The general publicity of Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s first novel Fleishman is in Trouble mostly revolved on a similar axis: here was how Philip Roth would have written the marriage novel if he was a woman. Even the back-cover scribblings said as much, except here were the contemporary women writers—Lauren Groff, Emma Straub, Elizabeth Gilbert. While I see the validity of the comparisons, the story of Rachel and Toby’s marriage reminded me less of Portnoy’s Complaint and more of Beloved.
Before the objections gavel in, I am not morally equivocating marriage and gender politics with slavery. For Beloved and Fleishman is in Trouble, I am talking about how it felt to read both novels, and the dominant feeling I had was shame. In Beloved the shame was general: I was disgusted to be a human being, and there were moments when I had to remind myself I was not a plantation owner who owned human beings. In Fleishman the shame was particular: I hated myself as a white male and as a husband, and there wasn’t an acceptable escape from being those two.
That shame didn’t last long, however. I started to comb thru the reviews of Fleishman and found one, in particular, that turned the shame to confusion. (Or rather, the shame shifted to the background.) Writing for NPR, Lily Meyer noted,
The great trick of Fleishman is in Trouble is that it cons the reader into siding with Toby. Brodesser-Akner demonstrates how women get sucked into acquiescing to misogyny by suckering both narrator and reader—and then showing us what she’s done…Like [the narrator], I had let myself—a women! a female writer!—get taken in by a man’s story about his poor, put-upon, misunderstood self.
This theme, though usually containing milder terms than “misogyny,” recurs in several reviews. And then I re-read the quote from the inner front cover of Fleishman.
We’d been raised to do what we wanted, and we had. We’d been successful, and now we knew the real secret, which was this: Even when you did succeed, even when you did outearn and outpace, when you exceeded all expectations, nothing around you really shifted—you still had to tiptoe around the fragility of a man.
This was all news to me. Weren’t we all vulnerable and put-upon and fragile? The idea that it was only women who tiptoed around fragility struck me as unfair. If the 21st century has taught us anything—and it probably hasn’t—it’s that all our feelings are valid. But if I was wrong about that idea, was I wrong about Fleishman is in Trouble in general? Was what I had thought was an extremely well-written story about marriage and divorce and gender equity and the like really much, much more? Yes, there was overt misogyny, in the form of Rachel’s former boss. In the immediate post-separation orgy of his dating app, Toby saw women as objects. Yes, he was a put-upon whiner at times. And yes, he was fragile.
With apologies to Barthes, the author remains alive, and it is likely Brodesser-Akner had a point or two while composing this book. Did she mean to induce shame on the part of male readers? (For that matter how many males indeed will read the book?) Is the novel meant to serve as fodder for the incubating echo chamber of social media, where women can enjoy emoji head-nodding sessions punctuated by “YES YES YES”? Was she trying to spin Toby into a misogynist?
It was time to reconsider my experience of the book.
I confess I don’t see Toby as a misogynist. Whether or not that is because of my privileged status as a white male I can’t know. What I do know is the genuine grievances of women in general and of the #metoo movement in particular. There is value in shaming those who have until now been largely shameless. As the initial glee from the #metoo movement settles, what seems clear is that multitudes of men do indeed have much to be ashamed of. To those who would argue that the men deserve to be punished but not in public, hard cheese to that. The women didn’t choose to be victims, but they should be free to choose their mode of revenge. If that means humiliation for the offenders, so be it.
Still, with the exception of her former boss’ sexual advances and the abuse Rachel suffered while giving birth, we are not talking about the #metoo movement in Fleishman is in Trouble. But that is the point, you say: Rachel was fundamentally altered by what happened to her, by her boss’ actions and as she gave birth to their first child. You, as a man, cannot comprehend the trauma she experienced.
Fair enough, but it still seems the story was mostly one of marriage and gender inequity, the wrinkle being that Toby, according to his shrink, is the “wife in the marriage.” The novel is narrated by a woman, an old college friend of Toby’s and, until recently, a biographer of men for a men’s magazine. (As has been pointed out, the skeleton of this biography matches that of Brodesser-Akner’s.) But if Toby Fleishman is the wife then that makes Rachel Fleishman the husband, and we are thus confronted with a problem: the idea that two wrongs make a right.
