Tuesday, September 16, 2008

"Stories for Men" by John Kessel

One of the effects of a magazine-and-award-oriented short story culture is that I often remember stories but not their authors. I admired John Kessel's writing, therefore, long before I knew his name. His two publication in SciFiction, "The Baum Plan for Financial Independence" and "It's All True," both made my best of SciFiction lists for their respective years, and "The Invisible Empire," which I read in Conjunctions 39, has lingered in my mind for several years. Once I put the three stories together with a single author, I knew that I had to give his collection, The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Other Stories (available under Creative Commons License here), a look. I wasn't disappointed. Baum Plan is an excellent collection, full of smart, playful stories, which cover every genre, sub-genre, and quasi-genre under the speculative fiction umbrella, but the best of the bunch is undoubtedly the novella "Stories for Men."

The second in a sequence of four stories called The Lunar Quartet (it is preceded by "The Juniper Tree," and followed by "The Lunchbox Tree" and "Sunlight or Rock"), which were published between 2000 and 2006 in Asimov's and Science Fiction Age, "Stories for Men" is set in a colony on Fowler crater on the far side of the moon. Established some 60 years before the story's beginning, the colony is the home of The Society of Cousins, a matriarchal group whose founders sought to rid themselves of violence and the fear of it by drastically reducing the roles and rights of men. Family among the Cousins is centered around the mother. Children are raised by their mothers and aunts, and whatever male happens to be around--who may or may not be their father. Property is passed down the maternal line, and partner-less men are the wards of their mother, sisters, or the state. Men receive a stipend which allows them to pursue their interests at leisure, but if they accept it they have to live under a woman's roof and forfeit the right to vote. Men who want to vote must leave their mother's house, live in communal housing, and do menial labor. As "Stories for Men" opens, a male Cousin has begun agitating against the status quo, and the story is told from the viewpoint of 17 year old Erno, one of his admirers.

If "Stories for Men" were simply a depiction of a gender-flipped version of pre-feminist societal norms, it would still be a powerful, if perhaps broad, social commentary. Kessel holds up a distorting mirror to inequalities common in our society a century ago (and in some cases even more recently) and his reimagining of them is flawless, effortlessly finding the middle ground between familiarity and the demands of his invented setting. Erno is repeatedly told not to complain about his lot in life, that he is protected and pampered while women face the hardships of the real world, have to make a home and a life for themselves and the men and children they support--a perfect mirror-image of the argument which has been put to women when they demanded the vote, or the right to study and work. Erno's mother, a policewoman, is described like so many antagonists of women's self-discovery and empowerment: "She was comfortable in the world; she saw no need for alternatives." Hers is the role of the narrow-minded, rule-bound parent, which in naturalistic fiction is almost invariably the father's.

At the same time, "Stories for Men" is cognizant of its premise, and of the ways in which a straight-up reversal of familiar gender roles would suit it poorly. So, though historically the subjugation of any group has tended to have economical underpinnings--if you need slaves to make your economy run and guarantee your wealth, you're bound to find some group which strikes you as naturally predisposed to the role--among the cousins it is a philosophical decision, a violent reaction to the prevalence of violence against women, and violence in general, in male-dominated society. Other unique touches include the diabolical choice forced on male Cousins, between self-actualization and enfranchisement, which rather neatly prevents men from ever gaining a substantial voice in the running of the colony while allowing its female members to claim that men choose to be voiceless, and the Cousins' attitude towards sex, which can best be described as 'yes, please.' The vilification of sex, of women's sexuality, and of promiscuity are all foregone conclusions in a patriarchal society in which property and titles are passed down the male line and yet one has only the mother's word as to who a child's father is. If property is passed down the maternal line, these attitudes and restrictions vanish, and consequently the only sex the Cousins outlaw is the non-consensual kind. Men take on a role that is just this side of sex-toys, and relationships are easily entered into and just as easily gotten out of.

There is more to "Stories for Men," however, than just this reversal, however sophisticated its execution. The novella is a drawn-out exercise in frustrating its readers' sympathies and expectations. Our initial response is to recoil from Cousin society, its inequalities and codified prejudices, but Kessel's choice to set the story in our own universe, and to stress that outside the Cousins' enclave everything is business as usual, divides our loyalties. The Cousin women aren't simply exploiters, as they would be in a story whose author had simply posited a wholesale reversal of gender roles, but people who have fled exploitation, or their descendants. Kessel never lets us forget that what they are reacting to--the casual acceptance of violence towards women, the twisted attitudes towards sex and sexuality, the ceaseless condescension--is real, and still going on just outside their door, so that even as we abhor their chosen reaction we can't help but wonder whether they might not be onto something. (There is also something almost whiny about Erno's dissatisfaction with his situation, which on the whole is so much better than what women in equivalent situations have endured--he enjoys the protection of the law, after all, and is free to pursue an occupation rather than being expected to drudge for his mother and sisters until he marries. One is reminded of the old joke that, if men were responsible for childbearing, the artificial womb would have been invented decades ago.)

