I’ve got a confession to make. I’m addicted to House of Cards. I remember being equally addicted to the original 1990’s UK series, but the US Netflix adaptation is, surprisingly, even better than the British original.
Yes, the writing is excellent and the characterizations are superb, but what I most like about House of Cards is that it represents a very realistic but seldom written-about form of relationship.
The relationship between Frank Underwood and his wife, Claire, is a strange one. On the surface it appears to be a marriage of convenience – neither is sexually faithful and there appears to be nothing but a cool sort of companionship of purpose between them – but as the series goes on, we get glimpses into something more complex.
This is a portrait of two people who feed each other’s jouissance. Leaving the moral aspects of their individual actions and aspirations aside, this is love at its most powerful and revolutionary.
In her amazing TED Talk on the secret to desire in long-term relationships, Esther Perel points out that distance is essential to desire. Being able to see your partner from a distance, doing what drives and impassions them, allows you to maintain the stance of an admirer. It allows for the preservation of a certain level of mystery and of uncertainty, which keeps the embers of desire burning hot.
As married characters, Frank and Claire Underwood watch each other pursue their ambitions, execute their nefarious plans, as if they were each secret admirers of the other, aroused by their individual acts of ruthlessness.
When they finally come together, there’s an amazing erotic tension between them. It is never a ‘dutiful’ performance of marital obligation. They come together to give each other a sort of carte blanche absolution for being the reprehensible creatures they are. It’s a bit like watching scorpions mate.
After the never-ending parade of superficially written, poorly characterized and formulaic love-bonds that seem to be the norm in almost all narratives these days, it is refreshing and exciting to see a well-wrought portrait of something that isn’t pabulum.
Another interesting and complex relationship I have stumbled across recently is the novelized version of Macbeth by A.J. Hartley and David Hewson. They’ve done a magnificent job of digging into and expositing the compelling power dynamics between Lord and Lady Macbeth. Again, ambition definitely comes into it, but so does desperation, mania and regret. In this case, although Lady Macbeth is the instigator who gets the transgression ball rolling, there is a clever portrayal of how one hideous act leads inevitably to another, and there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle.
So many modern fictional romantic narratives are offered and consumed as models to aspire to, especially in erotic fiction. In this I see a tragic loss of the potential of fiction to examine the places we should never go in real life. This current need to make all kinky scenes safe, sane and consensual; this obligation to never represent negative, abusive relationships without clearly condemning them within the fiction, places all our fictions within the genre of YA or as thinly disguised self-help paperbacks.
It is as if we have decided that adults have no capacity to distinguish between fiction and reality and must be guided in their fictional adventures by an overbearing, authoritarian hand whose job it is to constantly nudge the reader towards a post-modern sort of ‘right thinking’.
This might be tolerable if most contemporary fictional love relationships were represented with any realism and complexity, but they’re not. Consequently, we are encouraged to judge our own relationships in the light of those that are not only fictional, but ones that aren’t realistic and revel in their own formulaic qualities.
In her book, Hard-Core Romance: Fifty Shades of Grey, Best-Sellers and Society, Eva Illouz breaks down the phenomena of the erotic novel as self-help guide:
“some narratives are not only symbolic rehearsals of social dilemmas and of the solution to these dilemmas: they are also performative structures offering ways of acting and doing.”
To me, this is the anathema of contemporary erotic fiction. It is a closing off of the possibilities of using fiction as a refuge from the rules of social reality. Instead, it has become a place where we are schooled, counseled and given exemplars of how to ‘do it right.’