Broadly stated, the wrong in this case is a parent working too hard at the expense of the family, causing the parent to break down and abandon her family. That the woman and not the man leaves shouldn’t diminish the righteousness of our outrage. Whether or not she has “earned” that right, or has the right because it’s what men have been doing for eons, should not matter. Wrong is wrong. Right?
Wrong, apparently, says Brodesser-Akner. Toby, as much (maybe more) as Rachel, has enjoyed their well-to-do life, has taken full advantage of the access money supplies, such as the house in the Hamptons, the health club, the live-in-nanny, etc. And recall: Toby is the secondary wage-earner in the Fleishman’s world. His pressure at work (he is a hepatologist), while intense, does not match Rachel’s, because while Toby has lives and livers within his power, Rachel has something important in hers, too: the financial and social success of the quintessential American family. A slip up here or there, and the whole Fleishman operation collapses.
(This brings up another problem of the book: its utter tone-deafness to the real world. When we think of the “quintessential American family,” we often think of a nuclear family of four. We do not, however, generally think of New Yorkers. Some of the themes are universal, but for roughly 99 percent of the country Brodesser-Akner is telling a story not just from another planet but from another galaxy. No matter how expensive New York City is, someone earning $265,000 per year as a doctor is doing just fine, thank you. If I were, say, a random John Anywhere In Between The Coasts, I would be mystified that $265,000 isn’t enough. And that’s before taking into account a second income, which most New Yorkers have; only the uber-rich—the hedge-fund managers, et al—can afford to have one income and live the way the Fleishmans do. A home in the Hamptons and these people still aren’t happy, still can’t make it work? Boo hoo. It is no wonder the “one percent” receive the vitriol they do, fairly or unfairly.)
Half of the Fleishman operation—the marriage half—does, in fact, collapse. Why? Because the pressure of being a mother and the primary bread winner was too much for Rachel, leading to her total meltdown? Because being a talented and driven female in a primarily male field (Rachel is a high-powered talent agent) was too difficult? Because Toby was angry at what he felt was a fundamental unfairness in their parenting plan? Because he was loath to admit his role in the collapse? In truth you could point to any of those reasons, and dozens more, or not point to those reasons, and you would have valid points.
And lo and behold, after Rachel leaves under mysterious circumstances, the other half of the operation—the children—sinks. Their daughter is kicked out of summer camp for texting to a boy camper a semi-naked picture of herself, which races thru the camp faster than Noro virus. In a similar but less personal vein, their son is caught looking at porn under the unsuspecting nanny’s care, causing the nanny to lose her job. It’s pretty mild stuff, but both kids are suffering, without really knowing exactly why, at their mother’s absence.
We can point the blame at either Fleishman spouse, but we must also examine a system that has failed all too often: The Modern Family. Again I can hear the complaints building like thunderheads: “You’re NOT suggesting a return to the 1950s, are you, where men worked in offices and women worked at home?” No. What I am discussing is the lack of substantive discussion about how we live now.
As ever I know what you are thinking: there is nothing but discussion of how we live now and how fractured our lives have become. Have you been on social media? What a horror show! That is certainly true, but I would argue that what we actually have is endless complaining about how we live, and occasionally we come across methods to cope.
How often when we are among friends do we share honest assessments of our lives? How often do we ask ourselves or each other the tough questions? Why do we need to own a home? Why do we want children? Do we really want them? Do we understand the work that having another human being to guide thru the world means? Can we even come close to apprehending it? Why does life in America seem so zero-sum? Isn’t it enough to simply succeed, success being however you judge it to be? Why this insistence on “winners” and “losers”? (Dualistic thinking is not confined to America, but it reaches a particularly loud pitch here.) How much is too much? The weight of those kinds of questions suggests a few conditions we often lack: time, space, brutal honesty—and the kind of security we are lucky enough to have in a wealthy western democracy. Contemplation is a luxury.
And so what? We waste time on other luxuries, why not waste a little of it on the luxury of contemplation, even if the contemplating is difficult? Partly because we spend so much of that luxury time devoted to the management of the circumstances of our existence: our homes, our careers, our families. The colours of our bathrooms. Our leisure time. What to cook. The right new car to buy. The pros and cons of starting your children at kindergarten at five or six. Where to vacation. Soccer or piano for the kids?
