If it’s true, as James Brown once sang, that it’s a man’s world, then it stands to reason that all the major tropes discussed in literature, including marriage, friendship, child-rearing, and even womanhood have been viewed from the male-perspective for so long it’s become normalized to the point of being erroneously referred to as the universal experience. Even when the narrative centers on a female protagonist, they are often tailor-written to the male reader’s expectation as to not alienate anyone in the audience.
Most men can walk away from a story and think, Yes, this is what I’ve expected from female characters, while most women can say, Yes, this fits with how we’ve always been represented, and the great divide between men and women continues on, with little genuine understanding between the two.
To be fair, one could argue women have a total understanding of how men think and function, and that the fault lies with men for not reciprocating their empathy and understanding. How does one subvert literary norms without pandering to their audience? How does an author get male readers to fully empathize with their female characters?
In Fleishman Is in Trouble, Taffy Brodesser-Anker commits to gender-swapping the traditional power dynamic within a couple’s crumbling marriage, and then puts them through a divorce. Finally, the wife’s typical hardship in the divorce process is told from an emasculated husband’s perspective, allowing male readers to finally acknowledge and empathize with how unfair the typical power-imbalance is toward women. If this sounds hard to follow, it’s because it’s a difficult trick to pull off, but Brodesser-Anker’s work is admirable, and ultimately effective on multiple levels, allowing her to give readers raw honesty on the ugliness of marriage, divorce, staying single, and moving on.
Eschewing conventional chapters, Fleishman Is in Trouble is told in three parts, with plenty of generous narrative breaks throughout. Part One is a straight-forward summation of Dr. Toby Fleishman’s life after separating from one of New York’s most powerful entertainment agents (and obvious breadwinner in the marriage), Rachel Fleishman. It’s a grotesque spectacle, seeing this post-forty man dive back into the dating pool without completely making a fool of himself, and it’s hard to not empathize with just how pathetically human he is.
While an accomplished doctor, he frets over the way his profession isn’t as esteemed as it once was (as if being married to a doctor within the confines of upscale New York society is somehow slumming it), and can’t get over his own short stature, treating it like a serious birth defect. He has body-image issues leftover from his days as a chubby kid, manifesting in the way he prefers long walks and avoids bread. He struggles to stay connected to his older daughter, worries about his younger son’s abandonment issues, and laments how much of the actual parenting Rachel has left on his shoulders.
Nevertheless, he’s able to put all these fears aside and take the time to ogle the various older women shamelessly sending nude-selfies and go on a post-marriage bender of random sexual partners, perhaps to make up for lost time. He’s gross, and it would be terribly sad if his behavior weren’t presented in such comic fashion. There are times you want to shake him by the shoulders and say Wake up, Toby! You’re better than this! But Brodesser-Anker leaves us no choice but to continue along with him into Part Two of the story, in which she fills in the background of Toby’s marriage to Rachel.
If the intent is to eventually pull the rug out from under our feet, Part Two is where we start to feel the initial tug. The novel initially presents Rachel as an absolute monster, self-absorbed and driven by status to the point of being a derelict mother (which Toby never misses in opportunity to remind her of). Part Two is where we see her start to become humanized, looking at who she once was and where she came from, and how she eventually found Toby. They were happy once, but their eventual demise stemmed from the usual relationship-killer – a lack of communication. Allegiances begin to shift away from Toby as we start to think that maybe he’s been a little unfair, and then we get to Part Three, in which we are allowed full access to Rachel’s side of the story and are blown away by her circumstances.
Without spoiling anything, it’s safe to say that there are no heroes in the Fleishman marriage or its disintegration, and plenty of mistakes were made on both sides. That perspective, however, gives way to the larger question – what was the point of their story?
It’s a tough question, made more difficult by the fact that neither Fleishman tells their own story. All their moments are told through the perspective of Toby’s old college friend, Libby, the stay-at-home mother who was once a fierce New York journalist cutting her teeth at a men’s magazine. The Fleishman story (both sides), end up paralleling Libby’s, from Toby’s anemic self-perception, to Rachel’s struggle to be an equal in the male-dominated agency industry. Was this the point all along, for the reader to fully understand a woman who used to be a New York Somebody, mad that she settled to be a New Jersey Married Nobody – a faceless wife and mother relegated to a background role in her children’s lives?
If that’s the case, Libby (and Brodesser-Anker, who actually did write for man-centric magazines including GQ and ESPN), tips her hand when she explains her approach to capturing the female condition by writing about male subjects:
“[Men] were born knowing they belonged, and they were reassured at every turn just in case they’d forgotten. But they were still creative and still people, and so they reached for problems out of an artistic sense of yearning…I could listen to them talk for hours…In those monologues, I found my own gripes. They felt counted out, the way I felt counted out…They felt like they’d failed. They had regret. They were insecure. They worried about their legacies. They said 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…I wrote about my problems through them.”
Is Toby Fleishman meant to give readers greater insight into the female psyche, the real humankind, and not the mythologized, male-created cliché that’s been fed to readers more often than not? It’s possible, and if so, Brodesser-Anker is mostly effective in that regard, but could be more so if she didn’t also focus so much on the terrible aspects of upscale New York culture. A few of the characters are expendable (looking at you, Seth), and the vast wealth of the characters makes them almost completely inaccessible to the average reader (the way poor Toby’s quarter million yearly salary is described, you’d think he was earning below minimum-wage).
Likewise, Libby’s storyline comes off as jarring, as she interjects herself into the narrative without warning, or even a proper introduction. This isn’t an insurmountable distraction, however, and as most readers should eventually acclimate to this world before long.
As a debut, Fleishman Is in Trouble is an ambitious work of fiction that seeks to capitalize on society’s recent pronounced struggle with understanding women’s perspective and representation in society and literature. With a background journalism, Taffy Brodesser-Anker both understands and is able to empathize with her characters, both male and female, even if the end result can feel a little messy at times. But it’s a mostly successful venture, one that will certainly give readers of any gender a chance to stop, pause and think.