"I feel like, if I'd been born a man," Taffy Brodesser-Akner told me, "I would not have fucked it up."
We were on the phone—me, home in Brooklyn; Brodesser-Akner, on a work assignment in Atlantic City—talking about her debut novel, Fleishman Is in Trouble, a subversive look at divorce, ambition, parenting, and New York City in the summer. It has, like many blockbuster beach reads of recent years, a missing woman in it—a runaway wife and mother; Rachel Fleishman, to be more precise. But that isn't what the narrative centers around; or, rather, Rachel's disappearance isn't what's interesting about her. Instead, what's interesting about her is what's interesting about any successful woman, which is: how we see her presence, how we project our own insecurities and fears, our own desires and needs, onto her—a woman as flawed as we all are, perfect only in her ability to provoke rage, contempt, and, of course, envy.
But also, Fleishman doesn't center around a missing woman, because, in fact, it centers around a man: Toby Fleishman, a 41-year-old hepatologist (not the most prestigious or remunerative of medical fields, but also not the least), who initiated the divorce proceedings, and who feels comfortably smug about his role as an enlightened modern man. The kind of guy who is totally okay with being out-earned by his wife because, hey, he enjoys his work; who likes to take care of his children; and who can't quite see how much his status as an enlightened modern man and his ability to take care of his children and enjoy his work, depends upon the support he gets from the women in his life, and the inherent privilege that comes along with his gender.
Still, though, Toby is a man with whom we've been conditioned to empathize, if not cheer on: He's a loving father! He's a supportive husband! He enjoys but is not addicted to his job! And, after his ex-wife just picked up and left him with both kids, he didn't totally abandon his responsibility as a father! What a good guy, right? A true mensch.
And, as if to make him even more empathetic, Fleishman is narrated by one of Toby's oldest friends, a woman named Libby, a wife and a mother who lives in New Jersey and used to have a career as a journalist for a men's magazine. Libby knows Toby, Libby understands him, and so Libby's portrayal of Toby—as a man who is doing the best he can under trying circumstances—is understanding of all that Toby is going through, but also makes clear that, difficult as things are, Toby is still reaping the benefits of being the kind of man he is. Meaning, he is still wealthy, privileged—free.
"I've been writing about men for years," Brodesser-Akner said to me when I asked about the appeal of focusing the narrative on Toby. "I did a lot of time at GQ. I have mostly written about men, and I find it easiest, because, I think with women, I bring my own issues—like, I project onto them too much—and men are a source of endless fascination to me, just because of their freedom."
"Freedom" might be known as just another word for nothing left to lose, but it can also be seen as an indicator that a person just might have tons to lose; meaning that freedom, or the ability to do whatever we want, is most possible when we have everything we've ever desired, even as we find that it's still not enough, that everything isn't actually everything.
In her career as a journalist, Brodesser-Akner has reported on, if not literally everything, at least a very wide variety of things, including Ultra-Orthodox Judaism and the dark side of a prominent jewelry chain, but she is perhaps best-known for her profiles of those people who have the kind of intoxicating freedom that comes with extreme wealth and fame and beauty: celebrities. Her pieces on everybody from Bradley Cooper to Gwyneth Paltrow usually go viral, thanks to Brodesser-Akner's canny ability to shift our long-established perceptions of these incredibly well-known personalities, to change the paradigm by showing the people within the personas.
"Men are a source of endless fascination to me, just because of their freedom."
And though there aren't any celebrities in Fleishman, she's also upending the status quo in this novel, and specifically within the wealthy, New York milieu of her characters. She does so by presenting two familiar archetypes—the evil-bitch wife and the long-suffering husband—and, at first, allowing readers to become more confirmed in our beliefs about this kind of interpersonal binary, before disrupting it so as to better offer insight into the complicated truth behind the façade.
"I was able to do this thing that I do in real life," Brodesser-Akner told me, "which is first empathize with someone, and then ask some hard questions."
One of the hard questions that is always asked, whether explicitly or implicitly, of anyone who has the kind of dizzying freedom of either the very famous or of the average man is: Do they deserve what they have? It's a hard question not because it has a complex answer (it doesn't; the answer is that nobody deserves anything), but because entire religions and ways of life are premised on answering it incorrectly, answering it in a way that pretends that some people deserve things, that the world is fundamentally a meritocracy, that justice will prevail, if only we figure out how to mete it out in an equitable way. What a joke! No, really: What a joke. It's funny, even though it hurts.
Telling this joke again and again in new ways is what Brodesser-Akner does so well in her profiles, and it's what she does so well in Fleishman. And part of the punchline is that the people who have so much given to them by virtue of their gender, race, nationality, intelligence, etc., are so often the ones who don't fully understand what a gift they've been given, and don't understand that the lessons they've learned from their positions of privilege are ones that other people have learned over and over, in much more compromised circumstances, which is why Toby Fleishman can condescend when dismissing young women, and think to himself:
It was that he couldn't bear to be with anyone who didn't yet truly understand consequences, how the world would have its way with you despite all your careful life planning. There was no way to learn that unless you lived it. There was no way for any of us to learn that until we lived it... Toby knew about consequences.