For all these misgivings, however, there is no doubt that Cousin society is rooted in a grave injustice, and that the people seeking to address that wrong have a solid case. Kessel gives our moral compass another good rattle, therefore, in his choice of the champion of this cause, a stand-up comedian and social agitator who uses the stage name Tyler Durden ("I think it's historical," one character says). Brilliant as this allusion is, the novella's first segment, in which Erno attends one of Tyler's performances, which leads to a riot, and escapes with him through the colony's forgotten tunnels, is reminiscent not so much of Chuck Palahniuk's novel as it is of the Tom Cruise segments of the movie Magnolia. Tyler's rhetoric is just the kind of vile, misogynistic, poison that character, a self-help guru who holds seminars for men who feel downtrodden by their inability to succeed with women, pours into his listeners' ears when he urges them to "respect the cock, and tame the cunt!" Like him, Tyler blames women for his misfortunes, and accuses them of using sex to subjugate and confuse men. The problem is that in this particular setting, he isn't entirely wrong.

Racism (or any other kind of -ism), we're told, is prejudice + power, and in the setting of "Stories for Men" women hold all the power. Does that mean that Tyler's invective is harmless, perhaps even justified? When we first meet Erno, he's described as "a seventeen-year-old biotech apprentice known for the clumsy, earnest intensity with which he propositioned almost every girl he met"--an off-putting description that recalls the infamous Nice Guy, who can't conceive of any reason to interact with a woman except in order to have sex with her. But in Erno's society, his social position is determined by his mate, and for him not to have one means his continued immurement in his mother's home. Does this not justify his desperation?

For a time, Kessel's Tyler Durden follows in the original's footsteps. Like him, he pulls off daring stunts that tweak the noses of those in authority without endangering or hurting anyone, while playing games of trust and dominance with this followers meant to help them become his idea of what a real man is like--people who stand tall and make their mark on their surroundings, who embrace the moment and disdain caution, comfort, and compromise. Where the two characters diverge is in their attitude towards women. Kessel's Tyler is, for all his grand rhetoric, a misogynist. "Men put their lives on the line for every microscopic step forward our pitiful race has made." He announces at a town meeting. "Nothing’s more visible than the sacrifices men have made for the good of their wives and daughters. Yes, women died, too—but they were real women, women not threatened by the existence of masculinity." This last shows a laughably poor grasp of history, and puts me in mind of a similar passage from Richard Morgan's Black Man, in which a character concludes that 20th century American society was 'feminized' because of the crisis it posed for 'traditional' (or perhaps imaginary) manhood. In the end, Tyler shows his true colors by urging Erno to procure for him a virus that would quickly kill the next generation of Cousin women while allowing the men to live--something the 'real' Tyler Durden would never sink to.

Of course, the real Tyler Durden doesn't have much of an opinion about women in general. There is one female character in Fight Club, and though she is hardly marginal or a plaything, neither does she affect Tyler's choices or philosophy. Tyler urges his followers to be men, to revel in each other's company, in violence for its own sake and for the sake of feeling their strength and vitality, but he never says anything to them about women. The closest he comes is a quip about "a generation of men raised by women," but his problem here is not with women but with the absence of men, and specifically fathers. Though it's never stated in these terms, the original Tyler Durden's philosophy seems to be the one expressed by Erno's father when the boy tracks him down:
"The genius of the founders, Erno"—Micah opened another drawer and started on the next rack of tomatoes—"was that they minimized the contact of males and females. They made it purely voluntary. Do you realize how many centuries men and women tore themselves to pieces through forced intimacy? In every marriage, the decades of lying that paid for every week of pleasure? That the vast majority of men and women, when they spoke honestly, regretted the day they had ever married?"
Palahniuk's Tyler Durden lives in a world of men. His interest is in masculinity, which to his mind has nothing to do with its relation to femininity. Unlike Tom Cruise in Magnolia, Tyler Durden's beef isn't with women but with society (and unlike the character twisted by his frustrated sense of entitlement in Black Man, he doesn't conflate the two) and its expectations from him. The social contract dictates that Tyler live a small, boring, unremarkable life, work in an office, have a family, and most of all buy things, and in exchange, he will be allowed to live safely and comfortably. Tyler rebels against this life. He wants neither its privileges nor its obligations. And this, for all their differences, brings Kessel and Palahniuk's Tylers back into agreement. Both of them are rebelling against safety and caution, against the conformity imposed by a society that offers this kind of extensive safety net. Kessel's Tyler, however, equates the suffocating protectiveness of Cousin society with femininity--men seek conquest and exploration, women crave security and stability.

