Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"Kissing in Manhattan": Anti-Feminist Fables

I thought that David Schickler's collection of linked short stories Kissing in Manhattan, a hit when it was published back in 2001, would be the ideal thing to read on my first trip to New York City in 2.5 years. It was supposed to be charming, capturing the romance and magic of New York. While I knew not to expect miracles from it (I picked up the paperback from a friend who was downsizing his book collection; he warned me "it's the kind of short-story collection that makes the bestseller list," by which he meant "it's relentlessly middlebrow") I at least expected to find it agreeable. Instead, it just made me angry. Despite being set in New York City at the turn of the millennium, it propounds the most antiquated ideas about gender roles.

In David Schickler's Manhattan, men are either aggressive and horny alpha males or shy nice-guy beta males. The female characters are even less varied and more stereotypical: nearly every woman in the book is a gorgeous, willowy thing in a satin cocktail dress. They do one of two things, depending on the man they're dealing with: they ache to be dominated by the alpha males, or they play perverse sexual games to humiliate the beta males.

Kissing in Manhattan is a collection of male sexual fantasies disguised as middlebrow literary fiction. And that's not what I bargained for.

The book begins with the story "Checkers and Donna," about a woman who has rape fantasies and secretly wishes to "belong to a man."  Donna finally meets her match in Checkers, a crude and loud man who drives a muscle car and is a big fan of cat-calling. I thought this story was pretty weak, but hoped it was an anomaly.

No such luck. In the second story, "Jacob's Bath,"the heroine, Rachel Wolf, is praised for being a loving and loyal wife and mother, who gives her husband Jacob a bath every night:
The woman was there to strengthen the man, to quench his thirst, and the man loved the woman and he was grateful. It wasn't about equity: Jacob never bathed Rachel. He was ready to perform a lifetime of chores for her, but this isn't about that [...]

[Rachel] told how Jacob's bath wasn't about sex, but about devotion, and love. She even admitted, because she thought her friend needed her to, that Jacob had once had an affair, an affair she'd known about the entire time it went on. [...]

"The bastard," whispered Susan.

Rachel stiffened. "He was home every night for his bath."

"But he lied to you! He was cheating!"

Rachel stared at her friend, who didn't understand men.

"I was devoted to him," she said evenly. "I was his wife, and I loved him. The affair stopped."
This angel of wifely devotion and forbearance is contrasted with Susan, a New York Times journalist, whom the narrator denigrates for having pursued professional success instead of marriage and family:
She was well into her sixties, and she'd never married, or been to Disneyland, or learned to sing. Instead, she'd drawn a bead on the large, savage habits of the globe: murder, extortion, hatred, crimes against women and the earth. She'd stared long at these awful truths. The problem was, as Nietzsche said, when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you. That New Year's morning Susan March made a terrible realization: she craved baseness. Some fiber of her soul longed to kill, as Mr. Bruce did, or to cleanse countries with napalm, or to be taken viciously by a man on the steps of a church. Not only did Susan want these atrocities, she wanted them so badly that she'd never erected the means to fight them off. She had no husband, no children, no balm to ease her days. And her arrogance, her pride in her lifelong, clear-eyed independence, died hard that New Year's morning.
And it goes on from there. A story about a gorgeous paralegal who gives her employer a bad case of blue balls. Several stories about Patrick Rigg, who ties a different naked, beautiful woman to his bed every night.

Schickler got his book deal for Kissing in Manhattan after his story "The Smoker" was published in The New Yorker. Taken on its own, "The Smoker" is indeed a pretty great story: funny, absurd, good dialogue. But in the context of Kissing in Manhattan, it comes off as just one more sexual fantasy. In it, a nebbishy 31-year-old English teacher at a private girls' school gets invited to dinner at the home of Nicole, his brightest student. Then Nicole's parents announce that they want to arrange a marriage between their daughter and her teacher. Nicole is not as powerless nor as submissive as some of Schickler's other female characters, but she's still too good to be true: a beautiful, brilliant 19-year-old who just wants to make her lonely English teacher happy.

Of course authors should be allowed to let their sexual fantasies inspire their writing. But I want them to be honest that that is what they are doing. Ideally, they'd even be smart enough to interrogate their fantasies and assumptions, to ask why men and women are drawn to dominance and submission and erotic games.

The magical-realist tone of the book somehow makes its retrograde ideas about gender even less palatable, because the author seems to think he's being charming rather than gross. Misogyny is bad enough, but whimsical misogyny is the worst.

1 comment:

Dr.J said...

Hope you are having a great time in N.Y. Two slightly off-topic things:
-every year for Nov 1st (the loved-one day) people goes to the graveyard to visit their kin tombs, I guess you know the mexican way. BUT people also go to the theater to see Don Juan Tenorio, a romantic play by XIX century poet Zorrilla. Of course Don Juan is a womanizer (the story is that of Mozart Don Giovanni) I don´t know where does the tradition comes from but this mixture of love and death is very interesting (the text is terribly anti-femminist as you may imagine)
-second, in Spain we have a Ministry for Igualitarianism (it´s not a joke) that recently passed a law forbidding "sexist games on recreation grounds for boys and girls around 8 years old); that means that boys will be discouraged to play football and girls to play with dolls. Pity that the crisis meant there is no money to enforce the law an the Ministry was dissolved and turned into a Secretary.