Welcome to Suburban Diaspora’s blog. Every Monday we’ll be shedding a spotlight on independent fiction, poetry, music, and video games. The selections may be new or old, but all selections will be available for purchase with links at the end end of the review. This week we start by looking at the novel Does Not Love by James Tadd Adcox, published by Curbside Splendor in October of 2014.
Sometimes there’s something lost in translation when a fiction writer goes from writing stories to their first novel. It can seem like the novel would have been a better story, lacking the depth and complexity that necessitates the length of a novel. Does Not Love avoids that pitfall, creating a complex, frantic, and hollow world that reflects the characters that exist within it.
This surreal, dystopian novel begins with a married couple, Viola and Robert, who are having relationship troubles after a series of miscarriages. Throughout the narrative, the emptiness of their day-to-day life reflects on the world in a way that feels reminiscent of Kafka: “At work Robert empties documents from storage boxes, puts different-colored sticky notes on each document to identify what role it is to play in the upcoming deposition, then puts each document back in the storage box from which it came. There are mountains of storage boxes. New storage boxes keep arriving, smiling legal clerks rolling them in on handtrucks.”
Calling Adcox’s novel a Kafka clone would be a mistake, though. Where Kafka would create walls of text to make a reader feel the oppression of the characters, Adcox instead chooses to use white space to keep the frantic pace while creating a sensation that something is missing in the text. Many of the sections aren’t more than a page or even a few sentences long, and they don’t need to be any longer: “They give the child a name. There is a small ceremony.” The reader fills in the blanks, and that investment makes the narrative that much stronger.
Adcox never allows the scenes to overstay their welcome, and his instincts are always spot on. Depending on the situation, it can feel like the characters cut off the thoughts of the reader by ending the section: “Inevitably they buy something. Viola holds the pillow that doesn’t go with anything else in the house in her lap on the drive back, and she imagines herself slowly, over the course of months or years, replacing everything in the house with something else, even the floorboards, even the walls.”
But the world of Does Not Love grows more complicated than a single relationship. Adcox doesn’t spend a lot of time world-building, but he builds on real world fears surrounding government intrusion and corporate greed. The specific corporations that control the landscape of the novel belong to the pharmaceutical industry. Some of the observations about the healthcare industry feel eerily familiar in distorted ways. Playing on these very real anxieties makes the world feel alive despite the sparse nature of the reader’s immersion into it, and that life may be the novel’s greatest achievement.
Of course, the novel does have flaws. The main detraction from this read is the escalation of the plot. There were times where certain events felt pushed or unnatural. Maybe it was due to the pacing, or maybe it was the result of some characterizations that didn’t ring true, but these moments were few and far between. It might be enough to make a reader stop and think about the world in a negative light, though, and that may detract from some people enjoying the narrative.
Because those moments pass as quickly as others in the book, it’s easy to overlook the flaws present here as long as the reader is willing to take the novel at face value. The ending is tense and surreal, and it’s well worth the time investment necessary to read the short book. It would be difficult not to recommend a book like this that can create such a visceral experience.
(As a side note, I had the pleasure of seeing Adcox read at AWP this last year, and that reading may have contributed to my overall view of the novel. His frantic pace and melodic delivery reminded me as much of a musical performance as it did a reading. This novel reflects his voice well, and it will be a pleasure to read more of his fevered prose in the future.)
Does Not Love is available at Curbside Splendor’s website.
Review by Matt Kimberlin