Overexposed Polyamorous Photographer
What’s the connection between a bust of the Roman philosopher Marcus Aurelius and a used condom draped over a grimy work boot? This unlikely pairing in Peter Gelfan’s Found Objects frames the vexed relationship between reason and sexual desire at the heart of the novel.
Aldo Zoria is a professional photographer who creates edgy shots for trendy advertisers, such as used-condom compositions meant to fly in the face of bourgeois convention. He also enjoys challenging the status quo through his domestic partnerships, which at the novel’s opening include his wife Erica and their live-in lover Marie.
Aldo keeps a bust of Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius on his porch as a reminder that reason—not emotion—should reign supreme. And polyamorous relationships just make more sense than monogamous ones. Quod erat demonstrandum. Aldo’s favorite pastime is picking holes in arguments commonly used to advocate traditional monogamous relationships.
At first, the ménage à trois is a mutually satisfying arrangement: Marie’s personality complements Aldo’s and Erica’s, and her presence makes bedtime decidedly more exciting. But the idyll is threatened when Jonah, Marie’s estranged husband, shows up. Aldo must face the proposition that the only way to hold on to Erica and Marie is to invite Jonah into his house, and maybe even his bedroom.
Sound titillating? It is, and it’s meant to be. The novel doesn’t shy away from the bedroom, and I recall encountering the words “tool size” at least twice. But Found Objects wants to be so much more than an appeal to its readers’ voyeuristic appetites.
It succeeds in part. The book is packed with enough lengthy intellectual conversations about sexuality, gender and race to make us feel like we’ve really earned the occasional group fuck. But the novel’s chief aim is to challenge unexamined assumptions about monogamous relationships that might not hold up under scrutiny. That’s the point of the recurring references to Marcus Aurelius: If we allow ourselves to be guided by reason rather than societal convention, new possibilities emerge for intimate adult relationships.
Found Objects admirably complicates this conviction by introducing the wildcard of emotion: Through the character of Aldo, we see firsthand how polyamorous relationships can force us to confront deep insecurities from which monogamous relationships frequently shelter us.
But the novel’s attempt at nuance doesn’t fully compensate for some of its flaws. While thought-provoking, the frequent intellectual discussions sometimes made me feel like I was auditing a gender theory course rather than immersed in a compelling story.
It’s also disappointing that the novel often only presents issues through the male gaze. Erica and Marie are minor players compared to the much greater attention paid to the adversarial relationship between Jonah and Aldo. This is ironic because Erica is a successful writer who specializes in gender politics. But unfortunately she’s mostly just a mouthpiece for these ideas—we’re never shown her internal struggles and insecurities as we are in the case of Aldo and Jonah.
While these shortcomings don’t sink the novel, they leave plenty of room for other writers wishing to chart the terrain of contemporary polyamorous relationships.
Christopher Guider holds a Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature and has published numerous articles on the relationship between memory, place and photography in twentieth-century works of literature.