The new man-wife
Fleishman is in Trouble makes you think about modern gender roles, technology and the re-invention of marriage
Toby Fleishman is the new man. He does yoga and supports his wife’s career — Rachel is founder-manager of a super successful New York talent agency. Her erratic work hours leaves Toby as the main carer for their children. Toby himself, is only a humble doctor and life-saver — a hepatologist who refuses to sell out, whether it is switching to a highly paid but ethically dubious private sector start-up venture or the hospital’s administrative wing. Sure, his research grant didn’t work out, and he’s a bit conscious about what he eats because his mother nagged him about his weight as a teenager, but he is out there, fighting the good fight. He has an adorable toddler younger son. The older child is a girl who is getting increasingly difficult, and too much like her mother. Toby is also short, at 5' 5".
And, then, his marriage falls apart. Rachel is too aggressive, nasty, and a social climber. She is an uninvolved parent. All Rachel cares about is money, status, and getting into the right social cliques. The problem, as Toby discovers during the legal separation, is that he earns a lot less than his spouse.
After hearing about their financial arrangement, Toby is told by the divorce attorney, to his shock, that, “he is the wife”.
Toby is devastated by the separation but, prodded by his medical assistants, he dips a toe in the endless tide of curves, tongues, fingers, orifices and warm bodies that the modern smart phone makes available via apps. Some kind of balance appears in his life: he works, exercises, parents, and then goes on “adult play dates”. One weekend, however, he discovers that his ex-wife has dropped the kids off to his apartment, and disappeared blowing his plans to kingdom come.
The author utilises an interesting literary device to tell the story: the novel is told from the perspective of Toby’s childhood friend, a former men’s magazine journalist and now housewife who is mounting a losing battle against weight gain and loves smoking (who seems based on Taffy Brodesser-Akner herself). They are part of a trio of friends who met as students abroad in Israel. Seth, the third friend, is the archetypical banker-lad party boy, the kind who is huge fun in small doses.
Brodesser-Akner has a great sense of observational comedy— for instance, her use of mom t-shirt slogans and what they reveal about a person’s character are lethal. But under the hood, and beside the jokes, the novel is motivated by the pain of discrimination.
The fundamental contradiction of this period of history that a married man must negotiate is the increased responsibility at home (such as, dual-income teamwork or contributing labour to child care) while looking through shop and screen windows at the freedom and options offered by easy divorce, dating apps and porn tube sites. If marriage was the best option for reliable sex, then technology has made that particular motivation redundant. What our age seems to offer a man is a choice between extreme emasculation or extreme debauchery.
The author seems to propose a thesis that the human male’s most extraordinary talent is not hunter-gathering or abstract thought, but a near limitless talent for inhabiting a state of self-serving bullshit and victimhood. The modern man has managed to find a way to combine the advantages of gender equality and the dismantling of sexual repression all the while constructing and believing in some kind of victimhood narrative. This allows a man to imagine a set of circumstances where he is emasculated and deprived of his natural entitlements. In reality, he is actually freer from social norms than ever before, and has invented a new way to sponge off the labour of women.
The novel is at its most powerful while interrogating the concept of normalcy. What exactly does it mean? Toby worshipped Rachel because her mental strength made her ‘not mad’ and rational in his eyes. But, slowly, what he admired his wife for started to look like coldness and sociopathy. Is it normal to find sex using technology? Is it normal to have two children or three? Is it normal for a man to raise his children and for a woman to make more money? Our idea of the normal and aspiration for this strange mythical balance of existence reveals more about assumptions than facts.
Fleishman is in Trouble is a well-constructed thought experiment that despite possessing a tone of levity packs a punch that makes the woke man sit down and think a little.