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.