I am pretty ambivalent about this novel, the tale of a young man’s descent into the basest expressions of his sexuality, Eve manifested in a dark-haired beauty who fulfills his every fantasy and then some. The early days are ripe with passion and the heat of attraction, but after a while, since both have quit their jobs in pursuit of a bohemian lifestyle, the money runs out. By then Max Zajack has moved in with Olivia Aphrodite Tanga, the couple engaged in twenty-four hour orgies of sexual abandon until a stack of unpaid bills and the threat of eviction send them scurrying into the world in search of jobs.
The pattern is formed early: one or the other employed in a low-paying job, the gradual building of resentments, Max’s dogged determination to write a novel and Olivia’s entrenched sabotage of his efforts. While the sex remains explosive, the one addictive element that binds these two together, every other aspect of the relationship is rife with maladjustment. Predictably the fights begin, out-of-control rages during which Olivia destroys everything at hand, intense periods of making up, only to begin all over again. The writing is on the wall, but these lovers might as well be illiterate for all the attention they pay to anything besides their immediate appetites: “All of our lives were a matter of until, and until never came.”
Questioning his own sanity at times - as well he should - Max engages in a folie a deux, the two mirroring one another’s emotional imbalance and self-destructive tendencies, their dramas usually fueled by alcohol and/or drugs. Soon enough, the verbal abuse accelerates into physical violence, blows landed indiscriminately by Max or Olivia, whoever lands the first angry strike. While Max scribbles his first novel, he accepts a mind-numbing string of low-paying jobs. Olivia likewise hops from one place of employment to another, usually sleeping with some attractive male, or boss, before she either quits or gets fired.
Written as noir fiction/memoir, such tales of self-flagellation and redemption have long attracted readers, authors willing to plumb life experiences for their work (think Jerry Stahl’s Permanent Midnight). But there is a fine line between a reader’s curiosity and his complicity in the protagonist’s self-destruction. Long before the end of this story, Olivia grows stale, with her inevitable tantrums and reliance on sex to ameliorate a meaningless existence, her increasing abuse of Max immobilizing her once sexually-obsessed partner. Ironically, it is the necessity to earn money that saves these two sex addicts from one another, Olivia predictably finding deliverance in the arms of a new, albeit temporary, lover.
Some writers do this despair and self-abuse genre really well - Dan Fanta (86’d: A Novel; Chump Change) and Tony O’Neill (Sick City; Digging the Vein), for instance. Originally published fifteen years ago to European acclaim, Hating Olivia is a prototype for suffering as a vehicle to artistic expression. There’s a certain twisted charm to this type of writing, the juxtaposition of love (“the sheer misery of her beauty”) and self-abuse. But this is definitely a boy’s club, worshipping at the altar of sexual acrobatics and sharing the sheer insanity of their obsession with annihilation in one form or another. Women are no slackers in this area: they just do it with less bravado. We get it. The female is deadly, the male escapes in the nick of time, sexual fantasies intact. One thing, though: subtitled “A Love Story,” this tale was never about love at all.