Wednesday, August 27, 2014

James Tadd Adcox DOES NOT LOVE (Or Does He?)

I'm going to take full credit for the title of James Tadd Adcox's debut novel, Does Not Love. That's unreasonable, but here I am, doing it. I say that because--interesting story to me, the narcissist--I remember years ago meeting up with Adcox for beers and he told me about the manuscript he was working on, which was the aforementioned debut novel.

He had been thinking of calling it Does Not Love but the feedback he'd been given about this title to that point was not especially enthusiastic. And I, bravely perhaps, confirmed that he was the one who was right and all others were wrong. Does Not Love was the only choice for a title. And so it was and so shall it be.

Ah, but I'm no hero. Just a guy who likes reading books, in particular good ones (whether I know the book's author or not). And in fact, Does Not Love has lived up to its wonderful title in arguably every single way one might hope for, in the world. It is a story that has the characteristic Adcox charm. He also uses a very spare prose style that I find extremely pleasing. I'd put him, as an ideas writer, somewhere in the range of Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace, with a little of something fabulistic, as well, to round things out. In fact, more like Wallace (and Barthelme and Saunders) and less like DeLillo, this is a novel that really relishes its more humorous moments.

But--gah--to refer again to DeLillo (and sort of contradict what I wrote in the previous paragraph), the novel with which I think Does Not Love shares its greatest affinity is White Noise (arguably DeLillo's funniest novel). There is that undertone of a controlled society, a normalized society, a society of intellectual people proving their frailty and always failing. These are your doctors, your lawyers, your pharmaceutical executives. It is a society of decline, and obviously in decline. It takes place in a fictional Indianapolis, one built around an imagined but no less powerful pharmaceutical industry.

Consider yourself forewarned that much of what follows will be heavy with spoilers.

And for all of its hypothetical, alternate universe narrative backdrop, there's something too familiar about this place. Maybe it's familiar because the things that happen in Adcox's fictionalized Indianapolis have an eerie tangibility, like we haven't gotten there yet but we will (this idea comes through in some of the darker aspects of works by forward-thinking writers like Wallace or Saunders). Or maybe we have already gotten there, as James Tadd Adcox recently offered evidence of on his social media accounts, the preceding link's article related to a plot development of his novel that seemed to me while reading it wildly satirical but only because it also seemed so likely a future for the corporate-oligarchy America more or less under construction at present.

Turns out construction is much further along than I had realized, as people in the small town of Kannapolis (I see the parallel there to Adcox's choice of setting), North Carolina have become voluntary subjects of experimentation by the new and growing medical industry there. People aren't purely motivated by money in Kannapolis, though. In quite a few cases, they're interested in learning something about their familial history through biomapping, and perhaps unlocking the secret to cures for congenital diseases, at least for future generations. In Does Not Love characters are simply human test subjects desiring some means of securing an income -- and so exists an exploitative industry to trump all others. The gap between peoples' hope that they are contributing to something very important and the callous avarice that could result from their contributions makes Adcox's prognostication all the more grim, and, alas, all the more likely.

Big-pharma--its representative corporation being Obadiah Birch Adcox's novel--(and the bigger notion of the future of American industry, how it will be perpetuated, who it will benefit, and who it will toss out)-- arguably, plays the greatest role in Does Not Love, touches everything, reminiscent of ubiquitous forces like White Noise's "Airborne Toxic Event" and Infinite Jest's "the Entertainment." It is pernicious without itself having an identifiable target, a purpose, other than to exist ad infinitum. Unlike the other two forces named, which we know exist by human contrivance of some kind and whose effects are beyond anyone's ultimate control, a company like Obadiah Birch has an important role in society, it tells you. And though there is something false and flimsy feeling about this proposition, this corporate entitlement: its necessity, it is the lie spoken enough times that it becomes the truth.

If you ask me, dystopias, fictional or otherwise, will have nothing to do with traditional forms of government run amok (other than maybe to the extent that they can be useful to willful factions and / or individuals). It won't logically reflect where we're currently headed as a society. If a dystopia ever comes to pass, it will almost certainly be defined as rule by powerful monied interests. The dystopia (or something not too far removed from a dystopia) Adcox appears to envisage in Does Not Love is exactly that sort of world. The situation for the average people, proletarian and lower-party members alike (though each in their own way), who inhabit the novel might best be described with the following quote from this Jacobin article: "Neoliberalism ... sees people as little more than variable bundles of human capital, with no permanent interests or even attributes that cannot be remade through the market."

And so I'd like to take a look at the two main characters of the story, Robert and Viola, a couple who live and breathe this essence of failure and their subservience to the powers that be. Deterministic failures, as well as things intrinsic to their relationship and themselves, punish the couple fairly regularly--with particular respect to the inability they share--which "failure" nonetheless falls primarily on Viola through society's subtle and not-so-subtle cues--to bear a child. The couple suffers through many miscarriages and a kind of enervation, a mode of dysfunction, takes the place of whatever good feeling they once felt for one another (love seems always to have been in short supply between the two, just one of many ways the novel hearkens back to its title).

Robert falls into the murky gray category of generally meaning well but also wanting things to go his way, a category in which most of us reside. He's moved by passion as much as he is logic, and it's by the former more than the latter that he attempts to repair his relationship with his wife, and subsequently, repeatedly, succeeds at doing more harm than good. Viola, for her part, is looking for something that Robert can't offer her, something like a sadomasochistic sex life, and perhaps that sort of relationship in total. And because Robert can't offer this to her--and her feelings for him seem to be waning for a great many other reasons, both articulable and not--she seeks other partners who can and will. There's an elderly judge who is familiar with the inner workings of The Secret Law (who functions more as someone with whom Viola has an emotional affair than anything sexual) and an FBI Agent brought to Indianapolis to help solve the mysterious string of murders of people affiliated with Obadiah Birch, who subsequently meets Viola and learns everything he can about her innermost desires, probing and prodding her along -- think Fifty Shades of Grey meets John Grisham meets all those good writers I've already mentioned.

The couple's relationship decays and the city decays but the decay is leading somewhere, to something, to a powerful and destructive climax that yields surprising insights regarding how anyone might love or might not.

What I'm saying is you should read this novel.

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