Death of a Ladies' Man by Christiana Spens
3:AM Press, 2013
We’ve seen our share of unlikable narrators, but Christiana Spens’s Adrian, a high-up politician with a taste for sex and money, is something special. Death of a Ladies’ Man, a darkly humorous novella, first serialized on the 3 A.M. Magazine website and then published by its press, follows Adrian and his family members’ lives through the events leading up to and directly after his death. These people, like many of us, have relationship issues and trouble dealing with them. Though not the most dynamic of characters, they are textured enough to keep us interested.
Much like “the easy gleam of that terrible vodka” Lily drinks, the writing has a pleasant sheen to it, with all the ugly undercurrents of human nature running beneath entertaining, often festive scenes. Characters cope by escaping from their troubles into expensively decorated homes, hotels, universities; Adrian, by trying to control and conquer women, and Lily, through booze and denial. The question we’re left with at the end the novella is, would such a self-centered man really kill himself?
The Leonard Cohen song that inspired this account of a narcissistic husband and father may point us in the right direction:
So the great affair is over but whoever would have guessed
It would leave us all so vacant and so deeply unimpressed
It’s like our visit to the moon or to that other star
I guess you go for nothing if you really want to go that far.
The song’s atmosphere is carried further with a poem by Darran Anderson at the novella’s beginning that describes particularly wretched notes of romantic love. One line references the sex symbol Valentino, once regarded as the epitome of romance. “Valentino dies at 31/ and leaves his wife one dollar.” The poem comments on the irony of the violent origins of Valentine’s Day, ending with: “a man having a tattoo of IRA/ altered to the name of his wife./ That is love.” These surrounding paratexts set the tone: flawed love is funny. It’s enjoyable to see the meager offerings some people’s souls emit for those they marry. Adrian’s feelings for his wife and children may amount to a kind of love. They may not. You decide.
The story begins with Adrian’s hanging. “How embarrassing, for a tragedy,” an acquaintance of his says. Adrian either killed himself or was killed by the ladies involved causing a departing sex scandal, tabloid fodder, and a general mess. Who is this man? To learn, we return to the beginning of Adrian and Lily’s relationship. This time it’s Lily who has tried to kill herself, after failing to properly enjoy May Week and consuming excessive Valium. The Lily we see here remains the same for most of the book: “a little relieved at her own incompetence, and a little guilty.” They value each others’ dependency, and both are equally desperate in different ways. The girls following Adrian help him much like a medical team. Adrian and Lily have never found anyone who needed them as much, so they marry. This dynamic continues for much of the novel.
Adrian is unlikable in many ways, and he exerts some measure of control over his own narrative in the ways he articulates and enacts his needs. He believes his wife may be the reason for his unhappiness. He likes that he pays his secretary for menial tasks, and he likes the idea of a secretary (“so inevitably submissive”). When she turns down his pawing, he wonders whether it is because of feminism or nerves.
Some of the stuff Adrian does is truly deplorable. Raping a hotel maid, for one:
Adrian seemed to be enjoying himself. There was a thrill in being so powerful, in stamping out someone else. There was pleasure in defeating one more woman. There was satisfaction in covering her attempts to scream. He didn’t want her to have a voice so she didn’t have a voice. That was what power was….Afterwards he had a drink to celebrate.
Upon brief reflection he feels slightly guilty, but this doesn’t affect him much. Instead, he calls up an escort the next day.
…he took his aggression out on her, and felt better for a little while, but then woke up with a terrible hangover and smears of blood all over his bed. She’d gone, with his money. For a moment he thought it must be a strange job to have – to exist simply to fulfill someone else – but he didn’t think too much about it.
He rarely does.
Despite disliking him, we also are at times rooting for him, even while he’s getting a prostitute and skipping his wife’s birthday. He’s just so unhappy! Maybe we’re sympathetic because we know he’ll be hanged soon enough anyway. Maybe because he seems to know, on some level, that he is a person “people grew to hate, even if they rarely admitted to it.” Maybe because Lily’s fortieth birthday contains,
Forty lilies in forty vases, forty cakes with forty candles, forty kinds of dip and forty bruschetta, forty heart-shaped sandwiches and forty kinds of cupcake.
We’d skip that party too.
Enter Adrian and Lily’s kids, who play out some of the themes in their parents’ marriage: dependency, an inability to deal with troubles, and denial. The son, the drug-dabbling Tom, goes to Oxford and has a relationship of his own. Like his mother, he also tends to avoid things: “everything that wasn’t explicitly said or explained to him, quite happily playing the fool, if it meant extending his games a little longer.” Like his father, he sleeps with lots of women. Yet Tom soon wants more. He starts dating Claire in a relationship that’s not unlike his dad’s marriage:
It’s sometimes easier to love someone when they’re sad, especially if they’re sad about you. They seem more human, less some pretentious ideal.
Rachel, the daughter, goes to Cambridge and “sees Freud in every single relationship.” She studies literature, finding that “Each paper presented a new problem that would inevitably slip into real life.” Rachel copes with a break-up by focusing on politics. “Rather than choose a conventional rebound – a boy, or a drink problem – they became politically active.” She and a group of other girls protest the closing of a women’s ‘refuge’ by shutting themselves into the men’s only club, exploring sexism and its repercussions while her dad continues to exploit women.
Is there a kind of love that the flawed, the narcissistic, the perennial cheaters can give? What about the consistently drunk and delusional? If you want a quick and entertaining dark social satire, then you’ve got it. And at the very least, Death of a Ladies’ Man may have you feeling better about even your most problematic relationships.