If Richard Haddon, the British artist whose marital struggles occupy Courtney Maum’s provocative debut novel, I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, played the board game LIFE, and somehow got to hopscotch over the plastic hills to the best-colored squares without ever spinning the wheel of chance, his real life still would be better. An experimental artist with great aesthetic freedom, married to a beautiful and wealthy French woman with whom he’s conceived a charming little girl, he should want for nothing. He should be endlessly grateful for his life. But perhaps keeping too close to the male cliché of perpetual dissatisfaction, Maum lets her hero stray. His seven-month-long affair with an American woman is at first a titillating secret, an eye-opening jaunt with a brazenly sexual Yankee named Lisa. The disaster that unfolds when Anne-Laure, Richard’s wife, uncovers a pile of Lisa’s scented letters sets up a fairly predictable narrative arc of domestic exile, desperate attempts at redemption (involving travel and a great loss of dignity), and, ultimately, reconciliation. Maum has not reinvented the centuries-old marriage plot that’s the cornerstone of both real and fictional societies. Her novel, though, does explore something new, and perhaps unique to our modern condition: our inability to withstand the quotidian, the mundane, the average.
Says Richard of marriage:
“No one tells you what it’s going to feel like when the mystery is gone, 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 . . . that the familiarity between you has transformed from something comforting into something corrosive. . . . The world is full of choices, each more delightful than the last. . . . We’re polluted. The well of love is black.”
There is a basic truth here that often goes only implied in stories of infidelity and “cheating”—a word whose morally repugnant connotation Richard questions, given that, as he says, “I married my lover, time turned her into my sister.” He takes a rather fatalistic attitude here, one that consumes him throughout the book and renders him a victim of . . . well, nothing, actually, other than his own actions and wayward desires. It’s hard at times to sympathize with this man, who has clearly upended up his own fairytale world. But we do, inevitably, and as a result we take away from the book the notion that exerting one’s own agency is an ends unto itself. If the outcome happens to make one happy, that’s icing on the cake.
The lurking catalyst for this idea is Richard’s art. A graduate of RISD, Richard doesn’t really like to follow rules, but he wound up doing a show of oil paintings—still lifes of rooms seen through keyholes—to appease his largely supportive agent and make some money. To him, they were too literal and flat. But they sold. Only one painting in the exhibit—The Blue Bear—had any real meaning for him: he’d painted it for Anne while she was pregnant, and it became an artistic testament to their love. Of course, this painting goes for the highest sum during the show, and right when Anne discovers Richard’s affair. When he’s sent to London, where Lisa has moved with her new fiancé, to hand-deliver the painting, Richard thinks that fate has not only thrust a knife in his heart but is now twisting it around with wild abandon. (It turns out that a gay couple who follow a pagan Continuist religion are the lucky owners. Richard’s confrontation with them is a moment of subtle comic genius.) His later attempts to retrieve the painting fail, so he seeks a new outlet for his creative energy: an installation called WarWash, which condemns George W. Bush’s war on terror through the running of various American and British artifacts through washing machines loaded with oil. Although the artistic statement feels stale, both in the book and to a present-day reader with twelve years’ worth of distance from the start of the war, it’s important for Richard’s growth. He’s excited by the idea of doing something new and of his own choosing, defying his agent’s practical advice and “traditional” conceptions of art. Likewise in his marriage: Lisa is exciting because with her he chooses, temporarily, to indulge a version of himself that she sees in him, but that’s not ultimately real; instead. After time away from her, he admits “it’s starting to feel like she’s someone I invented. If it weren’t for the fact that I could still conjure up the textures and urgency of our lovemaking, I’d think she didn’t exist.”
“Conjure”: an interesting verb for Richard’s vocabulary. It carries a sense of magic but also passivity, a degree of faith that whatever we conjure will be as we imagine it. Anne is, of course, the woman that many men would conjure for themselves if they could. Her portrayal in the book is slightly diminishing, for her powers of conjuring are clearly greater than Richard’s: a high-powered lawyer, fierce lover, and attentive mother and wife, she holds the reins of their relationship the whole time. One shouldn’t jump to the conclusion, though, that Richard is “whipped.” Anne’s gentle patience with Richard lets us see that he’s perhaps something more than the sum of his mistakes, and because of this she’s more of a heroine in the book than he is a hero.
Maum nonetheless has a gift for mapping the emotional and psychological terrain of a man, much like Maggie Shipstead did in her debut Seating Arrangements. And like Shipstead, she crafts her sentences in a way that catches the reader off-guard: for every note of chick-lit melodrama there are full measures played in darker, daringly honest, minor keys. I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You is an awkward first novel, but if it weren’t it would somehow be disingenuous to its own literary ambitions of embracing the mess of our lives and welcoming it into our homes, calling the mess a work of art.