. I leave you with the following exchange, one where Robert finds a vast space hidden behind the bathroom sink:
“This is the space reserved in every house for emptiness. It is a space that cannot be filled.”
“Once I patch up this wall, this space will continue to exist,” Robert says.
“Correct,” says the emptiness.
“And this is the space that consumes all of our efforts to fix things, to make them right?”
“You will be consumed in the emptiness. You will become part of it. This is already beginning to happen, as you have noticed. There is a yawning emptiness inside you at this very moment.”
by James Tadd Adcox