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[491] The Object of My Affection – Stephen McCauley

” Maybe I love you because I know I can’t have you. But maybe I just love you. ” (Ch.26, p.306)

This is a classic romance comedy that is McCauley’s forte. Like his other works, The Object of My Affection is largely about relationships and the family in the context of the changing parameters of gay-straight relations. Toward the end of a calamitously imperfect relationship, George, a kindergarten teacher, was kicked out by his selfish, philandering lover, Robert, George found himself at the door of Nina, a feminist who is working for her dissertation in psychology. George and Nina seem a perfect couple. They share a cozy but terminally cluttered Brooklyn apartment; they go to dancing lesson together—they love each other. The only hitch is that George is gay. Moving in with Nina is the perfect arrangement for lovelorn George, but he would never expect a more complicated relationship in store for him.

Of course, she was right: a love affair can be wonderful but a courtship is far more enduring. And our courtship endured, right through the love affair, until Nina became pregnant and raised the stakes somehow, tipped the delicate balance of our relationship. (Ch.5, p.74)

Nina is pregnant but she has no intent to marry her overbearing boyfriend. She instead finds in George, who is still reeling from the wound of his breakup, a perfect companionship in which they become best friends and make plan to raise the child. Their similar experiences—both have led lives that are shallowly rooted and marred by relationship woe have laid a solid foundation for this platonic courtship. In a sense they both try to evade further relationship mishap and find comfort and refuge in one another. Nina’s pregnancy prompts George into second thought about whether he will be a surrogate father. The arrangement seems compatible until he meets someone that George thinks would be the last person he goes on dates with.

Betraying her. And why? I’ll tell you: because you have taken on an obligation you’re not willing to admit to. (Ch.20, p. 224)

Richly nuanced with quirky humor and sarcasm, The Object of My Affection explores the meaning of relationship and interpersonal dynamics of a society that seems oppressive to both homosexual and heterosexual. Both George and Nina share a determination not to repeat the truly stunning mistakes of their parents, but, confounded as they are by the twin shipwrecks of the past and the present, it seems impossible. Throughout the novel, they grimly observe the foibles of society around them but feel hopeless to implement changes. Their desperate search for love (and safety) leads to the reinvention of courtly love. This book leaves me in contemplation of what the best approach to relationship might be. They neither find meaning nor a safe harbor, but happiness in a friendship that is a long and unconsummated courtship between two people with no expectations. What seems ideal must remain at a safe distance because all expectations are (probably) doomed to failure. The book really captures the confusion of our lives today: how to to strike a balance between self-interest and commitment, to reconcile principles with emotions.

316 pp. Washington Press. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[490] The Man of the House – Stephen McCauley

” Like a lot of basically unfulfilled people with too much time on their hands, I’d fooled myself into believing that A Perfect Life and I were separated by nothing more substantial than a postage stamp. Maybe there was money in today’s mail, or an offer of a job in…Rome, . . . Or, equally likely, maybe Gordon, my ex, had come to his senses and written to tell me he’d made a mistake in leaving, the very words I’d been waiting to hear from him so I could finally forget about him and move on. ” (8)

This pretty much sums up the novel, which maintains an air of ennui and provides no clear resolution. The reading is like breathing through honey. Clyde is the inert, lovelorn gay man in his mid-thirties who finds his life stalled and unfulfilled. The numerous graduate programs, from humanities to arts, that he dabbled in but never completed earn him the perfect credential to teach at a posh but flaky (amateurish) adult learning center, where rich and well-heeled students bring their marriage problems into discussion of literature works.

Two years have passed since his lover walked out on him. Clyde is still reeling from Gordon’s departure, trying to figure out a way to patch his wounds. Although he’s not so thoroughly deluded that he’s keeping himself for the ex-boyfriend physically, I do sense that he is deluded about feeling unresolved about a relationship that is over for good. Why? I have experienced the same and everyday for two years I have pined for a sign of resolution, in terms of an explanation, if not resurrection. To pin this feeling of unease and refusing to let go McCauley is right on the dot.