It's an opinion expressed by other characters in the story. In an attempt to get through to him, Erno's mother tells him about an encounter with a security officer on another, non-matriarchal lunar colony, whom she reproved for wasting precious water: "He thought that invoking the free market settled the issue, as if to go against the market were to go against the laws of nature. The goal of conquering space justified the expenditure, he said—that they’d get more water somewhere else when they used up the lunar ice. ... The market as a law of nature? ‘Conquering space?’ How do you conquer space? That’s not a goal, it’s a disease." To Tyler's mind, the Cousins' choice to prioritize safety has doomed them. As in other stories about men encountering female-dominated, peaceful societies--Tiptree's "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?", Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland--he insists that the sublimation of masculinity equals the sublimation of struggle and growth, and that without the violence that men bring to society it will stagnate, "an evolutionary dead end" (but then, maybe it's just peace-loving utopias that bring this attitude out in those observing them--see just about every outsider's reaction to the Culture in Iain M. Banks's novels).

There's a boatload of assumptions driving Tyler's conclusions, and the most significant one--that men crave violence and women crave security--seems to underpin "Stories for Men" itself. I certainly would like to believe that this isn't true, but poised as we are at the very beginning of the long process of disentangling ourselves from millennia of absolute male domination, it's difficult to say one way or another. Like the best stories of James Tiptree Jr., however, "Stories for Men" is persuasive in its worldview, at least while one reads it.

The story's title comes from a book Erno finds, a short story anthology published in 1936, featuring authors like Dashiell Hammett and Ernest Hemingway, which he makes his way through as the events of Tyler's rebellion unfold. One by one, he is shocked by the violence and despair underlying these stories, which depict men being broken and undone by an uncaring society that rewards might and stomps on those in need. Erno's education in school has a distinctive slant to it--the authors he's read are, in another one of Kessel's brilliantly revealing reversals, "Murasaki, Chopin, Cather, Ellison, Morrison, Ferenc, Sabinsdaughter," so for him this may be the first time he encounters male protagonists, and certainly male authors (though in light of this extensive reading list it is perhaps surprising that the content of the stories in Stories for Men should have shocked him so). At the same time, however, the portrait it presents of these protagonist's lives is a grim and dispiriting one.

I think it's possible to say that "Stories for Men" boils down to this bitter choice--safety in a cage, or freedom in a dangerous, cruel world. Feminism (and most other forms of social activism) is, among other definitions, the demand to eliminate this choice, to give women the right to step out of their cage and yet live in a community that cares for its members and doesn't victimize them, but is the end result of this demand that society make itself safer and kinder the restrictive, exploitative Society of Cousins? Or was the Cousins' choice to turn away from the patriarchal world an abdication, which helped to ensure that, when Erno does venture into the outside world in "Sunlight or Rock," his experiences read like an entry out of Stories for Men? What came first, gendered predilections for and against violence, or patriarchal, strength-driven society? I don't know. Neither does John Kessel, but he pokes and prods at these questions, and the others that I've raised throughout this essay, and as a result "Stories for Men" is one of the most thought-provoking, consuming pieces of fiction I've ever read, and certainly one of the best short stories I've read this year.

8 comments:

ad said...

As in other stories about men encountering female-dominated, peaceful societies--

Which always infuriate me. Has no one heard of Catherine the Great or Bloody Mary, to name but two?

Dotan Dimet said...

I just re-read Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest, where everyone is hard-as-nails, and the only time someone cracks and shows emotion is when confessing a murder (all the murders are of course crimes of passion).

There was an essay making the rounds a while ago called "What are men for?" or something like that, talking about how men occupy the extremes of both achievement and fucked-up-ness much more than women, and how this ties into their different reproductive r vs. K strategies. You could extrapolate that to theorize that women would prefer low risk social organization like socialism, while men would tend to organize society along more high-risk, capitalist lines.

ad said...

And yet, female rulers have behaved, in power, in much the same way as male ones. After all, they had at least one goal in common: to stay in power.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Yes, but the question (which "Stories for Men" raises, and perhaps also offers an answer for) is, did these female rulers behave like male ones because their only models for how a ruler behaves were male, and because they were still operating within a system in which most of the players were male and therefore the rules of masculine behavior were still imposed? Or did they behave that way because women have the same predilection towards violence, ambition, and savagery as men, but much fewer opportunities to express it? As I said, I really don't think we're anywhere near the point where we can answer this question with authority, but it doesn't seem unreasonable to me to suggest that a society in which women dominated, and explicitly rejected the received values and institutions of male-dominated society, would be very different from what we've seen in the past, though not necessarily anything like what Kessel, Tiptree or Gilman imagined.

ad said...

The obvious way to answer such a question is to compare nunneries with monasteries, all female boarding schools with all male boarding schools, male prisons with female ones, offices full of men with offices full of women, etc.

And there are differences. But none of those institutions is devoid of competition for social status. None is “peaceful”.

