Loving polyamory

By Keyvan Allahyari
Debut novel ‘Poly’ normalises masculine anxiety and open relationships

Paul Dalgarno’s debut novel, Poly (Ventura Press), opens with the narrator, Chris, staring at a drawing of a fallow deer – an animal known for its diverse mating behaviours – on his bedroom wall, while anticipating a call from his wife, Sarah, to confirm whether she had had sex at a dress-up party the night before. When his phone rings, he runs for a cigarette and stands attentively outside in the cold, tingling to take it all in – the erotica, the smoke, the fury.

This is, after all, Chris’s idea. Years into a sex-starved but otherwise functional marriage, he is encouraging Sarah to re-explore the terrain with other lovers, with the only proviso – condoms notwithstanding – that she will fill him in on every sultry detail. The couple’s life in Melbourne’s inner north on the verge of their forties barely resembles their early days, when they tangoed around the world as a DJ and a professional dancer. Chris is now an admin officer at the state library, and Sarah works at a myotherapy clinic in Fitzroy.

An open relationship requires extra logistical assistance apropos their two children, both under 10. That is when the twenty-something Zac, the alleged son of a renowned Latino poet, squeezes himself slyly into the household first as an on-call nanny, and quickly afterwards as Sarah’s oily confidant. Zac’s unbidden reportage of Sarah’s budding sex life to Chris comes with a certain schadenfreude, but that can be pardoned, given that his childminding services are indispensable for the couple’s new wave of hardcore clubbing. In the course of procuring drugs for these nocturnal events, Chris – forever a hopeless romantic – meets and falls for Biddy, a performer, 10 years his junior. Sarah joins in for casual threesomes. This promises a self-sustaining polycule. What could possibly go wrong? 

Poly’s dirty realism rarely tumbles into ethical compassing. Doesn’t monogamy, like most patriarchal expediencies, have a socioeconomic explanation? Whatever the answer, this remains more or less a moot question for Chris, and his “small ‘l’ liberal” coterie. The pressing issue is rather the mechanics of Chris’s ageing body being stretched to its Zorba-the-Greek limits, as he tries to keep up with the passions of new love and psychedelic hangovers, while nursing sick children and maintaining a wearisome desk job. Once this project is underway, it is the upkeep of a ménage-à-trois-plus, civil as it is, that will become precipitously depleting.

This is conjured by Chris’s panicky, dissociative rants, which give his surname – Flood – its symbolism. He is overcome by an agonising urge to outperform male rivals – be it on a bike ride to work, or shielding Sarah against potential predators, whom he sniffs everywhere: “I could walk along Collins Street. I could slow down and walk six or seven steps behind Sarah. I could see men looking at her, could run to her defence if needed.” Sarah’s earth-motherliness towards dodgy men does not help; when Chris finally spits it out that her “dom” hook-up – who strangles her for pleasure nearly all the way – is a misogynist, she misquotes the mystic poet Rumi to suggest one’s need to transcend egoic limitations (in other words, her husband’s slighted masculinity over not having a say in her risqué flings). So continues Chris’s quasi-spiritual quest to liberate himself of a collective guilt as an act of modern chivalry.

Biddy’s validating presence remedies Chris’s rickety self-image somewhat, but not enough to remove the spectre of a mental breakdown. In his head, he coexists fondly with men lost to suicide: his father, Sarah’s ex-paramour, Biddy’s brother. Can he exit too? And why not – everyone else seems to be doing it one way or another: “My father was gone before I knew it, my mother before I wanted it, my wife whenever she feels like it.”

Dalgarno’s best achievement is in montaging Chris’s spasmodic thoughts – adrift anywhere between bathing children at home and watching over Sarah having sex with a stranger – which means that Poly remains fundamentally about men and their primitive fear of other men as a threat to their procreative prowess. The novel’s whodunnit subplot overlays and animates this thematic focus. Is Zac an imposter on a calculated mission to usurp Chris’s role as the man of the house? Has he done anything inappropriate to the kids? A movie-script ambiance gives these flickering moments a sense of dimension, occasionally dulled by throwaway stand-ins for uncontainable pleasure (“my kundalini at a time of castration”) and a strew of galling, half-finished “Oh, how” sentences: “Oh, how we sang! And laughing? Oh, how we laughed!” These editorial mishaps abandon the prose to the optimism that the narrator’s psychological drama will carry the reader’s attention onto the next scene.

In the manner of affirmative novels, Poly tapers sharply towards resolution. The ending harks back to the epigram by the legendary Greek writer Anon, “And they lived happily ever after.” Suddenly, all emotional injury seems to pale in the face of a threat to one’s offspring. The wholeness of parental love puts the antimonies of sex and death drive to rest. There is relief in Chris telling his children about human malice, and them reassuring him that they don’t recall anything dubious about Zac. “I love you, sweetheart,” Chris says to his daughter. “I love you too.”

Keyvan Allahyari

Keyvan Allahyari is a critic and academic based in Melbourne.

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