To be clear: we need to have those discussions, too. Home décor, children’s education, enriching activities, etc. do make up the tactile fabric of our lives. But they have consumed the larger, more important discussion about treating the symptoms (our busy lives) as opposed to the illness (the illness of “over”: overwork, overreach, overextension). The relentless demands of overextension prevent us from having strength to escape the trap we have created for ourselves.
This brings me back to Fleishman is in Trouble.
As a work of literary fiction, it hums. The prose snaps and sings to its own rhythm, and there is never a minute when Brodesser-Akner is not in total control of her writing. The “surprise” that Toby’s friend and not Toby is narrating isn’t much of a surprise, but it works. It is nice to know a third person is observing this madness.
As a commentary on contemporary America, it is less successful. Some of it resonates, and powerfully. We can feel Rachel’s righteous indignation at being punished for refusing to have sex with her boss. The scenes of both Toby and Rachel missing out on promotions, and Elizabeth’s struggles with her former magazine, are spot on. Elizabeth’s marriage (her husband, Adam, almost seems too good to be true) is a welcome juxtaposition to the Fleishman’s. And on the lighter side, Toby’s dating adventures are, if not authentic, amusing.
But it breaks down when it comes to Brodesser-Akner’s handling of marriage and family life. What we mainly have, as I mentioned above, is a standard marital breakdown along familiar lines: one spouse is working too hard, the children are not given the kind of attention the other spouse feels they need, and said spouse is feeling resentful they are doing the busy work (taking care of the kids, for example) in the relationship. And in the meantime, the harder-working spouse resents the other spouse for lacking the motivation to be more than a run-of-the-mill specialist at a hospital in New York City.
Shifting the gender roles is not enough. If the end result is the collapse of a family that once worked, however tenuously, what is the point? What does it matter if Toby or Rachel suffers the breakdown? In the end Rachel’s victory at starting her own successful talent agency looms largely pyrrhic. Would she have done it if she had known she would have lost her marriage and had a complete mental breakdown? The marriage is expendable, yes, but her mental health? What if Toby had accepted the job offered by a friend of a family? Assuming his desire to remain a practicing hepatologist is sincere because he feels he can make a difference, would we, as a spouse, feel spurned by Toby’s decision to reject the offer? Yes, Toby could and should have been more supportive of Rachel, but it is not clear what would have made a difference.
What if we turn the tables back on Brodesser-Akner? Imagine we have a different text of Fleishman is in Trouble. One where Rachel is the hepatologist and Toby the high-powered talent agent. Where Toby is never home, where Rachel is content with her job. A world where Toby has the affair, leaves the kids without explanation. Where Toby resents his wife for not working harder, for not wanting more, for not appreciating the hard work he does for the family. We have certainly heard this story a few times, and we would intensely dislike Toby and rightly call him an ass. And while we would maintain a level of sympathy for his eventual breakdown, we would relegate him to that most awful creature, the Negligent Husband Who Also Sucks As A Parent.
(What we would not have, of course, is a world where Toby would be the victim of sexual harassment. Where Toby would miss out on the promotion at work because he refused to have sex with his boss. And more. The power of Brodesser-Akner’s presentation of Rachel’s sexual harassment grows in this alternative-text scenario, because of its inherent truth: men are in no danger of losing their control.)
Both in the alternative text and in the real text, we are left with the smoldering remains of a marriage and a damaged family. It is likely the children will feel long-term effects from Rachel’s disappearance, above and beyond whatever issues they will have to transcend from a divorce. There is ample evidence to suggest children—and, indeed, the ex-spouses—thrive no matter the marital status, but less clear is the effect of a parent running out without a trace.
Again, is it necessary to appropriate a victim? We are still left to reckon with the sundering choices. We are still faced with a moral conundrum: is it ever OK to run away from a life that includes two children at home, no matter the reasons for the breakdown to precipitate the fleeing? Because men have been the runners and ruiners since the dawn of time, does that justify Rachel leaving? Can two wrongs make a right? Should they? These are mostly unanswerable questions.