But, of course, what Brodesser-Akner does so well within this book, is actually show how the consequences for Toby, and for men like him, are not ever going to be as dire as for so many other people around him. So Toby can be dealt blow after blow, and not only still be a hero, but also still be an asshole—hitting on inappropriate colleagues, treating his children's nanny like garbage. Which isn't to say that Toby is irredeemable, exactly—as Brodesser-Akner told me, "the thing that I've learned in doing all the stories that I've done is that there are very few completely evil people"—but rather it's that he's an avatar for all the men who we look for reasons to forgive them for their circumstances, whereas, when it comes to women, we look for behaviors that give us a reason to blame them for the same thing. And so, by centering Toby, rather than Rachel, Brodesser-Akner is doing exactly what her narrator, Libby, makes clear is the point of telling the story of someone like Toby: "This was the only way to get someone to listen to a woman—to tell her story through a man."
However, Brodesser-Akner, despite sharing many things in common with Libby, is not her narrator; she did not leave her career to stay home with her kids; she actually, as she explained to me, pursued her career specifically because she wanted to be able to be with them as much as possible. However, as with every choice related to motherhood and being a woman, Brodesser-Akner's career has come with its own complications. She told me: "I went into this because this was a career I could have and be around my children. It turns out that I have to leave them a lot to do it successfully."
And that isn't easy. Brodesser-Akner told me how hard it had been, earlier that week, when she'd had to leave immediately following her son's fifth grade moving up ceremony, to do an interview with NPR. Her mother drove her from the ceremony to NPR, and Brodesser-Akner said that she'd told her mother, "I'm so sad that I can't hold on to this moment." And, she continued:
The moving up ceremony was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen… I could cry talking about it… And I wanted to hold onto that moment, but I was going to do Weekend Edition. And I know by now, that that moment will overtake this moment, and then right after that I had to leave to Atlantic City, and so I'm sitting in Atlantic City, which is a hard place to be, and I'm watching videos from the moving up ceremony.
It's the kind of reflection that leads to a very specific kind of pang of recognition among so many women, who know what it is to have to make these impossible choices. It often inspires us to issue a reflexive response, a reminder that it is a privilege to get to have the kind of job that involves appearing on NPR, that involves publishing a much-hyped debut novel, that involves a glamorous journalism career that involves hanging out in Gwyneth Paltrow's home and letting her cook dinner for you. But that response is indicative of a different kind of complicated conditioning, one which ignores the fact that few women balance children and career solely for reasons of desire, there is almost always a degree of need involved as well.
And this is something Brodesser-Akner's mother pointed out to her in the car. "My mother said to me, and she says this every time, 'Just because you enjoy this and you're good at it, does not mean you don't have to do it,'" Brodesser-Akner said. "Like, I'm not doing this for vanity... it's not a romantic vanity of mine. I don't have another skill, and we have a mortgage," she laughed.
This is the kind of thing—a mortgage, money—that women have become conditioned to pretend isn't a factor in their professional choices—particularly when they work in a competitive field, and they're one of the top performers. It's a problem that Rachel Fleishman deals with too; she gets judged for her professional ambition and her success, the implication being: You've achieved so much, why not just... stop? It's still seen as unseemly for a woman to dominate, to be unable or unwilling to say no, even as we recoil at women who keep saying yes, who keep asking for more.
"We're supposed to know how to live? Who has ever known how to live?"
This type of woman—ambitious, successful, enviable—is a familiar one to Brodesser-Akner: She profiles them, she writes novels about them, and she is one. And, she made clear, there's an aspect of it that comes to her naturally: "I have incredible economy of motion; I can write really fast; I can talk really fast; I can process things really quickly." But while this has helped her in her career, it also has made it hard as she continues to excel: "The expectation of now is that even if you can do those things, you're still expected to do it more and more and more."
"I feel so crushed by the total disruption of physical expectations, I don't know what to do with it," Brodesser-Akner said:
I don't know how to live in it. I don't know how to write my novel and also write my journalism and also exercise and also be present as a mother and also be a caring wife—and also, I am a sister to three different people; I am a daughter to two different people. And my friends, who put up with me, I am forever telling them that one day there will be time, and I don't know if that's a lie... And I don't know if I want to live this way anymore. But I also don't know if maybe I'm supposed to live this way.
That Brodesser-Akner is familiar with the spiraling frenzy of concerns shared by everyone I know—particularly successful women—that no matter how much we'll do, we will never be doing enough, so maybe none of it is worth it, is not surprising; these feelings are as universal as they are intractable. Because just recognizing them isn't enough. Opting out of everything we've worked for still feels like, if not an indication of failure, at least a kind of submission, an acceptance of the fact that we won't ever be in control of our own stories, that our lives won't ever be the ones other people talk about, that—given the freedom to do whatever we want—we decided to do nothing.
"It's this land of opportunity, and we're supposed to say no?" Brodesser-Akner asked.
But then maybe there is another way. And maybe it's not fully apparent yet, but we're getting closer, by being open about the complications of life right now; by refusing to abdicate our positions, just because they make some people uncomfortable; by making clear that we know the world is bullshit, but we're still going to make something out of it anyway; by sharing the stories of women who will never be simple heroes; by revealing the endless privilege of the powerful; and by having fun with the whole thing, even as we work to subvert it. We don't have to know what the end game is, we just need to keep playing as best we can.
Because, as Brodesser-Akner pointed out: "We're supposed to know how to live? Who has ever known how to live?"
Fleishman Is in Trouble is available for purchase, here.
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