Anatomization of a Marriage

Courtney Maum
I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You
(Touchstone, 2014)

When we first encounter Richard Haddon, the 30-something British artist in Courtney Maum’s debut novel, I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, he has just met with commercial success in Paris, painting rooms with a keyhole view:

Thirteen narrative paintings that depicted rooms I had lived in, or in some way experienced with various women over the course of my life, all of these executed with barely visible brushstrokes in a palette of oil colors that would look good on any wall, in any context, in any country.

More than a painterly conceit, this passive voyeur sensibility is the key to Maum’s protagonist. Married but itchy, indecisive but prone to grandiose actions, Haddon is all angst, struggling with a generic aesthetic and nebulous ideas of how to maintain his marriage.

At the beginning of the novel—set in 2002, on the eve of Bush’s WMD Iraq—Haddon has just been dumped by his American mistress, Lisa, a woman herself so indecisive that she continues sending him love letters despite her own impending nuptials to another man. In short order, Haddon is outed and proves himself a virtuoso screw-up during the fallout. With his marriage at stake, he impulsively sells “The Blue Bear,” a painting he made for his wife, Anne-Laure, when she was pregnant with their daughter. The loss of the painting portends even greater catastrophe, both artistic and domestic, and the novel charts Haddon’s attempts to simultaneously win back his family and shift the course of his career.

Maum has a dangerous quarry in mind: nothing less than the anatomization of marriage. Whether it’s Haddon’s baldly honest attempt to pinpoint the source of marital rot—“Somewhere down the line, it got hard to just be kind”—or his musing on the long-term potential success of monogamy—“If you were to succeed in prolonging the deliriously ecstatic puppy-dog love stage of the first months of courtship through marriage […] would this same love, so celebrated, so sought after, break down in utter incredulity at the duration of its very own existence?”—Maum is beautifully clear-eyed about the ways we fail each other and ourselves.

And Haddon is a fascinating lens through which to view domestic failure. Too smart to be quite so clueless, he sets up a false dichotomy between monotony (his read on monogamy) and infidelity. The narrative, meanwhile, is seeded with clues about his unreliability. We learn that he asked Anne-Laure to marry him after five months, “for the drama of the gesture.” That he didn’t realize that Anne had kept their marriage secret from her parents until 10 days after the wedding. That he wanted Lisa in that dark screening room before he’d even seen her, wanted the idea of her. (No accident in this game that Lisa’s last name is Bishop.) Each character we meet, seen through Haddon’s eyes, reveals more about him.

Haddon, perpetually aware that he has married up—Anne-Laure brings money to their union, and looks, and social standing—sees his wife as a marble statue. We hear more about her clothes, her wide-legged pants and kimono pants and slim pink jeans, about her effortlessly tousled hair, than we do about what she wants. Lisa, too, is never quite real under Richard’s gaze, first an illusion of escape, later a relentless tease.

In some ways, Richard is a hard character to root for. He’s not sorry for the affair—not at first, anyway—just sorry that he was caught. He makes a series of disingenuous bargains with himself, as he continues to see love as winnable via ever-grander schemes. Ultimately, though, Maum has written about a man finally forced to assume responsibility for himself, for his part in the failure of his marriage: “It does die. It does wither. You can’t even walk away from a meal on a table without it losing heat and changing, much less a plant, a pet, a marriage.”

If all this makes the novel sound dour, it’s not. There’s sly humor greasing the tracks. The author delivers a complex Paris, both a wishing well of a place and, for Haddon, a storage vault of someone else’s dreams. Zinging like Lorrie Moore, Maum observes: “This  is Paris, where even the homeless circulate in proper pants.”

In a story this ambitious, not everything works. Maum never quite makes a convincing case for grafting an imploding Iraq to the domestic drama. To use it as metaphor seems a bit too obvious, and we only hear about the historical context when it’s narratively convenient. There are also choices that strain credulity—Richard inexplicably waiting until he arrives in London to find out whether or not it is Lisa who purchased “The Blue Bear,” for example—and over-the-top characters like Dave and Dan who generate laughs but tend toward caricature.

More often, however, the narrative takes satisfyingly unexpected turns, as when an emboldened Anne tells her parents about Richard’s affair. During these moments, we have a sense of just how impossible détente might be. The author also has a keen eye for the character portrait in miniature, from the pathos of Richard falling asleep at his nadir while watching Crocodile Dundee, to his poignant interviews with his parents, who have weathered their own betrayals.

Rarely is a novel this funny quite so dark, but Maum takes that risk with substantial payoff. “No one tells you what it’s going to feel like when the mystery is gone,” she writes. “Or about the roots of repugnance that will twitch and rise inside you when you realize that your spouse has met the actual person behind each name in your phone’s contacts […] No one explains that the busier you become with your careers and house and children, the more time you’ll find to disappoint each other; squirreling away indignities like domestic accountants.”

Courtney Maum’s magic trick is that no matter how black the ink in Haddon’s ledger, this is a novel that remains stubbornly honest and optimistic about love. 

Contributor

Elizabeth Eslami

ElIZABETH ESLAMI is the author of the story collection, Hibernate, for which she was awarded the 2013 Ohio State University Prize in Short Fiction, and the novel Bone Worship (Pegasus, 2010). She currently teaches in the M.F.A. Program at Manhattanville College.

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