A Squeeze of the Hand

If you read enough, you’re bound to find some strange coincidences among the literature you consume—even if you’re not specifically following a quirk or thread of literary history around on purpose. These coincidences can be small and meaningless; last weekend I happened to read the words “waistcoat” and “hazel” (as in the tree) in both Wuthering Heights and The Fellowship of the Ring on the same day. Funny! And sometimes they can be larger and, well, let’s find out if there’s any meaning there either.

I found myself tweeting a while ago the strange occurrence that I was reading back-to-back novels involving men uncomfortable and ultimately unable to give a semen sample in a fertility clinic, in pursuit of IVF treatments. There was something that seemed a little grotesque about it. How bourgeois is every freaking novelist I’m reading that there is a major fear among them of having to masturbate in semi-public? But I think that’s a superficial reaction.

The fear of the fertility clinic. Why does this seem like such a sad thing, above all? Let me begin to examine the two novels in question: The Dog by Joseph O’Neill and Arts & Entertainments by Christopher Beha.

Both are narrated by the male half of the couple trying to conceive. But in neither is a couple really trying to conceive; both are stories of men (gently) coerced (or not) into especial efforts to have a child that the woman wants only as a way of making her happy, not as an end in itself. How does the world react to such men, and the decisions they make?

In The Dog, the narrator, whose name we never learn (we learn that it starts with an X, so I’ll call him that) describes his ex-girlfriend Jenn’s righteous indignation when he first balks at and later completely bails on her plans to have a child. She sits him down for an all-night tirade about exactly what she is owed and why he owes it to her, and though he admits he didn’t much enjoy the experience, and that this is “a kid or kids who, in contradiction to her earlier feelings, Jenn now definitely felt ready to try to have,” and “changed her/our mind about the baby,” he carries the guilt of ending their relationship through the rest of the novel. Jenn’s a lawyer; did they sign a contract promising her a baby?

X explains, long after the breakup, that

[D]uring all those years of trying to do the right thing with and by and for Jenn, I never felt in the right. Always I sensed, close by, the doghouse. Not that I blamed her for this. Even as I understood the doghouse as an outbuilding of the phony coupledom for which surely both of us were responsible, it was clearly a doghouse built by me, with my name on it. Chronic self-misrepresentation and inner absenteeism are inconsistent with the performance of the duties of a loving partner.

But then, so is withholding sex, which is Jenn’s game—not to mention the little problem that she cares less about her actual, existing, living partner than about some beings she has no idea will even like her if they do appear.

For X, refusing to have a baby with Jenn means running away from his whole life, as she (or perhaps her friends) goes on to destroy his reputation, personally and professionally. He voluntarily exiles himself to Dubai, where the antics of a rich(ish) American expat enjoying the emirate’s boom make up the bulk of the events of the novel—and where, ultimately, he decides that the actions he’s taken in life (not limited to but including those with Jenn) amount to something he should be imprisoned for. Okay. As far as anything explicit in the novel goes, the worst thing he’s done is maybe facilitating some tax evasion, but if you’re looking for someone to call that unethical you should find another blog.

In Beha’s novel, narrator Handsome Eddie is a failed actor turned drama teacher, who would be maintaining a reasonable middle-class life with his wife Susan if it weren’t for her almost maniacal desire for children. “I just miss my children…. I know that sounds crazy,” she tells him, “but it’s like they exist out there somewhere—not just the idea of them—and they’re being kept from us.” These kinds of statements, along with the for-Eddie almost unbearable marital stress of strategic (and only strategic) sex, lead the couple tens of thousands of dollars into credit card debt to fund a first round of IVF treatments, which are unsuccessful. They’re broke, but Susan wants to try again, and Eddie decides against his better judgment to sell a decade-old sex tape to fund it (fortunately, he used to date a super hot and now-famous actress).

Most people would probably judge Eddie’s action unethical, though the novel makes clear that the actress was rather happier than not to have the tape out. But he did do it to make Susan’s dream possible, yet she seems to be the most angry with him. She immediately throws him out of the house, as if he’s wronged her in some way, and so begins the main bulk of this novel: a literary romp through the world of reality TV, where the plot of the novel—I mean, the plot of Eddie’s life—I mean, Eddie’s life—is determined by the interest and passions of the audience—I mean God. I’m not being flip here; Beha is brilliant in this book.

But the passions of the audience are against Eddie. His estranged wife, now pregnant with triplets, is lauded by the media and public, and not once called out as the reason behind Eddie’s actions. The fact that she doesn’t have the money to raise triplets (without a reality TV deal) is no reason to criticize her, even though it resulted from her impossible demand to do something very expensive without any realistic idea of how to pay for it (or how it was being paid for). Meanwhile, they hate Eddie no matter what he does, so he resolves to be as bad as possible to get a gig on Susan’s show.

