“IT WAS OVER. I WAS ALIVE.” — A Review of Hating Olivia: A Love Story by Mark SaFranko

[I was lucky enough to receive an ARC of Hating Olivia: A Love Story by Mark SaFranko, who may be one of the best and most prolific writers you haven’t yet heard of. Hating Olivia, which will be released soon in the US by Harper Perennial, his largest and most notable publisher yet, is a kind of “big break” for him, and will hopefully lead to some positive attention and a broader readership.]

[Mild Spoilers Ahead]

Hating Olivia is told in the aged voice of Max Zajack. He spends the course of the novel looking back at the four years of life he shared with Olivia Aphrodite Tanga. Their story illustrates the cyclical nature of emotionally-abusive relationships, and the fear that underlies love (or simply lust) shared between two people too afraid to accept responsibility for their actions and inactions.

Max narrates of their sexually-charged relationship’s humble beginnings, complete with half-grins and “How about a drink?”s. From there we learn of the new couple’s many hirings and firings in the 1970s job market, from a nine-to-fiver at a mega-corporation, to a mildly successful makeshift astrology gig which saw Max reading housewives’s birth charts, to waiting tables. The couple’s infrequent flow of cash influenced moods of intemperance and volatility. Sex — forever the backbone of their relationship — was, maybe tellingly, the lone remedy to their largely unhealthy, parasitic partnership.

For most of the book, I wondered why and how Max and Olivia managed to remain together as long as they did. (The book’s epilogue, specifically, focuses in on this question, which it answers, wonderfully, obliquely.) There are countless scenes of Max and Livy berating each other, over things trivial (Max’s failure to defend Olivia while she failed to return a dress at Macy’s, for example) and significant (usually matters related to an insufficiency of funds). Olivia incessantly complains that Max just “doesn’t understand” her, and he probably doesn’t.

What made them such a curious couple, to me, was how each had such a strong independent personality. In the beginning of their courtship (a word probably too formal and pure to describe Max and Livy’s arrangement), they bond over their shared love for reading and writing. These commonalities lose their importance soon enough; only Max continues, for the most part hopelessly, to write his novel, The Old Cossack. To appreciate reading and writing, wholly solitary activities, one has to admit to an appreciation for solitude. Max notes several times that he’s happiest alone, at his desk pumping out pages or walking by himself down his suburban sidewalk. Olivia reveals her fierce independence in other ways, most strongly through her stubbornness.

A healthy relationship isn’t one of complete dependance, but a certain amount of giving and a certain amount of taking is essential. What I saw in Hating Olivia were two people who saw the world — and so each other — as something to be taken for themselves and themselves only, something that was owed them and something that they each, really, owed nothing to. But of course, as the elder Max isn’t afraid to admit repeatedly throughout the course of his narrative, “the world is against” you, always.

I think Max and Olivia’s staying power probably has something to do with the nagging suspicion that the powerful love that launched them into each other’s worlds at the start of their relationship would someday worm its way back to the fore. There’s also a case to be made for each character’s personal insecurities, grounded historically in a supposedly abusive upbringing in Olivia’s case, and their fears for a passionless future. It was interesting to watch them laconically toss away job opportunities, sometimes quitting outright, which would have rather obviously played a more vital part in their lives than the abusive role they played in one another’s. Their priorities and prejudices betrayed the type of immaturity that can only be suppressed by overcoming — however mildly — the failures that the natural, corporate, or artistic worlds will shove in your face, when you take an unsophisticated attitude towards them.

Before starting his short-lived horoscope business, Max studied the “secrets of metaphysical wisdom” at the library, attempting to gauge a full understanding of astrology:

I failed, it goes without saying. No one in this life can grasp what’s written in the Great Beyond — if there is such a place. At the heart of existence on earth — a cause and effect that itself is completely unknowable — is a mystery. It is mystery within riddle within enigma that governs all things, from the smallest grain of sand to the beauty of the flower, from the relations between yin and yang to the ultimate darkness at the outer reaches of the universe.

To add to Max’s list, I’d offer the mystery of personal relationships; why people stay together, why they split apart. You can point to actions, to words said or slurred, promises made and broken, but there’s always going to be an element of the unknowable in our (often addictive) human interactions, and their endings.

I loved Hating Olivia, despite its sometimes glaring flaws — redundant fight sequences, overused ellipses (possibly used in homage to Céline), and too-frequent generalizations about the world (sentences that begin with something like, “The thing about life is…,” etc.). It covered a lot of terrain: love, lust, addiction, defeatism, manhood, the artistic temperament, and the conflict between wanting to be a spectator (reader) and wanting to create (write). Its characters, in spite of their bad decisions — or maybe because of them — are always compelling enough to keep you reading (though Olivia will test your patience after a couple hundred pages), and hoping that they’ll find ways to crawl out of the holes they’ve dug for themselves. Also, SaFranko’s writing is frequently really damned good.

The novel’s ending, to me, was one of supreme hopefulness, suggestive that it’s possible to transfer a fatalistic love for another human being into a love for the world you’ve been left with. With that profound acceptance, your capabilities stretch out endlessly before you. Realizing that survival is a kind of victory, and that it’s possible to find a healthy medium between an attitude of cynical determinism and one of sincere appreciation for all that life has to offer (“I couldn’t believe how much in love I was,” Max writes of the world in the final pages), you may even find something you’ve spent much of your adult life looking for, like the will to write your great novel, which is what Hating Olivia is.

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