Review: Does Not Love

Novel by James Tadd Adcox
Review by Heather Scott Partington
Issue No. 5 – September 2014

James Tadd Adcox’s Does Not Love details an alternate reality that’s not too alternate. Viola and Robert live in a world where the FBI observes ordinary citizens and big pharma is taking over; a sub-culture of willing guinea-pigs tries to live off the money they can make from volunteering to test drugs for reactions. Viola and Robert appear to be a normal married couple, experiencing the lulls of any typical relationship. The novel opens with Viola miscarrying and the couple trying to decide how to proceed.

At first this appears to be a novel about marriage; specifically, a story about what happens when you get used to the one you’re with. As Viola says:

The laws of physics work equally well in both directions; what we interpret as entropy is, perhaps, only our preference for one state of matter over another. When you and I were first married, there was a great sense of possibility in the world. We were in love with this possibility.

 This sense of possibility is especially present at the beginning of the book. When the world of the novel has yet to be revealed entirely to the reader — a world of deep conspiracies and intrusive spying — it is easy for us to make the assumption that Roger and Viola’s existence is typical. Their relationship suffers from a pattern of over-familiarity, and the conflict of the novel would appear to have roots in their boredom. But as Does Not Love gains momentum, the couple’s marriage — and the nature of this alternate world — begin to snowball into something entirely different. Adcox is commenting on the nature of privacy itself.

Initially, Viola’s obsession with rough sex seems to be a detail of personality, merely a preference. But as Does Not Love investigates the couple’s frustrated interactions, it becomes apparent that the line between affection and pain holds greater significance for the work:

‘There’s a difference between hurt and harm,’ Viola says.
‘Okay,’ Robert says, ‘Which do you want?’

Pain becomes a way for Viola to take herself out of the doldrums of existence. Her husband’s inability to understand this drives a wedge between them:

You get so used to the idea of a narrative arc to things of life as a sort of meaningful unit, of being able to switch from one life to another and from one head to another. And on some level that’s how you think things actually are, that you can try something out, and if you don’t like it, you can just switch. That at some point you get to be everything. Then suddenly, you’re twenty five years old, thirty, and you realize that you only actually get one life and one head to be inside of.

This obsession with the need for things to feel ordered is particular to Viola, a librarian. But Adcox also uses Viola’s thoughts as a way to emphasize the novel’s larger ideas about the rights of others to observe and judge our lives.

Viola’s work at the library leads to interaction with an FBI agent who carefully catalogs information on her and others. This feels like a post-9/11 novel in that the right of intelligence agencies to spy into the lives of private citizens, even in “matters of the heart,” is accepted and worked around, no matter how extreme. When Viola begins an affair with the FBI agent, the connection between intrusion and emotion becomes even more obtuse. The FBI agent obsessively records his sex with Viola, who begins to associate the camera with his face. Since the FBI agent is never named, he becomes a stand-in for the larger intelligence complex, a window for the secret powers-that-be into Viola and Roger’s most personal life.

One of the novel’s most pervasive ideas is that of nothingness: a private, overpowering space that can engulf one’s thoughts. When the world of private thoughts is accessible to the government, nothingness provides respite and privacy. Robert finds it first as a literal place in one scene when he tries to fix a hole in the wall and ends up climbing into infinite space. The nothingness of Does Not Love is tangible, and he is so affected by it that he returns to it at night:

When Robert closes his eyes to sleep that night, the darkness that he sees is no longer darkness, it is expanding emptiness. He tries to find the end of it, with no success. The further you go, he thinks, the more emptiness there is.

In a world where emotion, sex, and love can be accessed by others, it’s important that there is a place (literal or imagined) for Robert to be entirely alone. Adcox uses this darkness as a contrast to the bright lights of intrusion.

In Does Not Love, the characters are looking for points of connection, but it becomes apparent that in order to truly feel anything real for others, one needs privacy of thought. As this tale of secret projects and secret laws unfolds, we come to see that for the characters, “[l]ove, too” is “a kind of violence, drawing everything into the emptiness at its center.”

Does Not Love
James Tadd Adcox

Curbside Splendor
200 pages, $12.00

Heather Scott PartingtonHeather Scott Partington is a contributor for The Los Angeles Review of Books, Electric LiteratureThe Rumpus, and Bookslut. She is also the book reviews editor at The Coachella Review.

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