Meaning and Mystery and Love – By Alissa Wilkinson

Alissa Wilkinson on Andre Dubus III’s Dirty Love

dirty love
Andre Dubus III, Dirty Love, W. W. Norton & Company, 2013, 304 pp., $14.95

Andre Dubus III has made a career of exploring the lives of people on the margins. Immigrants, criminals, and the down-and-out loom large among his characters. His latest story collection, Dirty Love, concentrates on a different kind of marginalized experience: feeling as if one will never experience love as others do as a result of one’s own defects or because love has passed by.

The three short stories and novella that make up Dirty Love are more about people who throw up their own roadblocks to love than people who are at the mercy of circumstances beyond their control, which, of course, is far more tragic. In “Listen Carefully As Our Options Have Changed,” nitpicky control-freak Mark has virtually driven his wife, Laura, into the arms of Frank, and his anger and jealousy slowly drives him mad. In her self-titled story, the dowdy bank teller Marla begins to think she’ll need to settle for less than her ideal man because her inability to take risks and her mediocre looks have kept her from romance while she continues to age. Robert in “The Bartender” settles down with Althea; he’s happy to have found someone fascinating, but he can’t tame his wandering eye and brings ruin on himself. And in the novella “Dirty Love,” seventeen-year-old Devon has already ruined her chances at real love, or so she’s been convinced by her cruel classmates and father. Her kind, elderly uncle takes her in, but he’s full of his own regrets.

The stories slightly overlap — Dubus makes a character briefly appear in another story, or he simply mentions her name in another tale. The effect of this is not so much a Crash-like universe of tightly-woven stories but an interconnected world, one in which every person has his own story of dirty, messed-up love and one in which every person feels alone in her particular dirt. We all assume we’re alone in our weaknesses and failings. Dubus’s characters are no different.

Dubus’s father looms large in any discussion of the son’s work, not the least because of Townie, the memoir in which his father’s own version of Dirty Love is well documented. The elder Dubus — who married and divorced three times, fathered six children, and experienced obsessions and tragedies and depression to spare — contrasts sharply, in many ways, with his son, though they share a name and a profession. The son learned from the father, choosing what he called in 2009 a “stable 20-year marriage” with “three beautiful kids” who live “in a stable, structured life.”

Dubus II was also profoundly Catholic and a daily communicant who found renewed interest in his faith after an accident in 1996 left him confined to a wheelchair. Dubus III is not. In a 2008 interview, the son said he’d “dodged [his father’s] bullet”:

I believe in the divine, but I don’t think I believe in God, if that makes any sense. I believe in mystery, I believe in the sacred, I believe that within all of us is some sort of a light and a loving force that can be very easily darkened, I think. I don’t believe in the notion of good people and bad people. I think that’s one thing I’ve always been writing about … I believe we’re all of the above and I don’t think any reprehensible behavior is beneath me. I don’t think I’m above anything as a human being. However, I pray over my kids every night … I do the sign of the cross, but I’d just as soon do a Jewish prayer or a Muslim prayer or a Buddhist or Hindu meditation. I’m actually troubled by monotheism. But I believe in the divine. And I have a hard time believing that when we’re dead, that’s it. Most days I think there’s something more mysterious that goes on.

This statement is remarkable given the near absence of any sense of mystery or the sacred in Dirty Love. Nobody prays or ponders much beyond the dismal present and regrettable past. In another sense, this mystery is what the book — especially the “Dirty Love” novella — is obsessed with: a spiritual quest. But rather than being about a search for transcendence mediated by traditional avenues of religious experience (prayer, spiritual discipline, and organized religion), Dirty Love shows people looking for meaning in ways that range from the body-driven (sex, food, alcohol) to the wholly virtual (text messaging and websites like Chatroulette).

A spiritual quest is a search to find, as philosopher Charles Taylor put it on “NewsHour” in 2007, “the meaning of life, or what is really good in human life, or how can I make my life better or more pure.” Taylor similarly argues in his book, A Secular Age, that the conditions for the modern person’s spiritual quest are different than they were in the past: whereas organized religion was once the natural place to look, today those borders have been expanded to allow for meaning-making in other places. Religion is no longer simply about the search for something beyond our earthly experience; it’s the search for the divine in the everyday, or the hunt for meaning in immanence. In a world with relaxed social mores and advanced technology, modern people have an unprecedented freedom to look for meaning and mystery all along this spectrum — from heated physical encounters with a near-stranger in a bar to virtual encounters with a total stranger on the Internet.

