Monday, March 1, 2010

"The Random Noise of Love"

"The Random Noise of Love" is the first short story in John D MacDonald's second anthology S*E*V*E*N, published as a paperback original in May 1971. The piece was one of three written especially for the book and had never seen publication before; the remaining four had been published previously in Playboy from 1967 to 1970. "The Random Noise of Love" was also intended as the original title of the anthology.

S*E*V*E*N is a curious collection. It appeared in 1971 with no fanfare and was reviewed in only a handful of newspapers. Clarence Petersen in the Chicago Tribune, who had replaced Anthony Boucher as JDM's primary critical promoter, wrote a few brief sentences about it in his syndicated "Paperbacks" column. Publisher's Weekly mentioned it favorably, and the Los Angeles Examiner gave it a sentence, quoting the blurb on the paperback's front cover. Amazingly it was completely ignored by the New York Times, which had previously been the only place one could reliably find a review of a MacDonald paperback original. Fawcett provided no advertising support that I have been able to uncover. The collection had no Introduction, no Preface or Afterward, contained no epigraph or even a dedication. The reader could be forgiven for justifiably believing that S*E*V*E*N had been something thrown together between Travis McGee releases in order to keep the fans happy. The only things that seemed to link the seven tales was the author's use of multiple perspective, an unreliable narrator, and the adult nature of most of the stories.

But that is a mistaken notion, at least if one is to believe MacDonald himself. There has been surprisingly little written about this collection, by either book critics or the author himself, but MacDonald did go into a bit of detail in a 1970 letter to his friend Dan Rowan. He revealed that he spent much of the first half of 1970 putting the collection together, the same time period he had written The Long Lavender Look, and that the collection had been submitted to Fawcett in July, nearly a full year before it was eventually published. That would lead one to believe that there were problems between author and publisher, but again, there isn't much written about S*E*V*E*N. Here's what MacDonald wrote to Rowan, explaining why it had been so long between letters:

"I got strung out something fierce on combining a batch of related short things into a novelistic structure without it being one of those things where the seams and joints show, and without it sounding as if I had hauled folk in from far left field to join the party... I just sort of went underground because it took all available concentration to keep everything consistently sorted out in my mind. I think friend Dordo [JDM's wife Dorothy] thought I'd gone flippy. But it is now on its way up to DogTurd City [NYC]. It is the kind of thing where I do not really care now whether they want this kind of blend or not. I have learned lots about this trade by doing it in a very intensive way."

So, I guess one of these days I'll have to sit down and read S*E*V*E*N from cover to cover. Until then, I'll talk about the stories individually.

"The Random Noise of Love" is a story about sexual obsession, a subject that was near and dear to MacDonald's heart. From Cancel All Our Vows in 1953 through Contrary Pleasure, The Deceivers, and culminating with 1958's Clemmie, it was a condition that both fascinated and repelled him. And while MacDonald could occasionally be accused of wallowing too long in the minutia of sexual detail, he was always careful to spend an equal amount of time on the damage obsession caused -- indeed, Clemmie reads like a grand tragedy, one that seems to go on forever. "The Random Noise of Love" covers much the same ground, but is made interesting by its use of perspective. The story is told in the first person, from the point of view of Martin Harris, a 40-year old bookkeeper who is having an affair with a 22-year old cafeteria cashier named Andrea. Martin's narrative is interspersed with long passages of dialogue from some secondary characters, including his wife Gladys, an unnamed co-worker, and Martin's very unhappy boss. Martin's passages are long, detailed descriptions of all the small events of his life while undertaking the affair and they propel the story, while the dialogue of the secondary characters provide the only outside perspective the reader is given. Martin's internal monologues nicely exhibit the particular kind of tunnel vision obsession wreaks, and provide the only real understanding we have of his motivation.

It takes a few pages for the reader to get one's bearings. The story opens with an extended monologue from a character we later learn is Martin's wife Gladys -- Glad, for short -- where she is describing to friends an amusing bit of Martin's recent absentmindedness. On the way out the door to have dinner with these friends, Glad tells Martin to go upstairs and change his dirty tie. After waiting many minutes for him to come back downstairs, she goes up to find him sitting on the bed in his underwear. His mind is so completely elsewhere that the act of taking off his tie has led him to undress for bed.

Martin's job -- one he has been doing for 19 years -- consists of him traveling around the city doing the books for a variety of clients. He visits several every day and returns about once a week. His work has always been careful, neat and on time. At the end of each day he has to return to the office to submit his "numbers" to the staff. One day while calling on one of his clients he spots Andrea, a young blonde working the cash register. Something happens as they stare silently at each other, and he leaves confused. He returns the next day and... well, then things happen very quickly. Martin arranges his calls to be completed quickly every day so he can get over to Andrea's apartment in the afternoon and enjoy some quality time with her before returning to the office to submit his work.

Martin is in sexual heaven and thinks of nothing but Andrea and his afternoons together with her. His obsession is revealed in his preoccupation with the small details of his lover:

"Martin and Andrea. Andrea and Martin, making their magic thing. A little padded, secretive creak of bed and bedding. A small gritty sound of strands of her long blond hair caught between her cheekbone and the edge of my jaw as I rubbed my face across hers seeking her mouth. Bump of hearts. A humming of my blood in my ears, as when you listen to a seashell. A tiny husky whispery sound of the caress of her hands on my back... she looked into my eyes and whispered, 'I love you so much. So much. So much.'"

Andrea's roommate has moved out and she needs help with the rent. Martin is only too happy to oblige. On top of that $65 a week he gives her ten dollars here, twenty dollars there, then buys her a grand make-up mirror with lighting to celebrate their two month "anniversary." Everything seems fine from Martin's perspective, but the interspersed monologues of the others reveal a man with an obvious problem. His nagging wife begins to suspect something is up, his daughter never sees him anymore, and eventually we see just how bad things have become when his boss calls him in for a dressing-down, telling him that his work has deteriorated, his manner has become withdrawn and his mysterious lapses of time a crime against the company. He is told that one more mistake will get him fired. But for Martin, it all comes down to a simple-yet-unanswerable question:

"Why should everything that means anything in all the world narrow down to a hundred and ten pounds of bare girl, to the blindness that lasts ten seconds when she spasms and gasps and leaps?"

When Andrea has a family crisis back home that requires her to raise $2,500 or leave town, Martin wants to help but can't. Then, that one mistake gets made...

Things then go from bad to worse in "The Random Noise of Love," which could have been called "The Random Noise of Obsession," for the "noise" MacDonald refers to and describes are the intimately-remembered details of everything Andrea, the kind of singular focus on another person that is endearing in young people but which becomes sad and even pathetic in an older lover, especially when the object of his lust is a girl barely older than his daughter. And Andrea, who we see through Martin's eyes as adorable, compliant perfection in the beginning, becomes someone different as things turn south. Again, it's all perspective, as we see the through the eyes of an obsessed and foolish protagonist. It's very similar to the unreliability of Aldo Bellinger's narration in "Woodchuck," and, to a lesser extent, the epistolary point-of-view in "Dear Old Friend.

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