In the next hour, Agnes and I picked our way through a minefield of topics that produced only minor invitation when we veered too close to anything real or significant . . . It was probably ridiculous to think that Agnes and I might ever develop a truly open and intimate relationship . . . It was as if all the things we shared, all our common longings, formed a wedge between us instead of drawing us together. (213)

As much as Clyde wants to dodge his family, Agnes, maddeningly insecure and scarred by a failed marriage, bears the news of his irascible father’s being in love. While Clyde tries to confront his father’s mysterious romance, his friend from college, Louise Morris, an eclectic writer, breezes in to his house with her son and a dog in tow. The question of the boy’s paternity nudges Clyde back to the terrain of his own father. As he strikes a friendship with the boy, he also becomes concerned with his roommate, who has spent ten years in his dissertation and too many fizzled relationships.

I’s said it to be polite, because he was taking up an increasing amount of time, but as soon as the words were out of my mouth, I realized they were true. Perhaps that was why some people need children and pets and spouses, to bring order to the chaos of their lives. (128)

I always gravitate to McCauley’s writing because he is a keen observer of relationships and their dynamics. I can always relate to his gay protagonist(s) who is less than perfect, is either wallowed in romantic woes or slightly jaded by the lack of fidelity in the gay dating world. The snippy and self-deprecating Clyde would keep himself in check and he knows his life has fallen short. McCauley’s depiction of Clyde’s intertwining relationships demonstrates his grasp of the bonds that connect the straight and the gay in the maze of life’s daily dealings. That said, the narrator’s sluggishness in the face of these concerns can make readers impatient. McCauley should have tightened up the rope.

287 pp. Washington Square Press. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[371] Alternatives to Sex – Stephen McCauley

” During the scattered periods of my life when I’d been in long-term relationships, I’d been ashamed by adeptness at fidelity, which had made me feel unmanly. I’d used evasive language and innuendo to convey the impression that I was leading a wildly promiscuous life. ” (13)

Set in a “posttraumatic time of uncertainty and anxiety for the whole country,” (5) Alternatives to Sex zooms in on the human nuances of a morally ambiguous America when people, awakened to the sharpened sense that life is indeed short, choose between combating the evil of mankind by putting selfishness aside and doing good, and relinquishing altruism altogether and doing whatever it takes to please themselves.

At the center of this heightened awareness is William Collins, a Boston real estate agent whose sales figures take a huge plunge during a housing market boom due to obsessive-compulsive cleaning binges and a penchant for nightly online cruising for hookups. He decides to practice celibacy to save his career.

My problem was that I’d let an activity become a habit, a habit become a distraction, and a distraction become an obsession. After a while, it had become like eating vast portions of flavorless food at every meal, simply because it’s on the plate or because there’s nothing good on television. Oh, one more bite, you think. Why not? (117)

Lurking in the back of his mind is tender thought of his best friend Edward, whom he’s certainly not in love with, but for whom he has harbored feelings. Three years ago, after being on the wrong side of a long-term relationship, William, jaded, has been using that as an excuse to go out with elaborately inappropriate people. He is protective of his relationship with Edward (platonic, that is), because friendship has a way of enduring while romantic relationships could perish quickly.

What depressed me so profoundly was that they’d constructed a twisted moral code that allowed them to behave horrendously while still believing they were doing good. (225)

Into his life comes Samuel and Charlotte, wealthy and happy suburbanites looking for the perfect city apartment, shortly after his new resolution to be celibate. Soon the outwardly having-it-all-together couple reveals the true colors that, despite their sophisticated lifestyle, they are not above the tedium of marriage squabbles.

