Does Not Love, James Tadd Adcox
$14.95, 200 pages
In Does Not Love, James Tadd Adcox holds his characters at a clinical distance from the reader. This is certainly by design. As the copy on the back cover notes, the novel is set “in an alternate-reality Indianapolis overrun by big pharma.” Within this context, protagonists Robert and Viola come across, perhaps appropriately, as lab rats, helpless creatures beholden to the cartoon logic of a system too massive and byzantine for either of them to understand.
A miscarriage—the latest of several for Viola—opens the novel and reveals a couple teetering on the verge of collapse. Numb from the experience, Viola begins an abusive affair with an FBI agent surveilling the library where she works in an effort to uphold a secret law. Robert, meanwhile, indulges half-heartedly in Viola’s desire for rough sex before seeking a pharmaceutical solution to their marital problems. Although the arrangement clearly isn’t working for either party, they stick with the relationship largely, it seems, because they can’t come up with an alternative.
Things go from bad to worse when Robert witnesses the murder of a pharmaceutical developer, a turn of events that eventually leads him to a shanty town overrun with “guinea piggers” who suffer from the side-effects of medications they volunteered to test. Viola, meanwhile gets drawn further into her relationship with the abusive FBI agent and also falls in love, albeit platonically, with a judge for a secret court. A roundup of the so-called “guinea-piggers” leads to a hallucinatory stay in a mental-institution-cum-prison for Robert and his eventual, if uneasy, reconciliation with Viola.
Does Not Love has echoes of many works. Kurt Vonnegut is a ghost who haunts this novel—partially because he is mentioned by name early on, but also because of the seriocomic dark zaniness that pervades the alternate-universe Indianapolis that Adcox has invented. Shades of Don DeLillo are also present, as the drug Robert administers to himself and Viola in an effort to save their marriage calls to mind various mystery drugs in novels like White Noise and Great Jones Street. Similarly, the novel’s focus on pharmaceuticals also calls to mind “Escape from Spider Head” by George Saunders, whose deadpan delivery appears to have had a profound influence on the tone of Does Not Love.
More than anything, however, Does Not Love owes a debt to Franz Kafka. The secret laws and secret courts that Adcox has dreamt up would feel right at home in Kafka’s The Trial, as would the emptiness and pointless complexity of those entities. The only difference here is that Adcox allows his agents of pointless complexity to reflect upon what they have wrought in ways that Kafka does not, as when a judge opines that his lifelong involvement in secret laws has had the effect of rendering his life a “kind of structured emptiness.”
Indeed, this sense of structured emptiness—order for the sheer sake of order—is what Adcox ultimately takes to task in Does Not Love. “They’ve got a certain form, and they can make anything fit into it,” Robert says toward the end of the novel. That this epiphany is followed several pages later with Robert’s complaint that he can’t breathe evokes thoughts of Eric Garner, the pointlessness of his death, and the grim reality that the masses are all, in one way or another, being suffocated by those who wish to hold on to whatever illusory power they think they have regardless of consequence or cost.
We live in a culture that does not love, the author declares on nearly every page of his novel—a paranoid culture that overmedicates and sacrifices freedom for security. By delivering this message in a calm, even, and clinical tone, Adcox underscores the seriousness of his message even as he freights it with wry wit and devastating humor. Does Not Love is a novel of its time, and one that has arrived none too soon.
Marc Schuster is the author of The Grievers (Permanent Press, 2012) and The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl (Permanent Press, 2011). He teaches writing and American Literature at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania. Find him online at http://www.marcschuster.com or at @marc_schuster on Twitter.