I recently married someone. We drove to Vegas to get married. This is to say, we drove together through the desert.
We drove together through the desert to a city filled with neon signs, designed to distract from the fact that on all sides, the city’s surrounded by emptiness.
We drove together through the desert, and we got into an argument. I don’t remember what started it, but I remember driving down the strip at 1am, me squinting and crying, him slamming his fist on the wheel.
I looked at him and thought, how did this even start? He looked at me and said something that made the fight feel finished.
I felt an overwhelming warmth. I thought, this is the man that I love and the man I am going to marry. We’re staying together through strangeness, and that is what matters.
I also felt an overwhelming corresponding chill. I thought, he could have left me. I too could have left, in a burst of adrenaline.
We could have left each other standing in each other’s emptiness. Instead, we stayed together in the desert.
Every marriage is built of moments where two people stayed, but could have left. And all the moments in between. And all the emptiness between them.
James Tadd Adcox’s novel Does Not Love is a beautiful compendium of these moments within the fictional marriage of Robert and Viola. It is a study of ways that the couple makes meaning—and, trying and failing—attempts to make something. Appropriately, Adcox sets the novel within an alternate reality Indianapolis—a city which, to me, has always felt like something akin to a giant parking lot. Robert and Viola live in a blank space where people put new things. I feel that Does Not Love is about their unease with this space, and what they do to live with that unease.
Does Not Love analyzes this uneasy landscape in a tone that is—in many ways—redolent of Don Delillo’s White Noise. Just as White Noise describes an unfolding relationship drama against the background of a more literal “airborne toxic disaster,” Does Not Love is—in Adcox’s own words—“a domestic novel about domestic terrorism.” The imagined fears of Robert and Viola commingle with the worldly terrors of gun violence, secret service interrogations, and inhumane pharmaceutical drug tests.
In some ways, Does Not Love also reminds me of Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays. Play It As It Lays tells the story of a woman who grows apart from her husband and retreats deeper and deeper into that dreaded blank space. In Didion’s novel, that space is represented by the Mojave Desert. In Adcox’s novel, that space is Indianapolis—a different kind of desert.
Incidentally, Play It As It Lays and Does Not Love were the two books I brought with me to my desert wedding. Driving around Vegas, thinking about all the emptiness around and within me, I thought, “James Tadd Adcox gets this.”
Adcox is certainly very good at “getting” the emptiness of arguments. The novel begins with an argument that sounds terribly familiar to me. The couple is coming out of the doctor after Viola has experienced her third miscarriage, and there is a letting of frustration that means both everything and nothing:
“I don’t have diabetes,” Viola says. “I don’t have heart disease, or kidney disease, or high blood pressure or lupus. My uterus contains neither too much nor too little amniotic acid. I don’t have an imbalance of my progesterone nor a so-called incompetent cervix. I have had ultrasounds and sonograms and hysteroscopys and hysterosalpinsographys and pelvic exams. I have eaten healthy. I have exercised. I have refrained from tobacco and alcohol and caffeine. I have taken folic acid and aspirin and—” Viola starts crying, standing in the parking lot.
“You’ve done everything exactly right,” Robert says.
“I know that,” Viola says, “That is what I am trying to tell you.”
I re-read this opening passage a few times after my argument on the strip. I thought, “An argument is just a place to put things.” Sometimes the things can be matched up, arranged, compartmentalized. But often, there’s just too much there, and it doesn’t fit into the spaces your words make. No amount of aspirin or exercise will prevent Viola’s body from “spontaneously aborting” her pregnancies. No sonogram can reveal what their bodies contain that is acting against them.
Does Not Love adeptly examines the home as a metaphorical body of marital desires—the locus of all that is broken, mismatched, or in need of “renovation.” Post-miscarriage, Viola stares at the blinds and wonders why they don’t match the room. During sex, Robert thinks about all of the fixtures he wishes to buy to “remodel” the house. The couple visits the Indianapolis Museum to view an exhibition of miniature rooms and expresses awe that “someone had to make all this.”
Through each of the rooms windows are miniature bushes, trees, gardens. The windows have been designed so that one can imagine the scene going on and on into the world outside the windows, so that the viewer can’t quite see where it all stops.
The couple’s awe for these spaces—and yearning to fix them—is shadowed with feelings of dread. They realize that at some point, these worlds constructed by humans “just stop.”
“‘It might stop,” Viola says. “We have no assurance whatsoever that it won’t.”
