Low Fidelity: Stephen McCauley on the ‘Myth of Monogamy’
Author: Sean Hetherington
August 16, 2010
Stephen McCauley’s new book, Insignificant Others, explores, with hilarious, dark, and painful honesty, the story of a middle-aged man coming to terms with his partner’s infidelity. But there’s a problem: he’s cheating, too.
Meet Richard, a man who exercises too much, thinks too hard, and is desperate to hide his anxiety about aging. I was immediately attracted to Richard, because he’s put together physically, he’s confident sexually, and he’s really funny. I was equally attracted to his interior designer/unfaithful boyfriend, Conrad, with his perfectly ironed shirts and Italian shower cream. But most compelling in this story is the story of Richard’s straight lover, Benjamin, who manages a gay affair and a family of four.
If you’ve ever worked in a progressive, touchy-feely office, you’ll love the scenes of Richard’s tech firm, where he’s manager of human resources. And then there’s the ladies. Each female character is as awkward as the next. Conrad’s business partner, Doreen, could easily be played by an uptight Molly Shannon. Richard’s coworker Cynthia, and his assistant, Anne (a Christian anti-marriage prude), come together for several hilarious, conspiratorial scenes.
There’s enough detail in McCauley’s work to make you want to read each chapter twice, and a wisdom to Richard that make you feel safe—even when the wisdom isn’t what you want to hear. I talked with Stephen McCauley about his quirky characters and having sex with multiple people (not necessarily at the same time).
Stephen, I think anyone who reads this book will want to know who you identify most with and why. Are you more like Richard, Conrad, or the “straight” Benjamin?
I think it’s the duty of the writer to know more about his characters than they know about themselves––to see behind their defenses. Once you do that, you assume what Richard describes as the “mildly condescending pose of sympathetic, slightly detached listener.” You become a shrink, in other words. So I don’t find myself identifying with any one character in particular, just listening and recording. On the other hand, I did give Richard a lot of my observations about people and my attitudes toward life and relationships. So I suppose he and I are somewhat similar. Naturally, I’d like to think I’m a lot more together than he is, but I’m sure he’d disagree.
Let’s say I find my partner cheating, and we all have I think—how do I know if the person he’s with is insignificant? In other words, when we’re betrayed like Richard and Conrad have each other, how do you know whether or not to get out?
By “get out” I assume you mean kick the other person out, right? When a live-in, long-term partner suddenly seems happy, it’s almost always a bad sign.
Does there come a point when friendship is enough to settle for in a relationship and sex is just a bonus?
At one point in the novel, Richard says: “I’ve never had great faith in the possibility of sustaining sexual heat in an atmosphere of unchecked tenderness; love, it seems to me, is what kills the passion in most relationships.” Like a lot of his pronouncements, this one is supposed to be absurdly over-the-top and yet contain enough truth to be funny. For me, it’s important to have sexual passion in a relationship, whether monogamous or not. So I’d put it this way—at a certain point, sex is enough to settle for and friendship is occasionally a nice bonus.
Does Richard know any normal women?
Do you really want to read about “normal” characters? It’s like a happy marriage—great in real life, but not interesting on the page. I know Doreen starts out as very buttoned up and stiff, but I see her as the only character being 100% honest with herself. And by the end, she’s the one who pushes Richard into a realization about his own behavior that allows him to move forward. There are always a few characters in a book I find easy to write about. The chapters they’re in get written quickly and don’t require a lot of rewriting. She was one in this book. I felt as if I knew her through and through and liked her enormously. Walmi, the not-normal personal trainer, is another such character.
OMG, I loved Walmi. He just needs to find a nice guy, right?
Well, the funny thing is, he probably has found the right guy, even if he’s not an especially nice guy. It’s one of those relationships that is completely incomprehensible from the outside, but, for whatever reasons, seems to work. I predict Walmi and the highly unstable Marco will be together forever.
Richard’s “At Least” list is great, too, in which he comes up with reasons why what he’s doing isn’t so bad, both in his personal and his professional life, to rid himself of guilt. What’s Stephen McCauley’s At least list like?
It’s not War and Peace, but At Least I finished it.
Richard’s line about discovering masturbators in gym steam rooms, that it’s “to sex as chewing gum is to food,” is so funny.
Initially I said it was like a dog scratching at fleas, but it didn’t sound original enough. I think there’s a whole lot of sexual behavior that is so passionless and unspontaneous or compulsive, it falls out of the category of sex altogether.
This book makes a strong case for being single as opposed to being married, whether straight or gay. The committed couples seem to all be hiding a life that was made necessary by their vow of monogomy.
I’m in favor of whatever makes people happy. To tell you the truth, I know about two married men who are probably faithful to their wives. But they’re my brothers, so maybe they’re hiding something from me. I know maybe one gay man in a long-term relationship who is faithful. And it’s not my partner. Or me. I have to conclude that in most cases, people naturally gravitate toward coupledom but not monogamy.
Doesn’t that take away from the intimacy of a committed relationship?
If I hear about people going outside their relationship for sex and they’ve only been together a short while, it sounds like trouble. But if you truly are committed, I don’t think it has to. Although it’s true it sometimes gets complicated.
In my experience, gay men are better at honestly dealing with opening up relationships or acknowledging infidelity without having be a deal-breaker.
Why is that?
There is no socially accepted, codified model for what a perfect gay couple should look like. So we get to make up our own rules, or, these days, wedding vows. I’m not suggesting this always works out–a lot of people make compromises that ultimately make them unhappy. But I do believe it allows for a lot more honest communication between people. It doesn’t guarantee that no one will be jealous and no one’s feelings will get hurt, but it makes it more likely there can be an honest discussion.
In my last book, a character observed that if everyone were having as much sex as they wanted, there’d be less road rage. To which I would add: And fewer Republicans.
So why is sex with multiple partners so important?
Oh, I don’t think it’s important at all in a general way. The ideal seems to be a committed relationship that satisfies all one’s needs. That leaves so much more time for reading, creative pursuits, and watching “Hoarders” on TV. But when people feel unsatisfied and trapped, frustration and anger often get the best of them. And then you get aggressive driving and Rush Limbaugh.