December 23, 2014
James Tadd Adcox: What has fascinated me about the domestic novel, and novels in general, is this argument that the novel traditionally has been structured by marriage. The form of the novel has been based on the institution of marriage. Marriage is this massive irreversible decision that change dramatically the rest of your life. Once you’re in it you can’t get out of it. The taboo against adultery is like a horror. What can the novel be now that we don’t have the taboo of adultery and divorce exists? I was writing a novel beyond any constraints of marriage. You get to know someone so well you can’t just go away from them. It’s a novel less about marriage and more about co-dependency. The dramatic tension is that they are sort of not good at imagining life without each other. Can they sort of give up on the history that has preceded their divorce? These are two characters who know each other well enough to hurt each other like no one else could. If you want a modern definition of marriage, that’s it, two people that know each other so intimately that, whether or not they do, they can hurt each other far worse than anyone else could. That retains an amount of novelistic interest. The fact of marriage is shorthand for that.
BT: Marriage is one institution you talk about in the book. FBI is an institution. Big Pharma is an institution. Did you see a need to make a connection between institutions to make a larger commentary on institutions or did these institutions work for the story?
JTA: The story is interested in forms of control. If you were to define what is an institution, it is a thing that exercises a sphere of control. An institution is a solidification of control. These various institutions, the points of connection between them is control. The way marriage exercises control over the people in it. The way the state exercises control over the people in it. The way pharmaceutical companies, the way late stage capitalism exercises control. I think I specifically talk about pharmaceutical companies because the story takes place in Indianapolis, you can’t not talk about pharmaceutical companies if you talk about Indianapolis. I don’t think what I’m interested in is particular to the pharmaceutical industry. The things that are bad about the pharmaceutical industry are bad about a lot of corporations. I’m not about to start jumping up and down on a couch talking about how bad pharmaceutical companies are. It’s more to do with the structures than the specific products.
BT: It’s interesting coming today off of the CIA torture report…
JTA: Fuck damn. Can we just write that down? Just fuck damn, as a response to bringing that up. No explanation, just period. Go ahead, sorry.
BT: What I was struck by was that within this exercising of control, especially between the FBI agent and Viola, it is tantamount to how torturers deal, and how the FBI agent later deals with Robert. There seems to be a commentary on torture, but how consciously were you making that commentary?
JTA: Pretty conscious. I was trying at all points to walk a fine line between coercion and desire and trying to muddy that. There are a number of scenes in the book where Viola and the FBI agent are having sex and its consensual masochistic sex, but then those are sort of mirrored later in the books in scenes with the FBI agent and Robert and interrogation where it’s definitely not consensual, but it takes a lot of the same forms. It’s an interesting question about Sadomasochism and desire in general. There is always that question about how much is our consent our own? How much agency do we have over our own desire I guess would be another way of putting it. Which is not to say that the current focus on consent as the bright shining line in sexuality and other things is a bad thing, it’s a good thing, but there is a sort of future question of how much are our desires our own, how much agency do we have over our desire? That’s not by any means a legal point, but it is a thing that is worth asking for each of us. But also, and this is only tangentially connected to the question you asked, but with the torture report having come out, just the number of times I have heard people say, the U.S. engaged in torture and it didn’t even produce any useful information. Can we just stop that entirely? It isn’t a fucking question about production, it’s a question about ethics. I do not care if it produced useful information. There’s no world in which it producing useful information makes it okay. And maybe it’s just because I’m becoming more and more Kantian in my old age, but the ends in this case cannot justify the means under any circumstances.
BT: You’re talking about consent, there is a sort of desire on Viola’s part to feel or experience violence. I read that as she wants to feel anything, but is that how you intended it?
JTA: There’s a moment in the book where another character tries to ascribe to Viola this idea that she was specifically looking for this kind of violent relationship because of the miscarriages she had experienced. Viola at that point very much says that this has nothing to do with that and I think that that’s important that she says that and it’s completely clear in the book. Whatever sadness she’s experiencing, whatever deep sadness she’s experiencing, from this series of miscarriages she’s had, that’s not the cause of what she wants sexually. It’s more like the thing that tears down the thing that stops her from having wanted it, having gone after it before. I think there’s an interesting dynamic between Robert and Viola, where he’s much more the domestic partner. He’s the one that wants the kids. He tends to be the one who’s more like connected to the house as a space. I would almost read it more as the attempt to have children was sort of an attempt on Viola’s part to be more part of Robert’s world, more part of his stability. And once that attempt had failed so terribly, she was kind of left with what she was before. It was like she was attempting stability, attempting domesticity, and she had failed. Her relationship with the FBI agent is more of an acceptance of that failure.
That’s not quite right.
BT: It’s almost like an acceptable failure, like she’s supposed to be doing something else.
JTA: Yeah, I mean there’s a sort of semi-happy ending to the book. It’s not exactly a happy ending.
BT: It’s like they’ve found a common plane.
JTA: I like that way of putting it. It’s like they’ve found a common plane. They found a sort of level point. There’s sort of potential for… sorry, we’re talking way too much about the ending, I’m like giving away the whole book, is that a problem?
It’s almost like in my own interest in there being a beyond for the book. But during the interrogation scene with the FBI agent, the FBI agent says, you want more photographs of your wife, do you want video, do you want transcripts of the calls she places to a women’s health clinic, do you want to hear the audio. And then in the second to last chapter Viola mixes herself something that basically shouldn’t have been an alcoholic drink, but basically a non-alcoholic version of something, and this is probably too subtle to count for anything, but I like the idea as a writer, it’s interesting to me to build some future into the novel. After the end of what constitutes the end of the novel itself, there is this sort of projected future that if anyone ever cared to do, they could sort of figure out what it would be.
BT: It didn’t feel ended to me. Given what preceded it, why would you presume everything is going to be fine after that?
JTA: Well of course, nothing is going to be fine after that. It ends in a moment when everything is fine, but that’s kind of the point of the ending in there. The story is done, that arc is finished, but of course, why would you ever assume everything is going to be fine, even if their relationship was much better than it is?
JAMES TODD ADCOX‘s first book The Map of the System of Human Knowledge was published in 2012 by Tiny Hardcore Press. His work has appeared in TriQuarterly, the Literary Review, PANK, Barrelhouse, and Another Chicago Magazine.