“How from here you can see trees and beyond them, cars, but somewhere beyond all of that, just beyond where you can see it might just, you know. Stop.”
Adcox understands that the couple’s fear does not end where it “stops,” however.Does Not Love elegantly insinuates the paradox of this fear: That it doesn’t just stop, that there’s also something unnameable that just keeps going. Adcox describes a scene wherein Robert—attempting to perform a “home renovation” on his bathroom—instead opens a hole in the wall. He walks into the hole to find “he feels empty.”
“If I keep walking, will I find anything?” he says.
“No,” says the emptiness. “This is the space in every house reserved for emptiness. This is a space that cannot be filled.”
“Once I patch up the wall, this space will continue to exist,” Robert says.
“Correct,” says the emptiness.
“And this is the space that also consumes all our efforts to fix things, to make them right.”
This is the point where, when reading this novel, I put the book down, and said, “Fuck.”
Does Not Love is also a wonderfully nuanced examination of the violence in a marriage (and by violence, I mean sociolinguistic epistemic violence as much as literal, physical violence.) But the book discusses that, too. Viola wants Robert to engage her in more violent sexual play after her miscarriage, which leads to the conundrum of hurting someone you love even if it’s what they really want. Robert tries to wrap his head around this conundrum by re-watching an instructional DVD on rough sex over and over again while he takes notes.
Viola comes home to find Robert in his office, watching the instructional DVD on rough sex. “If I’m being one hundred percent honest, I don’t understand why you would want this,” Robert says to Viola.
“You mean, what’s wrong with me?” Viola asks.
“I didn’t say that.” Robert follows Viola out of the office and into the kitchen, where Viola starts putting away dishes a little too quietly. “Could you try to understand why this is difficult for me? People don’t naturally wish themselves harm.”
Viola keeps putting away the dishes. Robert sits at the kitchen table. He is suddenly very tired.
“There’s a difference between hurt and harm,” Viola says.
“Okay,” Robert says. “Which do you want?”
I tore up a previous marriage trying to answer both of these questions—both What is the difference between hurt and harm? and Which do you want? As I recall, when I made this the subject of marital arguments, I often said something akin to “I’ll know the difference when I see it.” I never saw it in that home, in that room, in the space of that argument, so I went searching for it elsewhere. This is what Viola does, too. She engages in an affair with an FBI agent who (at times) seems like an attempted human manifestation of the space reserved for emptiness.
The FBI agent handcuffs Viola’s hands behind the back of the chair. “Do you remember your safe word?” the FBI agent asks. Viola nods. The FBI agent slaps her. She cannot tell if he has an erection. She can barely see him, in fact, except as a shadowy figure just beyond the light.
“Do you love your husband?” the FBI agent asks.
“I think sometimes that I love him very much. At other times I am sure that I do not. The sureness of my not-loving him, at those times, seems to retroactively negate whatever love I once believed myself to hold, and I think to myself: I have never loved him, that it was a mistake, I was only wanting to love him.”
The FBI agent holds Viola down on the mattress by the throat. There is some fumbling with his fly. Viola thinks: I am not supposed to help him with his fly, I am being held down, I am “at his mercy.” The FBI agent spits on Viola and Viola closes her eyes in anticipation of being spat on again.
Even the FBI agent is too human to absorb Viola’s emptiness. Even Robert—upon learning how to “not feel anything” and thus fuck Viola the way she wants—thinks
What he wants, more than anything else in this moment, is for Viola to look up at him and smile.
What is wrong with me, he thinks, that I can have, from moment to moment, such disparate wants?
Adcox understands—and wonderfully conveys—the experience of this disparity: One’s shifting from moment to moment, attempting to form some collection of moments that feels like “love.”
Why do we need to be hurt (or harmed?) Why can’t we fix it? Why do we need to walk into these dark, fathomless spaces? Why do we need to try to think we love someone? Why do we write and read? Why do we build cities—and get married—in the fucking desert?
I don’t know. And Adcox doesn’t know. And I’m glad that he doesn’t.
But then again, I do. And he does. And I’m glad he does.
In the words of Does Not Love
And then there is a moment. Perhaps a week. Robert and Viola are happy.
Happiness comes unexpectedly while simply going through life, “[working] in the garden,” “[going] out to eat,” and “[making] extravagant plans for their future.” It is not something we can hold onto, except just to know that it’s there. And it’s real. And it’s beautiful. And maybe, it will come again.
Does Not Love
by James Tadd Adcox
Curbside Splendor Press, 2014
275 Pages / $14.95