Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation
Metropolitan Books, 2014
224 pp., $25.00
Andrea Palpant Dilley
Juicers, Cheaters, and Men Who Hate Hillary
In the mid 1990s, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Susan Faludi launched an investigation of American masculinity for a book called Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. She began her research "exactly where a feminist journalist would begin": at a domestic violence group in Long Beach, California. (The same group, in fact, that O. J. Simpson was assigned to and evaded.) She walked in expecting to find "masculinity on a rampage" and instead found men who had "lost their compass in the world," men who "had lost or were losing jobs, homes, cars, families," who "had been labeled outlaws but felt like castoffs." The Marlboro Man—that icon of unassailable masculinity—was laid up in a hospital bed, jobless, horseless, and wracked with prostate cancer. "As the nation wobbled toward the millennium," Faludi wrote, "American manhood was under siege."
Over a decade later, the siege gained force in the Great Recession—close to six million men lost their jobs—and another journalist, Hanna Rosin, touched a national nerve with a cover story (and later book) titled "The End of Men." It may turn out, Rosin suggested, that the male sex isn't well suited to a post-industrial society. What happens to the average man in an information culture that doesn't care if he can hoist an I-beam or aim a rifle?
And now in Men, cultural critic Laura Kipnis shares her own "Notes on an Ongoing Investigation." She zeroes in on the most outlandish characters, yet each in his own way embodies the modern Everyman's struggle to find security and masculine identity in a shifting world. Among them: The Scumbag, featuring the notorious pornographer Larry Flynt; Juicers, a study of James Frey, author of the retracted memoir A Million Little Pieces; Haters (literary critic Dale Peck); Humiliation Artists (Anthony Weiner); Cheaters (Tiger Woods); Self-Deceivers (John Edwards); and finally, my favorite category, Men Who Hate Hillary, of whom there are many. (It's worth noting, by the way, that a man could never get away with writing about a comparable list of disgraced women.)
At a glance, Kipnis looks like a feminist at a shooting range where the targets are faceless "pin-ups" of fallen men. But in fact she's taking paper cutouts and rendering them with great dimension and humanity. The pathologically cruel critic Dale Peck had a mean father, it turns out, and Kipnis worms her way "into his tender psyche" to find the grief that fuels his aggression. Larry Flynt, she tells us, grew up in profound poverty in Magaffin County, Kentucky, which might account for the class conflict that haunts the pages of Hustler, and Tiger Woods is not simply the disciplined sports hero we all thought he was but rather "as needy and conflicted as the rest of us."
Kipnis loves Freud, which means for her that even upstanding men contend with hidden needs and other sublimated dimensions of their modern selves. (Case in point: the professor who last week stood in my kitchen "wearing" our baby in a baby carrier, praising the new dishwasher product I'd bought at the grocery store—so sparkly!—and then quoting Thomas Merton, was also the same man who recently went to a video arcade with his friends to experience the thrill of simulated war. One of them, a highly educated Anglican priest, allegedly said, "I just want to shoot stuff.")
In one of her most astute studies, Kipnis replays the story of a teacher (celebrity professor Harold Bloom) coming on to a student (the feminist Naomi Wolf). You can imagine the scene: a student rental house somewhere near Yale; a sagging couch; an undergraduate clutching her manuscript and hoping for praise; the professor, leaning in with an unwelcome sexual advance.
Without hesitation, Wolf rebuffed him. Bloom "retreated to nurse his wounds." Twenty years after the incident, Wolf published an essay in The New Yorker coming out with her buried story and lambasting both Bloom and Yale for their failures. (For the record, it was not quid pro quo harassment.)
"Ascribing such scenes to male sexual rapaciousness alone doesn't explain enough," writes Kipnis. Rather than portray Bloom as lecherous male predator and Wolf as female prey, she claims they're both objectifying each other and projecting fantasies. Bloom, "the aging ugly man," sought sexual and emotional approval from a younger woman. Wolf, the nascent writer, sought intellectual approval from an older male authority figure. "Since [Bloom] was so intellectually selective," Wolf wrote in The New Yorker, "I was 'sick with excitement' at the prospect" of his interest. Kipnis sums up: