Yona Zeldis McDonough: What is the secret of Howard Rose’s appeal for Judith?
Daphne Merkin: I think Howard appeals to Judith so much because he represents, especially to someone of her relative sexual naivete, the Erotic Principle. With him, or at least so she believes, sex will be transformative and fill all the holes in her life — from her childhood of relative parental neglect to her wish to be fused with someone else instead of a separate person on her own. The close attention he pays to her, despite its overtly negative aspects, is something she has been missing and yearning for since early in her life.
YZM: Judith’s obsession with a man who treats her badly doesn’t seem unique, but instead feels like an all-too-familiar dynamic—agree or disagree?
DM: I do very much agree that Judith’s obsession with a man who treats her badly is a fairly common occurrence, especially in young women who are just beginning their search for a romantic partner. Its ubiquity is precisely why I was interested in writing about the phenomenon; one of the titles I was considering for the novel was BAD TASTE and 30 years ago, when I first started it, the title was THE DISCOVERY OF SEX (which might have made the book sell better but which I decided was too “frontal”). I was particularly intrigued by the notion of writing about a pathologically obsessive relationship that didn’t end in the woman’s death (Anna Karenina) or her being hauled off to a mental hospital (9 1/2 Weeks). In other words: how does one eventually make one’s way out of such a relationship to a possibly less exciting but also less dangerous partnership?
YZM: After allowing herself to be dominated and degraded, Judith decides she’s had enough; what’s the final straw for her?
DM: I think the final straw for Judith is when she realizes the extent of Howard’s very real hostility towards her — that it’s not a peculiar form of foreplay but emanates from a basic misogyny that all the love she proffers and all the sexual connection they have won’t change. When he asks her in the final (or penultimate scene, I can’t recall which exactly) why she isn’t “out on a ledge” somewhere Judith realizes that if she doesn’t get out she will quite possibly end up crazy or dead — that he truly doesn’t care about her or her welfare beyond playing with her for his own pleasure.
YZM: The novel seems to suggest that a powerful erotic connection is incompatible with marriage and domesticity; care to comment?
DM: I have never been persuaded that eros and marriage — at least long-time marriage — fit so well together but I also don’t mean to suggest that all marriages are, by their nature, sexually comatose. I think a sustained erotic life on the part of two people who live together and share a bathroom together and possibly raise children together takes more work than a fling without a future. I decided not to go too heavily into Judith’s marriage with Richard in part to leave the question open of how sexually satisfying the marriage is. Obviously, domestic life presents a whole different picture than erotic obsession but I purposely didn’t want to represent Judith’s marriage as sexually without interest.