Jul 13 2011

Gender Troubles

Alice Gregory



To write fiction is to challenge the most basic of human facts: that we don't have access to other people's minds. Authors are more able than most to ignore the audacity of occupying other selves, though—it's in their job description. And what's a more obvious challenge than assuming the consciousness of the opposite gender?

That some of our most canonized heroines—Clarissa Harlowe, Isabel Archer, Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina—are products of male imaginations is not surprising. With nowhere to go besides the parlor and nothing to do but read accounts of people they would never meet, women were the intended audience of novels for centuries, and men their default providers. But things are different nowadays, and when a man writes a woman character, it's less for world-historical reasons than for creative ones.

In trying to bridge the gulf between sexes, male authors usually betray some misunderstanding of how women see themselves. The female characters at the centers of male-authored books are often half-daughter-half-lover hybrids that over-attend to their own sexuality. The male authors of the six books below attempt to depict the heads and hearts of women—to limn their psychological boundaries and inhabit their solitary suffering. To some degree, they all fail, and it's the specificity of these failures that announces the noble impossibility of the original mission itself.

Story of My Life by Jay McInerney

Alison Poole is the female foil to Jay McInerney's bestselling debut Bright Lights, Big City whose second-person narration is voiced by an unnamed young fact checker. Alison doesn't talk at us though; she talks to us—out of breath, full of coke. She coins terms (unsavory men are "walking petri dishes"); pukes; prattles on about her "warm liquid trance" orgasms, and worries she might contract a social disease. An aspiring actress, Alison puts up a hard shell of Alaïa-sheathed abs and harsh gossip. Only in rare moments of sobriety does she realize just to what extent she's at the mercy of men—but another bump of coke in the bathroom followed by a snappy comeback is all it takes to make herself forget again. McInerney's created such a charming monster here that it's all but impossible to assess her in terms of real life.

Fatale by J. P. Manchette

Re-released this year by the New York Review Books Classics, J. P. Manchette's slim crime novel Fatale, originally published in 1977, has as its protagonist Aimée, a beautiful young woman who buys her furs and truffles from the payments she takes as a hired assassin. Aimée changes her appearance each time she arrives in a new city and pits her neighbors against each other with anarchic mind games and sexy suggestions that lead to blood loss. Like the good French seductress she is, Aimée is astute to the nuances of both men and food, sometimes combining both into a single observation: She describes her attorney as having a "balding pate the color of rare roast beef." With her dark brown eyes and delicate features, Aimée is the ultimate male fantasy: dangerous but sensual, mercurial but refined. She chooses her cigarette brands deliberately, masturbates efficiently, dresses well, and keeps her room tidy. When Aimée counts her money, she allows the tips of her breasts to brush against the bills; whether this is realistic—or just erotic projection—doesn't really matter.

Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell

The Cheever of the Midwest (but better), Evan S. Connell writes with invisible style, sly humor, and limitless empathy. His first novel records the life of Mrs. Bridge, an affluent Kansas City matron who judges people by their shoes and manners at the table. With her husband at his law firm all day, three spirited children off at school, and a housekeeper to cook and clean, Mrs. Bridge's days are long and wistful. In a pre-war, pre-psychoanalysis era, Mrs. Bridge has only inchoate notions of suffering, and quiet misery simmers just below the surface of her lonely days. Each short chapter mourns the passing of years and Mrs. Bridge's increasing resignation, made sadder still by her inability to even dream of anything more for herself. Wallace Stegner called the novel "a hell of a portrait." It's also a hell of a heartbreak for anyone who has ever failed at imaging the inner life of their own mother.

Mating by Norman Rush

The dedication that prefaces Norman Rush's Mating is revealing: "Everything I write is for [my wife] Elsa, but especially this book, since in it her heart, sensibility, and intellect are so signally—if perforce esoterically—celebrated and exploited." The novel's unnamed narrator, a waspwaisted young nutritional anthropologist, travels to Botswana and falls in love with Nelson Denoon, a derelict academic who has founded an all-female utopian community in the Kalahari Desert. Her exegetic observations—especially about the differences between men and woman—are focused through the unforgiving lens of her discipline: ''Pastoral sex," she unequivocally states, "is an exclusively male penchant. I guarantee no woman ever proposes it if there are quarters available." Over the course of almost five-hundred pages, Our Lady of the Wilds emerges as an idol as worthy of our admiration as Elsa is of Rush's.

Girl by Blake Nelson

First serialized in Sassy magazine, Blake Nelson's Girl strings together with innumerable 'and's the run-on first-person sentences of Andrea Marr, an Oregon teenager obsessed with thrift-store clothes, losing her virginity, the lead singer of a local band, and parsing the subtle signifiers of everything "alternative." Andrea's diary-like prose proves her to be hyper-aware of her high school's hierarchy and its veritable, ever-shifting caste system. She's perceptive about herself and naive about everything else, a combination that leads to a predicable amount of trouble. Though we're meant to take Andrea as a heroine, Nelson grants her mostly unfounded self-respect. It's a cautionary tale of a culture whose young women can imagine only parasitic hobbies.

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

It's no surprise that this novel, the holy book of smart teenage boys and/or future drug addicts tells the tale of a paranoid woman who acts and thinks like a paranoid man. After becoming the co-executor of her ex-boyfriend's estate, twenty-eight-year old Oedipa Maas discovers the existence of an ancient alternate mail distribution company, the Trystero. Soon her entire world is littered with enigmatic signals and cryptic messages, whose patterns make up either mass conspiracy or mental mirage. Oedipa complains of menstrual cramps, worries that she's pregnant, can feel men's eyes "somewhere vague between her breasts," and judiciously flirts when she wants information—but psychologically, she is not particularly gendered. We take Oedipa's motivations to be self-evident, though they go mostly unexamined. Early on we learn that she has "no apparatus except gut fear and female cunning to examine this formless magic."

Alice Gregory lives in Brooklyn. She's written for New York, the Boston Globe, NPR, and n+1.

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