In Dubus’s novella “Dirty Love,” Dev has always been on a profoundly spiritual quest, but by the time the story catches up with her, that quest has left her profoundly alone. She rarely comes face-to-face with anyone she knows other than her uncle and her co-workers. These people are part of the living situation and job she sought because of trouble at home (fighting parents, angry father) and school (heartbroken ex-boyfriend, bullying classmates).

For Dev, as for Mark and Marla and Robert and many, many other modern people, sex is one place to find this. In physical intimacy with another, people find meaning and validation, at least for a while. This is where Dev’s problems begin: she discovers that sex is a way to find what is good in human life and a way to know that is a person of importance — which for her means acceptance from others and in some sense, love.

Dev’s is an old, familiar story: teenager looks for acceptance by acquiring a reputation for promiscuity. But in “Dirty Love,” it takes on a new shade of tragedy. Once Dev flees the mess she’s made and tries to start over, the only place she can look for love anymore is through the computer screen. When the book’s adults fail to find meaning or validation with one person, they move on to another. Dev — as the book’s only teenager, representative of a new generation’s search — trades the mess of sex and physical intimacy for a disembodied pursuit on the web.

That pursuit relies heavily on a site modeled on Chatroulette. On this site, people log in and turn on their webcams. They randomly connect with a stranger who is also logged in. If the user doesn’t like what she sees, she “nexts” and connects with another stranger. The website was widely criticized for facilitating what was essentially random encounters with live Internet porn and exhibitionists, but Dev is uninterested in any of this. She’s looking for something else.

Eventually Dev finds what she looks for in a sweet, young Texan ex-soldier (at least that’s what he seems to be), who becomes her only lifeline. Whether he saves her, or whether he’s even who he claims to be, isn’t for the reader to know. But after they meet for the first time, he begs for her phone number to avoiding losing her.

And then he texts her — texting being, for Dev, the most intimate form of communication she knows. She also communicates with her ex-boyfriend, whom she loved and hurt, by text. Texting isn’t a random connection to a stranger. It’s purposeful. Texting isn’t like tweeting or posting Facebook statuses, in which one is broadcasting to the void, hoping for response. It also isn’t a random encounter like Chatroulette. Texting — though still facilitated by the screen, and though still entirely divorced from embodiment — is personal, specific, and intimate. Text messages between lovers — like phone calls and emails — are for their eyes alone. (Mark in “Listen Carefully” knows this and hacks into Laura’s email account to find evidence of her affair.) And Dev hopes this intimacy through her telephone’s screen will eventually lead to sharing life with the man who was once a stranger behind a screen. This is how (to use Taylor’s words) she will make her dirty life “better and more pure.”

I could write all day about whether this change in the search for meaning is good for people. (The eminent sociologist Sherry Turkle, for instance, has dedicated her life to this question in her much-discussed books). In the end, however, Dubus isn’t out to prescribe action; he merely describes it in often brutally honest terms. This is the religious search in the modern age. And for Dev, it’s less frightening than the traditional option. Her ex-boyfriend once sent her pictures of deep space from the Hubble telescope “that scared her because it was all just too big and endless and how could there ever be a God for it?” He asks her (via text message): “Do you need a God?” When she admits she thinks she might, he says, “God’s just a big babysitter. Don’t you want to be FREE?”

God, if there is one, is incidental to Dubus’s characters. They’ve seen no interventions, and they’ll have to find meaning themselves in the ways available to them in this disenchanted, disembodied age. To the National Catholic Reporter, Dubus said, “I like what Tom Waits said: ‘There is no devil; there’s just God when he’s drunk.’ … I don’t believe in some big boss up there, and I don’t think I’m going to hell — or heaven — either.”

Dubus, in the meantime, found his own place to search for the sacred and invites us to join him through Dirty Love. “My religion’s the writing process,” he told the NCR. “I have all these rituals and totems around it, and I put myself in a humble position and try to be open.”