The Short Version: Robert and Viola are not-quite-happily married in a bleak alt-universe Indianapolis. Viola wants rough sex, Robert might just be too nice, and shootings of Obadiah Birch scientists happen seemingly every few days. When Viola meets a slimy FBI agent, things take a dark turn.
The Review: What is it, do you figure, that has inspired the young men publishing out of the best indie presses to take on Big Pharma? What is it about drugs – not the illegal ones, but the ones that we can procure ‘legally’ – that fascinates? Is it the ability to alter ourselves, the ability to have our problems ‘fixed’ by modern science?
Does Not Love feels like a cousin to Miles Klee’s Ivyland, which was out a few years back and presented a New Jersey that could very well exist in the same universe as Adcox’s Indianapolis. Big Pharma had renamed much of the state in that book and while nothing is so overtly dystopic here, we do get the sense that the government and the corporations are in cahoots and that the names probably don’t really even matter all that much – names are a distraction. At one point, Robert reads the description of a drug (Milamor) and sees the various names it has been prescribed under, to suit different ailments, and I had a brief moment of mental instability because I’d just read about the Nurofen naming controversy and I wondered if this book and the real world were blurring together in some way.
It’s also difficult to read this book in our present political climate because of the constant threat of gun violence that flits about in the background. The characters here are only tangentially aware of the shootings happening in downtown Indianapolis (even as readers pick up on the fact that there’s clearly more to be known about them) and that they involve pharmaceutical workers at Obadiah Birch. As we become ever more aware of the shootings happening almost daily in this country, I find it increasingly hard to separate realistic depictions of gun violence (as opposed to like a James Bond-esque shootout or something) from our reality – which is by no means the fault of the author, simply a tragic glimpse into how reality can affect the reading of fiction.
All this said, it should also be noted that this subplot, featuring a killer supposedly dressed in firs and goggles, never quite comes together even as it takes center stage towards the end of the book. Adcox spends too much time on the periphery of the plot to give us anything other than swirling confusion once we briefly slide through the eye of that particular hurricane.
Where he’s at his best is attempting to be a modern Kurt Vonnegut. I thought about it from the earliest pages, with the short and easy-going prose (not to mention the short chapters, the longest of which is about 4 pages and several are only a sentence or two), and Adcox makes his intentions clear when he mentions the architecture firm of Vonnegut & Bohn – the real life ancestors of Kurt Jr, who designed many of the great buildings in Indianapolis – before referencing Kurt Jr himself directly. There is a sense of that slightly-angry, slightly-amused tone throughout but it’s especially noticeable in the early going. One of my favorite moments is this delightful two sentence paragraph: “Robert looks up from his work. Robert is a ‘fiscal conservative.'”
I mean, just let that sit for a second. There’s no context, really, for the tidbit about his being a fiscal conservative – it’s just a sudden nugget of information about a character we’re coming to know, no direct bearing on the scene other than to shade in the background… but there’s also the sly wit of the quotation marks around the term. In two sentences, we learn an incredible amount of information, information that colors our understanding of the character for the rest of the novel – and, frankly, I wish Adcox had always knocked it out of the park like that. Unfortunately, there are some whiffs mixed in with the hits. I found that I never moved past the humor with these characters, Robert & Viola especially. I couldn’t ever get fully invested in their relationship because they always seemed at a bit of a distance – as though seen through a lightly medicated haze. Or there would be an incredibly insightful passage about love and partnership but the impact would be lessened by quickly moving on, chapter over, next chapter only a page long, and so on. I never had the chance to settle in – and I think the instability was a detriment to the book’s overall atmosphere.
One final note: this is one of the coolest looking books I’ve picked up in a long time. I first noticed it on the shelf of a friend and kept seeing it at a bookstore before finally giving in: the spine is primarily a drug sticker (for Milamor, the above-referenced drug) with dosage warnings, a picture of the pill, a bar code, etc. It’s tremendously arresting and leads me to have to double-take in order to spot the title and author. It’s smart design – but what else do you expect from a smart press like Curbside Splendor?
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. It’s a short read and Adcox has some of the sly Vonnegutian wit that allows a writer to comment from above on ridiculous human situations – but it never quite comes together. Perhaps this is due to the VERY short chapters, giving a ViewMaster-esque reading experience, or to the author’s desire to focus not on the bigger issues in the world of the novel but instead on the smaller, infinitely unknowable distance that can occur between a man and a women (even when they are in love). I’m intrigued to see where Adcox goes next – because he definitely has a keen eye for a world just sideways from ours.