It is, however, possible to answer another question: would we make decisions that we know will have deleterious long-term consequences? It’s not much of a secret: we would, we have, we do. Elizabeth, our narrator, chose to spend the summer with Toby, listening to the story of his marriage, at the expense of her own family. She chose to marry Adam, and to have children with him. She chose to quit her job at the magazine to take care of their children. She chose to raise her family in New Jersey. It all seems somehow less than whole to her; the grass is greener in an unmarried, childless Manhattan.
At least there is grass in New Jersey. Enter the classic scenario for parents: a party with the parents of their children’s friends, with a little marijuana on hand. Whatever will they talk about, Elizabeth wonders? As the volume of the party increases, Elizabeth homed in on some moms and their conversations, wondering what would happen under the influence of the magic grass. According to Elizabeth, they “only ever spoke of our children with each other. I didn’t know if they were having better conversations and I was just excluded, or if this was all there was to talk about.” Would tonight be different?
The conversation got louder and the women began talking over each other as they grew more and more stoned, but the subject matter never changed. Even high, that was all they talked about. There was no other layer. There was no yearning. There was nothing beyond it.
Adam, while sympathetic, gently chides her. “It’s life. It’s being in your forties. We’re parents now. It’s the order of things. Now we focus on the kids. It’s how it goes. It’s not our turn anymore.” Here’s a dirty secret for middle-aged married with children types: Adam is right. We might not like to admit it, and maybe things could be different, but they aren’t. From the moment we become parents, the universe mostly shrinks. There are some remedies, but the opportunity costs are high; this is the universe telling us “nothing is free.”
The summer of Elizabeth’s restlessness sleeps after a trip to Facebook, when she gets a friend request from Larry Feldman, her first boyfriend from the eighth grade. She accepts the request (don’t we always?), and immediately received an instant message. The conversation ends with Larry saying, “I think about you a lot…I think about how warm your vajayjay was.” To paraphrase Thoreau, writing about a proposed telegraph from Maine to Texas: “Mark Zuckerberg was in great haste to construct a magical telegraph from old friends Larry to Elizabeth, but Larry, it may be, has nothing to communicate.”
It’s natural to want it both ways, all ways, always. Accepting we can’t have it all comes, we hope, with experience, which later turns into a not entirely peaceful wisdom. Reflecting on the summer she spent talking with Toby and helping him get thru Rachel’s absence, Elizabeth has the courage to ask some tough questions:
We fall in love and we decided to marry in this one incredible moment, and what if everything that happens after that is about trying to remember that moment? We watch ourselves and our spouses change, and the work is to constantly recall the reasons you did this in the first place…why is that honorable, to live in service of a moment you have to constantly work hard to remember?
For Elizabeth, she “mostly wanted it.” Or she “wanted it in the background.” Or she was “destined to be a miserable person.” Or she wanted “to understand how to live a life that I was not the star of…to be what my children needed from me and every time I came close I felt a vast abyss and ran in the opposite direction.” Or she “wanted to feel relevant again, like I mattered.” This—and there’s more of it, in the same passage toward the end of the novel—is all carefully and wonderfully observed, and such a painful truth that married people might want to put the book down and return to the bubble.
But the mood is disturbed not much later.
Or all I had was a brief midlife crisis, maybe not so different from Rachel, and even our midlife crises had to be contained—hers in search of one good night’s sleep and a man who wasn’t threatened by her existence, and mine by having to outsource my own happiness in service of something that looked like helplessness to an old friend but was actually neglect of the family I’d opted into voluntarily.
And a bit later.
Even our crises had to be small and polite. What I did was forgivable; what Rachel did was unacceptable. But ultimately it was the same for both of us: the world diminished a woman the moment she stopped being sexually available to it, and there was nothing to do but accept that and grow older.
