In the pantheon of human interactions, there are few questions as fraught with peril and treachery as “Do you love me?” Not simply because of the emotional weight this question – and the various possible responses to it – carries, but because the language inherent in it is so slippery and open to interpretation. So much is contained in those four monosyllabic words that it is not even evident a person answering in the affirmative would be responding to the same question the interlocutor posed. The nature of love is nuanced and multifarious, running the gamut from eros to agapé to philia and beyond; it can be deployed in so many different contexts with so many different implications and referents that it almost embodies what the French deconstructionist Jacques Derrida referred to as language’s infinite play of signification.
It should come as no surprise then that Toronto novelist Marianne Apostolides name-checks Derrida on the first page of I Can’t Get You Out of My Mind, a grandly ambitious, genre-bending examination of the ambiguities and permutations that underlie our experience of love and the ways it affects us. In fact, Derrida is something of a touchstone for Ariadne Samsarelos, the fortyish writer at the bleeding heart of Apostolides’s novel. “‘To make oneself into deceit’: this is the essence of language,” Ariadne reads in a copy of Derrida’s The Beast and the Sovereign. “This might help her understand ‘I love you’: the capacity, of humans, to tell a lie.”
Ariadne has reason to pause over this concept (which, she points out, is actually attributable to Martin Heidegger, not Derrida). She is embroiled in an on-again, off-again affair with Adam, a married man. Their texts and emails back and forth are filled with erotic undercurrents frequently buried beneath critical discussions of art or classical literature (she sends him snippets of poetry by Sappho), while he repeatedly retreats by claiming a desire to repair his relationship with his common-law spouse.
Adam alternately encourages and resists Ariadne’s solicitations (he attempts to dodge his complicity in one email by admitting to “selfishness and limited self-knowledge”). Ariadne, meanwhile, struggles to understand why her desire for him remains so strong in the face of his repeated rejections. She is working on a manuscript that examines this question in the context of a personal inventory of her erotic history; to support herself during the writing, she has entered into a contract with a university to participate in a behavioural study that involves living for a year with an AI named Dirk that will monitor her and interact with her round the clock.
Clearly, Apostolides is operating on several different levels here: her narrative is fractured and told out of linear chronology; it is replete with references to philosophy, classical literature, and criticism; and the elements that involve the presence of Dirk traffic in tropes from speculative fiction. Added to this is the fact that the novel originated as a memoir (and retains sections cast in the first person from Ariadne’s perspective); in her acknowledgements, Apostolides states that the “vast majority” of texts and emails Ariadne receives are taken from messages written by others (and used with permission), further blurring the generic line.
Even without knowing this background, the rawness of the emotion in the novel results in a kind of voyeuristic quality for the reader: Ariadne’s vulnerability and sexual confusion is presented so forthrightly (notwithstanding the multiple detours into Shakespeare and Jacques Lacan and Hannah Arendt), it is as if she is being splayed out on the page for the reader to examine. The effect is discomfiting, though this is mitigated by Apostolides’s abiding intelligence and humour.
The latter is embedded most obviously in the two men who do not represent sexual entanglements for Ariadne: her brother, Fotios, and her son, Theo. It would be wrong to suggest these two characters function merely as comic relief; their sarcasm and asides also serve to deepen the thematic murmurs and resonances that run throughout the novel. When Ariadne tries to engage Theo in a discursive examination of the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, for example, he responds with a typical teenager’s insouciance to the subject of familial and godly love: “The Bible doesn’t say what happened next. Like, how did that go? ‘Hey, Isaac. Really sorry I tied you up just now and, like, almost chopped off your head. That would’ve sucked.’”
I Can’t Get You Out of My Mind is sprawling and protean and erudite; it is perhaps unsurprising that not everything works equally well. A meditation on the nature of consciousness as applied to Dirk is intriguing – when the system malfunctions, Ariadne is convinced she has “killed” him – though notions of technology’s incursion on our privacy and personal data are underdeveloped and a final sequence at a tech conference feels anticlimactic.
But none of this detracts from the potency contained in the novel’s examination of middle-aged female desire. A densely philosophical, highly allusive writer, Apostolides proves unafraid to inhabit zones of contradiction and uncertainty, or to plumb the depths of the subconscious where, as Freud suggests, the need for love and the need for punishment coexist. “In your ecstasy, Adam, your cry contains such anguish,” Ariadne writes. The same is true of this provocative, stimulating novel.