At my age, I was living in the cold waters of semireality, trying to swim from one set of delusions to the temporary safe harbor of the next. (73)

Despite an abundance of wry humor, Alternatives to Sex delves into the heart issues that confront everyone: love, monogamy (in the Webster’s sense, not the flushed don’t ask-don’t tell monogamy), and moral boundaries. It is a comedy of manner that tries to answer questions about whether love lasts, as the notion of love has been undermined by compromise on moral standard. Fidelity is trampled on as unmanly. As McCauley navigates readers through the confusing world of complicated human relations, I also see glimpses of myself in them. These people are all in transitions of their lives, career- or relationship-wise. William is witty and perceptive despite his own self-destructiveness. Anxious to be unhappy and hurt again, he opts for no-string-attached escapades with men instead of following his heart feelings. He is slow to come to terms with the real reason for his unhappiness. Consider the few psychological depth of the characters, McCauley are employing them very well to give his commentary on modern culture, where the desire to do good is constantly being tripped up by the need to feel good. The use of real estate as a literary device is also very clever—the way people never sacrifice the hopefulness for a done deal serves both real estate and relationship very well.

289 pp. Trade paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[358] True Enough – Stephen McCauley

” It wasn’t the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but it was true enough to get through the important points across. After all, most people, shrinks indeed, were more comfortable with an edited version of reality and only the most profoundly masochistic individuals look at themselves without a shade over the bulb. ” [9:136]

True love is a blessing, but before one realizes how lucky to have found it, it can also be an embarrassing thing. The novel finds a man and a woman, who are, respectively, modestly well-established in life but at emotional crossroad of their relationships.

Jane Cody is a 40-year-old television producer who seems to be happily married to her second husband, a bland American literature professor at a small suburban college.

Jane had been comforted and warmed by Thomas’s big solid presence. He was everything Dale wasn’t, a large lovable man who lavished attention and tenderness on her, a man who didn’t hold back any of his emotions, a man who seemed to have built for loyalty and fidelity. [5:77]

But there’s an undercurrent. Thomas is the man she so eagerly wants to love, which isn’t necessarily the same as being the man she does love. Jane’s rebound marriage with Thomas loses its zest as her TV show loses its viewers. So she has an affair with her womanizng ex-husband, who is married to her best friend. Feeling the scruple of her double betrayal, Jane confides in with her shrink an edited version of her life, sans affair and fornication.

Sometimes Desmond worried about his own sexual restlessness. In his pre-Russell days, he’d found himself becoming ravenously promiscuous as soon as he started dating someone. Did it mean he was unable to commit to a relationship, incapable of dealing with intimacy… [6:94]

Desmond Sullivan has been living a monogamous cohabitation with Russell, his partner of five years. Stuck in a writer’s block, by accepting a temporary teaching job in Boston, he is hoping to get enough distance from his distracting happiness to finish his overdue biography of an obscure 60s female vocalist. Secretly he is pining for an emotional freedom with which he can lay claim to a larger portion of his own identity.

Love was a strange, exhausting bit of human business. Based on the evidence of literature, torch songs, and the tattered fragments of his own experience, Desmond had come to the conclusion that all the beauty and wonder of the thing was wrapped up in the longing for it and the hurt after its demise. [2:27]

While Jane and Desmond team up to work on a series of TV documentaries, they embark on a journey that, unexpectedly, enlightens them on the bliss of love, domesticity, and commitment. True Enough, with an exquisitely fine-edged satirical tone, is a story about love and lust, trust and betrayal, commitment and denial. Regardless of the sexual orientation, the book dissects the self-centered, shallow social artifice and snobbery of the American middle class, as it exposes Jane and Desmond’s biggest character flaw: they don’t realize how incredibly lucky and blessed they have been. The missing piece in life they have been looking for has always been there—they’re just avoiding it, refusing to sort through the issues that compromise truth and reduces relationship to just a don’t-ask-don’t-tell monogamy. As they find true love, the book really sinks the teeth in society as a whole and wrestles it down: Can we afford unedited truth?

313 pp. Hardback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[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]