Elizabeth touches on what I have been saying: that she—and all the other married westerners with children living in the twilight of married westerners with children—“opted voluntarily” into her life. Those same people deserve some of our sympathy and understanding, but there is a limit, especially since so many others don’t opt voluntarily into the difficulties of their lives. And to compare, however obliquely, Libby’s mild midlife crisis and her even milder “neglect” of her family with Rachel’s very real breakdown and actual abandonment of her children leaves a false note. There is almost nothing similar in their crises, and if leaving her children without notice is a “confined” and/or “small and polite” crisis, one shudders to think what an unfettered crisis would be for Rachel. Men do face the reckoning of growing older at a more pleasant cadence than women, and it is also true that women confront a “world diminished” when the children arrive or whatever age it is when women become “sexually unavailable.” Again it is important to ask: does that validate what Rachel did?
Eventually Elizabeth reaches a fragile equanimity with herself.
So I would go home and would wedge myself back into my life. I would wonder, globally, how you could be so desperately unhappy when you were so essentially happy…I would sit next to my children while they watched inane television shows and I would smell their heads and allow the hormones inherent to motherhood wash through me. I would try to find peace with my regular life. Or maybe I would one day see that the regularness was actually quite extraordinary. I would try.
While we have no reason to doubt Elizabeth’s intentions, she sounds like someone trying to convince herself she can do it. It is, perhaps, the curse of being an interesting person. In Dave Eggers’ novel Heroes of the Frontier, Josie, the main hero and a devoted mother to her two children, shares her views on this notion.
Parents could not be interesting, could they? The best parents rise and fall like suns and moons. They circle with the predictability of the planets. With great clarity Josie realized the undeniable truth: interesting people cannot bear children. The propagation of the species is up to the drones. Once you find you are different, that you have moods, that you have whims, that you get bored, that you want to see Antarctica, you should not have children. What happens to the children of interesting people? They are invariably bent. They are crushed. They have not had the predictable suns and so they are deprived, desperate and unsure – where will the sun be tomorrow? Fuck, she thought.
It turns out Josie didn’t go far enough. Not only should interesting people not bear children, but they also shouldn’t get married. Because, despite the brilliance of the writing, it is fair to ask what is new about Brodesser-Akner’s idea about marriage. We are told, again and again and again and again, how difficult it is to have a successful marriage, to turn children into responsible adults, to balance the demands of professional and personal life. And so when we read a book like Fleishman is in Trouble or have a conversation on the playground with another frustrated spouse, our response is to nod our head in agreement. Yeah, that author is spot on. Oh, yes, I know exactly how you feel, it’s all just so hard.
And yet and yet and yet. What was Elizabeth expecting? Or Toby and Rachel? What do any of us expect? If our unhappiness with marriage and our children—or dissatisfaction, or restlessness, or whatever—is caused by unlrealised expectations, we have nobody to blame but ourselves. Despite limitless real-life and fictional examples that should warn us about the underbelly of the Big American Four—spouse, career, family, house—the dream continues to sell like few others. A conspiracy of silence surrounds what it is to be married and to be parents. Wouldn’t we all be so much better off if we were more honest with each other? Instead we toss around bland generalities about the joys of parenting and the peculiar but endearing behaviour of our spouses. As the narrator of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being says, “The girl who hankers for marriage knows nothing about marriage.” We are all that girl.
None of this takes away from the basic truths in Fleishman, however. Marriage is difficult. Raising children is difficult. Being a parent is difficult, but being a mother and a woman in general is more difficult than being a father and a man. Among other outrages, being an intelligent, ambitious mother in a society that pays women 78 cents to the dollar what a man earns is literally something I can’t imagine. Any rational human has to see that women deserve everything men have, and they deserve it right now: equal pay, equal opportunity, equal representation in board rooms and governments and everywhere. And so on.
The problem, and I think Brodesser-Akner and some of the reviews of the book miss this, is that also means women deserve criticism when warranted; freedom of choice does not mean freedom from consequences. The end of inequity between men and women seems as far away as ever, but one can hope that when we get there the point will not be, either at the destination or along this tortuous way, for women to act in the same unacceptable ways men have for ages and to be forgiven in advance. And while there is more than a little appeal to scenes of men getting their comeuppance, the idea that “Girls will be girls” is no better than “Boys will be boys.” Swapping one version of dysfunction for another serves no purpose.
Thinking along these lines presupposes a world where equality and equity exist, and since we are not there we must deal with the flawed world we inhabit. And in that world, two wrongs don’t make a right.