Fleishman and Feminism
Not so long ago I was asked to play for a local recording session. The date hadn’t been officially set; the contractor said it would be either Thursday morning at 9 am or Friday at 1 pm, depending on what worked better for the musicians. I told him I preferred Thursday morning because my wife was out of town that Friday (also for a recording session, but in Nashville) and that I would have to pick up my kids from their school’s after-care program no later than 5, unless he thought we’d be done by then.
I didn’t hear anything for a couple of days before he wrote back and said that Friday worked better for everybody but me, and that he’d already found somebody to replace me.
I felt like I was being punished for having kids. When I said this to my wife, she laughed and said that this was exactly what women have been dealing with for decades.
The laughing too rubbed me the wrong way. I consider myself a feminist and the fact that I’ve moved several times across the country for the advancement of my wife’s career ought to back that up. Still, it was an effective example of the tables having been turned.
Fleishman is in Trouble, by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, topped my sister Holly’s list of favorite books she read in 2020 (read but not necessarily published in 2020). Holly is one of my favorite people in the world, so I almost immediately bought a copy of it and began to read. And for a while I did not like it.
Fleishman was the story of how miserable and difficult a man’s life had become due to his ambitious and career-oriented wife, now ex-wife, and her poor parenting skills. The first half struck me as oddly anti-feminist, particularly for having been written by a female, for having been recommended to me by a feminist, for being contemporary, and for it being long-listed for a couple of major literary awards.
Furthermore, the novel contained a seemingly never-ending barrage of dating app descriptions, which objectified women based on their profile pictures and portrayed them as desperate hornballs trying to have as much meaningless sex as they can. Is this feminism? Maybe? Men have been portrayed as pigs for much longer, though promiscuous behavior by men has long been more accepted, while women who behave the same way are still called slutty and whore-ish.
And then there was the subplot: Toby (Fleishman) is up for a promotion (he’s a doctor) just as his ex-wife (she’s in show business) disappears, and everything goes to hell because he has to take care of the kids. Fleishman’s situation mirrors the ex-wife not getting a partnership at her agency while pregnant, years earlier, a backstory that is glossed over (until later).
There's a flashback that underlines the miscommunication that occurred in their marriage. In the flashback, Toby assures Rachel that he'll never let what happened to her when she was a kid happen to their kids, and it's revealed that while Toby means he’d never let what had happened to her "emotionally" happen to their kids (we learn later that Rachel is a product of a severe and abusive psychological upbringing), Rachel, who grew up poor, meant "financially"—more reverse gender stereotyping. Rachel is portrayed as a horribly selfish and unsympathetic person until the back story is told. But that reveal doesn’t happen until about 80% of the way in!
In that later section, the author demonstrates how differently people view their own actions, or interpret the actions of their partner. It reminded me a bit of Marriage Story and how split viewers are, even after finishing it, over who was more at fault. But this part of the book is still pretty short, and Rachel still comes across as superficial, and despite her strong suspicions that Toby secretly likes the superficialness (the private country clubs, etc.), he doesn’t appear enjoy these perks as much as she claims.
So the novel was getting better, though still not to the level where I understood why my sister putting it atop her list of favorites. But then the most brilliant part of the novel, which had been staring at us the entire time, was revealed in the narrator.
The book is narrated by Elizabeth, a writer and one of Toby’s best and longest-known friends. She is the tell-all when it comes to Toby and Rachel, though Elizabeth (Libby) is seldom present in the actual narration. But halfway through the novel she finally takes time to focus on herself. And she writes about how, as a journalist, she found a way to write about herself through writing about the men she covered:
They felt counted out, the way I felt counted out. They felt ignored the way I felt ignored. They felt like they’d failed. They had regret. They were insecure. They worried about their legacies. They said all the things I wasn't allowed to say aloud without fear of appearing grandiose or self-centered or conceited or narcissistic. I imposed my narrative onto theirs, like in one of those biology textbooks where you can place the musculature picture over the bone picture of the human body. I wrote about my problems through them.
Up to this point I found the book unremarkable and borderline annoying. Now I began to think that Taffy, the author, is a genius.
Early in the third section, before we get Rachel's backstory, Toby rants (through the narration) about how unfair his life had become, and how unfair it was to be treated the way he was being treated by Rachel:
What did he do so wrong but be devoted? What did he do so wrong but try? but love? But come home on time? But figure that his wife would be a partner to him the way he was to her?
He had again taken on the role of the traditionally oppressed housewife.
I wonder how many readers gave up on Fleishman during the first half which, in hindsight, is extraordinarily effective. It’s risky for an author to write something early on in a novel that a reader may not enjoy, counting on the reader to hang in there when it all comes together in the end. I have a nasty habit of not giving up on books, no matter how much I dislike the first hundred pages. In this instance, however, I’m thankful for that habit.
I think Taffy Brodesser-Akner pulled off a lot of things that many others have tried unsuccessfully. She waited until after page 300 (of a 373-page book) to humanize Rachel—a total caricature until then—and she pulled it off. She did the same thing, to a lesser degree with Seth (Toby's and Elizbeth's friend), also a caricature until the end of the book. And neither reveal felt like an M Night Shyamalan twist where you feel like you've been tricked and manipulated.
There is a three-paragraph passage that appears word-for-word—verbatim!—three separate times and only a few pages apart from each other, and it works!
And the bulk of the final forty pages were almost completely philosophical (though riveting), mostly about marriage as an institution, feminism’s place within marriage, and having a family.
Toby, the title character, was barely in the final eighty pages.
Brodesser-Akner ended the book exactly the way Libby, in conversation, predicted the book would end thirty pages from the end.
I feel like each of these rhetorical devices are generally big literary no-no's, but the book is brilliant, and they worked perfectly.