Things in the world are just things. Your house, your table, your notebook, your computer, your bed, your toothbrush. Your clothes, your shoes, your socks, your car. Food. They have a life of their own unconnected to you. It’s as if you’re already dead and the world does not recognize you. And something even more. Because the things in the world don’t recognize you, because your world isn’t your world anymore, is just the world, instead of the familiar connection, you feel the empty place where you used to be connected, and without that connection, the way you’re floating, things appear to you as having an energy barrier around them. And the energy of that barrier is a whole new weird deep anxiety. (from Tom Spanbauer’s “I Loved You More” pg. 293)
This piece of prose can be divided into so many parts and yet, it in some way captures the experience of reading “I Loved You More.” Typically, when you enter a novel that entrances you with “your world isn’t your world anymore,” you take on a perspective through the eyes of the narrator. There’s an extra element with Tom Spanbauer‘s novel, however. You don’t just remove yourself from the context of reality and insert yourself within another, fictional context. Rather, there is an impressively “familiar connection” pre-established by Spanbauer’s sensitive humanizing of the lead characters.
“I Loved You More” holds within it 25 years worth of heartache. The technique of Dangerous Writing seems to be the culprit for this. This is a style that Spanbauer developed and now teaches in Portland, Oregon. Dangerous Writing “focuses on a minimalistic style and ‘writing from the body,’ the act of overcoming fear to write painful personal truths.” Spanbauer, who graduated from Columbia University in 1988 with an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) degree in Fiction, clearly takes on this technique to overcome emotion in his own works.
Multiple strands of themes come together and back apart throughout the novel, and oftentimes overlap with one another. Themes of love, fear, sexuality, and desire are explored in a personal, accessible manner. For instance, the main character and narrator of the story, Ben “Gruney” Grunewald carries a “Big Ben vs. Little Ben” complex in which he calls on Big Ben for acts of courage and finds himself emotionally crippled, and often weeping, when he is in the state of “Little Ben.” This complex reveals itself in Ben’s inner-monologue throughout the entirety of the novel and gives us insight into how he is feeling, depending on which persona he takes on in that moment.
The first part of the book takes place in New York City during the eighties. Ben is a student at Columbia taking a most notable course taught by a professor only ever referred to as Jeske. It’s in this class that Ben meets and falls for the class hot-shot, Hank. The first time Hank speaks in class, Ben experiences “some kind of frenzy in [his] heart.” The two find deep appreciation for one another’s work and eventually form a strong friendship. The constant underlying tension in this friendship being that Ben is hopelessly in love with Hank, who is heterosexual. Moreover, the intense passion in their friendship makes it all the more difficult to let go of such a feeling.
The second half of the book takes place in Portland, Oregon more than 10 years later. By then, Ben and Hank have fallen out of touch. Ben has been diagnosed with AIDS and Hank, on the other hand, has been diagnosed with cancer. It is during this time that Ben is taken care of and loved by Ruth, a beautiful, red-headed student of his. Ruth loves Ben the way that Ben loved Hank. She stays by his side through all the doctors visits and the whole ordeal. Eventually, Ben finds that he does in fact love her back. It’s after two years of Ben and Ruth struggling to maintain a healthy relationship that Hank comes back into the picture. Hank and Ben exchange their first phone call in years, exchange the news of their respective illnesses. Hank flies down to Oregon for a visit, during which time Ben introduces Hank to Ruth. As simple as that, a love triangle is formed. Ruth and Hank eventually get married and, consequently, it’s Ben who loses two of the loves of his life. He is left with no invitation to the wedding, and no closure.
When you say goodbye to someone you love, maybe if you say something crazy, something true, maybe he won’t stop loving you.
As a person who is deeply invested in his relationships, Ben constantly falls. And when he falls, he falls hard. This is part of the humanizing that Spanbauer puts to work within I Loved You More. Other than moments where Big Ben makes an appearance, we don’t see consistent acts of heroism, which is almost unconsciously expected in novels classified as romantic fiction. The portrayal of attempting to maintain someone’s love in a final encounter is overbearingly visceral and relatable.
I Loved You More – the title alone implies the experience of painful, unattainable desires. All things considered, Spanbauer strongly humanizes deep emotions that are more or less considered obsessive, and as such, embarrassing. The book lends the understanding that the hurt that comes with love, passion, and the like, is entirely human.