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[328] Insignificant Others – Stephen McCauley

” When I learned that Conrad, my partner of eight years, was seeing someone on the side, I wasn’t completely surprised. A couple of years earlier, I’d noticed that the word ‘monogamy’ had fallen out of our vocabulary, and I assumed he had as many reasons for no longer using it as I did. Even though it’s usually not acknowledged, at a certain point in most relationships discretion supplants fidelity as a guiding virtue. ” [1]

The powerfully revelatory opening lines grasp me as if an electric shock has taken hold. This book just resonates on a personal level. Richard Rossi, a man in his early fifties, is a psychologist who looks after staff’s mental well-being in a software company in Boston. Whatever acumen of insights that allow him to succeed at work doesn’t help negotiate the severe undercurrent in his relationship with Conrad, his partner of eight years. When Conrad starts spending a suspicious amount of time in Ohio with this insignificant other, who has become more than just a fling, Richard seriously feels betrayed. But the sympathy for Richard elicited out of this affair quickly turns into a gloat over retribution of his own hypocrisy. Richard has been in an affair with Benjamin, a married, closeted architect who lives a life of lies. Ambiguity of emotions and constant fear of being exposed bring so much confusion and strain to Ben’s personal life, which Richard feels responsible to mitigate. He justifies his betrayal of Conrad with such assertion:

In the three years I’d known Benjamin, I’d come to think of him as my husband. He was, after all, a husband, and in some way that was heartfelt but also, I realize, entirely ridiculous, I saw it as my responsibility to protect his marriage from a barrage of outside threats and bad influences. It was the only way I could justify sleeping with him, and it wasn’t an easy job. [9]

So Richard doesn’t see his sleeping with Benjamin a betrayal. Why does arranging to see someone on the side matter, if Richard and Conrad have an unspoken agreement and tacit understanding about being open? The answer hinges on how significant the insignificant other is. An open relationship works only if this insignificant other remains a minor distraction, emotionally unattached, and will fade out of the picture soon enough. But this is neither the case for Richard and Conrad, who are involved with their respective IO in the earnest. However threatened Richard feels about Conrad’s intimate liaison to Clarke, he cannot deny his own feelings for Benjamin.

At least we’re not in love. I might be in love with him, but at least I’ve never told him how I feel. [212]

If I never told you how I really feel about you, it’s only because I didn’t want to hurt your feelings, I didn’t want to worry you and upset you. But if we’re ending this, it doesn’t matter anymore. I might as well get it off my chest, like you said. I think about you all the time. I have since five minutes after we met . . . and I’m sorry if this is a big betrayal, but I love you. [213]

The case that Insignificant Others makes (for open relationship) is grim but sadly, true. A mature and sophisticated relationship that it claims to be, at least in Richard’s shoe, is no more than a refuge to which he escapes because he doesn’t know what he really wants. The human finical nature that makes the casual tango of an open relationship possible also backfires it, as no strings-attached fling becomes that forbidden word called love. Or is a relationship, even a committed one, really a tango in which the partners do not need to hold on tightly, but have room to wander, as long as they are partners moving to the same rhythm and creating a pattern together that is nourished invisibly? This novel is a haunting social satire about how we throw our energy in the wrong direction, onto the distractions, onto the pursuits that are insignificant, instead of into the main event of our lives. Ironically, how do we know what is significant? The lack of self-knowledge and cowardice often provoke us to ignore what is significant. That is why discretion becomes acceptable standard of fidelity.

243 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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9 Responses

  1. I’ve often thought of trying one of his novels, but just haven’t gotten there yet…sounds like this one was particularly satisfying for you.

  2. I remember you suggesting I try something by this author when we were at City Lights bookstore in SF. This sounds like a book filled with difficult and tricky issues, lots of gray areas, which you know I love. Definitely must read something by McCauley.

    • I attended his reading of this book at A Different Light last fall and I have always wanted to read the book. It is very touchy and tricky indeed, not to mention that I have had similar experience this year.

  3. This is a book that would make for some great discussions at my book club. These sort of books that explore the complexities of human relationships always evoke the most emotion and passion with the book club members.

  4. […] [328] Insignificant Others – Stephen McCauley […]

  5. […] [328] Insignificant Others – Stephen McCauley […]

  6. […] when it comes to LGBT/Gay fiction for me. I have enjoyed his other works, including the most recent Insignificant Others and my favorite Alternatives to Sex. He’s funny, pithy, and sarcastic. He’s a keen […]

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