I sometimes think that authors of this kind of story ought to watch Mean Girls or read Notes on a Scandal. I am not at all convinced that they genuinely thinking about this question at all. It seems to me that they are writing in duckspeak.

In the meantime, I suppose I should be reading this book: http://www.susanpinker.com/book.html

Or, on the principle that to study one sex is to study the other: http://www.norahvincent.net/self-made_man/index.html

John Kessel said...

Abigail:

Thank you for this extremely thoughtful analysis. You really got the story I was trying to write, and are even too kind to my inconsistencies, such as the degree of knowledge Erno should have of Earth culture and literature, which I never got quite right.

I didn't ever mean that women do not have conflicts with other women, jealousies and desires for power. The "Mean Girls" phenomenon is supposed to be there, in particular in "Under the Lunchbox Tree." But I also do wonder if a female dominated society would be as violent in the way most male-dominated ones have been. The examples of female rulers in our history seem to me not to be very relevant, since any woman who rises to rule a country in our world has to learn to live by male standards of power wielding, or else she would never rise to or keep power.

I need to write a story set among the Cousins from an adult female POV, that deals with conflicts between women and how they proceed and are resolved. But I don't think all women would be the same in this, just as all people are not the same in our society.

Your blog is astonishingly well written and thought out. I learn things whenever I read it.

All best.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

John:

Thanks for commenting - I'm glad you enjoyed this piece.

I go back and forth on what I think a truly feminine dominated society would look like. As you say, any examples we have from history are tainted by what women are taught to be like and what they're taught powerful, dominant behavior should be like. That said, it occurs to me that the Society of Cousins is just as powerfully affected by this history, and I think that's part of the story's strength - that it isn't necessarily a representation of how an organic matriarchy would shake out as a depiction of matriarchy as a response to millennia of patriarchy.

I'd love to read more Cousin stories, so I hope you do write the one you talk about here. Either way, I look forward to reading more of your work.

Stephen Flaherty said...

Hmm...

OK, I saw the book somewhat differently. It was a study of Erno and his stifling by the society in which he was born - a deliberate stifling done by the rulers of said society. His reaction against this was to rebel, a normal enough action for a teenager, but one that this time wasn't totally unjustified. Hence the story.

Tyler, presumably, had a similar reaction to the society in which he grew up and so, presumably, did his following. Tyler's rebellion, which starts out as words and satire, provokes a response from the rulers, which is to ban it and him (to be fair, they never got to decide this, but you could see where it was going and so could Tyler, hence his going on the run). Erno's response is, naturally, to seethe at this injustice and to go deeper into rebellion.

Now up until this point, I was quite fond of the story. Because the Society of Cousins is kind of a nice place, but it's one that's built on systematic injustice. Is this injustice necessary for the society to thrive in the way it does? If so, does that excuse the injustice? And if you're one of those at the receiving end of said injustice, how should you respond? How far is a society like the Cousins' justified in going in responding to this challenge? And can a society like the Cousins' cope with a rebellion without distorting the values it claims to be protecting? These are all interesting points and make a good story.

But then it goes wrong. As you say:

"In the end, Tyler shows his true colors by urging Erno to procure for him a virus that would quickly kill the next generation of Cousin women while allowing the men to live..."

This is known as loading the argument and it's an ancient technique. The guy arguing for socialism turns out to be a soviet agent trying to overthrow the government and institute a Stalinist dictatorship, so of course we can dismiss all the arguments he made for socialism and against capitalism. The guy arguing that Israel's treatment of the Palestinians is wrong turns out to be a closet Nazi so we can ignore everything he says about that (that one's from Exodus, incidentally/) And so on. It's essentially an ad hominem attack and it means that the questions we were asking before - all quite difficult to answer - are swept aside and replaced with the following:

"Is it justifiable to commit gynocide in order to try and overthrow a society like the cousins'?"

Answer: No, it isn't. As any ten year old could have said. As Erno decides almost instantly.

It would have been better to explore what would have happened without the threat of gynocide – to see how the Cousins reacted to an essentially non-violent rebellion, or at least a non gynocidal rebellion. This was kind of hinted at after Tyler's going on the run, in that the Cousins' reaction was extreme and panicked and would probably have got worse the longer he stayed on the run. It seemed to me that they weren't worried about Tyler's possibly terrorist activities as much as they were worried about his ideas and how much they'd taken root in the male youth of their society. That was an interesting story because, as you yourself say, he isn't entirely wrong (translation: he has a point.)

But then we find out that he's a terrorist after all. The cousins were right and Erno was wrong. Move along, nothing to see here. Go back to sleep, it's all over.

I thought that was a bit of a cop out. And I think Kessel took it because he couldn't se any other way of discrediting Tyler and ending his revolt.

Still loved the story, though. Just had a different reaction to it.

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