Ultimately, this is Eddie’s salvation. His public disgrace is a complex ritual that ends in his absolution and his reunion with his beloved wife plus three bouncing baby girls. Why Eddie forgives his wife for shutting him out for her entire pregnancy is left, perhaps curiously, unexplained, but then again he never really gets angry with her about it in the first place. Like X in The Dog, Eddie believes he deserves to be punished.

And Susan gets everything she wanted and more. Her statements don’t “sound crazy”; they are crazy, crazy and horrible and certainly enough to send Eddie running screaming like X did, if he weren’t quite so in her thrall I guess. Presumably the explicitly Roman Catholic Susan vowed to stay with Eddie “for richer for poorer,” and they are too poor—considering the physical conditions—to have children. It is only the novel’s deus ex machina, which happily enough is actually meant to be a representation of God, that provides for Susan’s children, who have not only failed to indicate they want to live with her and Eddie at all, but certainly haven’t consented to growing up on reality TV—again, the only way to even pay for their diapers. If Nicole wrote a sequel to this novel, it would be about the triplets’ suit for emancipation in which their damages utterly ruin their parents’ lives.

The question seems less why these men would be uncomfortable sitting in a room waiting to send their sperm off for review, and more why they would take such a long walk down the sperm donor road at all.

Oh, right. Because the deus ex machina of Arts & Entertainments is society itself, and a solidly pro-natalist one.

Netherland by Joseph O’Neill

In The New York Times Book Review, Dwight Garner described Netherland as “the wittiest, angriest, most exacting, and most desolate work of fiction we’ve yet had about life in New York and London after the World Trade Center fell.” And since reading it myself, I’ve been wondering what I could add to that assessment.

The idea of “post-9/11” fiction is one that frustrates me. New York is New York is New York, and even standing across the street from the great hole in the earth that is still Ground Zero, you will be awash in a sea of business suits and cabbies and assorted other denizens of the financial district. The maze of lower Manhattan is even more difficult for driving with streets blocked off here and there, but in so many ways the city goes on—of course it does—and to demand of American novelists that they “confront” this event so we can have some sort of catharsis seems fundamentally wrong.

Which is why one of the things that appealed to me most about Netherland was that it was a post-9/11 novel that treated that tragic day as a fact of life. Hans, the protagonist, and his wife Rachel, are forced to leave their Chelsea apartment with their infant son and move into the Chelsea Hotel. Rachel, rattled by terrorism and American jingoism, and probably by a marriage on the rocks, leaves for London while Hans stays on. And Hans has a wonderful New York story to share with us once she’s left.

Alone and left to wander the hotel and the city, he finds to his surprise that there is a bit of a cricket underground in the New York metro area. The only white player among dozens of West Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Indians, Hans reverts to the sport of his youth and finds happiness on the pitch every other Saturday. He is led to discover more than just Chelsea and Wall Street—and his journeys through Brooklyn and the outer boroughs are not marred by any hipster teenagers or trendy hangouts. The cricket world is a point of entry to vital, teeming, immigrant New York—and while Hans may be white and a high-flying financier, he is very much the immigrant. Much of this culture spills out into the suburbs as well, and when Hans’s team played away games I was reminded of the Jamaican cricketers always found playing on my junior high school’s baseball field.

That is, I think, the great success of the novel. It is firmly post-9/11; it doesn’t try to hide or whitewash the tragedy. But it moves on, it takes us to Queens and even Peekskill and to the depths of the weirdness that is the Chelsea Hotel—ridiculously apt that a wealthy young couple should move there after being displaced from their tony loft.

Meanwhile O’Neill also does an excellent job of exploring an all too real marriage—one full of low-grade malaise that Hans just can’t seem to get his wife to overcome. As Hans wanders around the city with his new-found friend Chuck (O’Neill also does wonderful things with quiet, accepting-at-face-value male companionship), he thinks about his child, his wife, how he lost them, how he can get them back.

…I said nothing, thinking the matter inconsequential. It would certainly have astonished me to learn that years later I would look back on this episode and ask myself, as I did at the Elegant Antun’s, if it represented a so-called fork in the road—which in turn led me to drunkenly wonder if the course of a relationship of love was truly explicable in terms of right turns and wrong turns, and if so whether it was possible to backtrack to that split where it all went wrong, or if in fact it was the case that we are all doomed to walk in a forest in which all paths lead one equally astray, there being no end to the forest, an inquiry whose very uselessness led to another spasm of wayward contemplation that ended only when I noticed Chuck leading a hobbled Dr. Seem back into the chair next to mine.

Hans tells his story with the benefit of hindsight, so in a sense the whole novel is a backtracking over these forks—with Rachel, with Chuck, with his mother, with his career.

Does it take a foreigner to write a novel of New York that understands so well its immigrant center? It seems wrong, but O’Neill does not disappoint here. Does one have to leave New York to finally go home? I hope not—but Hans does, and his is now one of my favorite New York stories.