September 2015

Austin Grossman

Pussy

Reading Herzog with Bitch Eyes

When you end up in a two-week AirBnB in southern Florida as a man of forty-six, it doesn't happen by accident. In the past year, I've walked away from a house, a relationship, friends, with only two suitcases to show for it.

There's a story here, if only I could figure out how to tell it.

And the irony is that the cheap temporary apartment I've wound up in offers the tantalizing promise of solving it all. It's obviously a man's: the decor is something like "New Century Bachelor," dirt bikes and bad-boy alt-rock bands and -- eureka! -- a library to match. Cormac McCarthy. Chuck Palahniuk. James Frey. Augusten Burroughs. Roth, Mailer, and Kerouac. No fewer than ten volumes of Charles Bukowski's poems. We're only missing Updike and Brodkey, but these are definitively the men who men read, chroniclers of mid-life crises, confused twenties, artistic yearnings, failure and success.

It's almost the whole corpus of masculine writing from the last fifty-odd years, the American Masculine Novel. Don't they have answers about what's happening? After all, I'm living a literary trope already: mid-life white guy hits the road. I need to see the story in how I got here, and a way of imagining what comes next. Talk to me, my brothers.

They don't. It's not what I need, and in fact it's everything I don't. What I can see here are the shabby self-regarding tales of aging men, stories of over-idealized true love, of showy sexual obsession, of self-pity and abusive drinking and contrived tragic plot twists. These are the post-war American authors of the male experience, and by and large they are a self-obsessed, self-aggrandizing, and mendacious bunch.

I know this puts me out of step with just about everyone, which is another enigma for me to deal with. This is the canon of beloved male writers, and I've met their fans. The post-collegiate frat-boy intellectual, desperate to tell me about Fight Club or Rabbit, Run, a boozy close-talker bucking for partner at his law firm but still nostalgic for his undergrad Great Books course. He could be hosting a dinner party and I'll sneak a look at his copy of Portnoy's Complaint, underlined, with notes in the margin like "So FUCKING true." I've been on a date with a woman who won't stop talking Knausgaard, and shuts down and sulks when I call Bellow into question. Or the guy at the bar who will follow me into the men's bathroom to finish his point, leaning to bellow from one urinal to the next, recommending, teary-eyed, the Updike novel that changed his life.

How'd we end up with these guys? I ask this as a male reader and a male novelist, and specifically as a guy unpacking his toiletry bag and scouting for power outlets for the second time this month.

Among the many reasons for this train of thought is that I'm a judge for the Daphne Awards Fiction Prize, which goes to the best book of fifty years ago. And right then, there was a change happening, and the American literary canon of the male mid-life crisis was taking shape. Updike and Roth were just beginning to find their feet, with Rabbit, Run and Goodbye, Columbus, and maybe most definitively Saul Bellow's 1964 novel Herzog.

Herzog is the novel Bellow wrote after discovering his wife's affair with his best friend. The middle-aged cuckolded English professor Herzog hides out in his decaying house in Western Massachusetts, where he commences a book-length self-obsessed monologue as he searches for meaning in a post-rejection world. Which, spoiler, will involve moody self-obsessed erudition, much wandering through New York, lengthy recollection of sexual partnerships.

Herzog wanders through New York and Chicago, buttonholing friends and family members for answers, but these secondary characters flit past, shadows on the wall of Herzog's private cave. The sexy intellectual ex-wife, her lover the clownish ex-friend, mom and dad, all rendered in virtuosic prose but barely a whisper of interest in their particular inner lives. Nothing really matters but Herzog's performance of wounded vanity.

It is, in fact, hailed as a high point of American literature but even if I were swept up in this self-infatuated, hapless-intellectual-cuckold narrative, how does everyone sign up for the part where Herzog sets out for his ex's and brings a gun with him? Couched as comically impotent male rage, I guess it seems like a cute piece of fun if you somehow don't know that three women a day are killed by their male partners in circumstances no different from what we're talking about.

But by all means, let's all love Herzog! On NPR, Jeffrey Eugenides dribbles out, "The mark of a truly original work of art is that is gets truer the older it is." The New York Times review said it was a "masterpiece," and also, in passing, called Herzog's wife a "bitch" and a "slut." Bravo, gentlemen. I hope everything's all right at home.

In fact the most interesting character in the entire book is only there for a single paragraph -- the anonymous woman on a train who wanders past in the prose blizzard of Bellow's psychodrama:

He saw twenty paces away the white soft face and independent look of a woman in a shining black straw hat which held her head in depth and eyes that even in the signal-dotted obscurity reached him with a force she could never be aware of. Those eyes might be blue, perhaps green, even gray -- he would never know. But they were bitch eyes, that was certain. They expressed a sort of female arrogance which had an immediate sexual power over him; he experienced it again that very moment -- a round face, the clear gaze of pale bitch eyes, a pair of proud legs.

She bows out a few lines later: "The bitch-eyed girl was on the other track, and good riddance," although I think what Herzog really means is, "What a relief." Oh, the terror of the bitch eyes, which clearly belong in a more interesting book than Bellow ever wrote.

And meanwhile, I'm still in that AirBnB with its devoted library. I'm in fact the man who lost both a stable residence and relationship, and I'm living in hotels and temporary residences, And I can't tell you how much I need a book that tells me how to live through it.

But reading Herzog I personally don't give a fuck. I never asked Herzog how he was doing, he just came out with it; he's the dinner guest I'm terrified I'll be seated next to. And he'll stay at the party for decades yet, performing his wounded libido and thwarted ambition to the world at large. We got him in 1960 in Rabbit, Run, and we'll get him in 1969 in Portnoy's Complaint. They can write sentences like nobody's business but why is the thinking so second rate and tunneled in on itself? A year after The Feminine Mystique sparked a national discourse of constructive uncertainty, Herzog is a howl of posturing narcissism and infantile longing. It's not revolutionary, it's not humane, it's not even smart.

I guess my own eyes are the bitch kind too, because I don't give a fuck about the canon of narcissistic baby boomers who occupy most of the postwar space. I don't give a fuck about maximalist masculine swagger. I don't give a fuck about the vein of self-deprecating ironic masculine failure that's been mined out for decades. I don't give a fuck about the self-conscious erudite avant-garde. Nerd-lit, lad-lit, postmodern noir, neo-western, science fiction, and fantasy, why not. I am just about halfway to giving a fuck about Raymond Carver. It's possible I haven't given a fuck about a male novelist since early Joyce. For sixty years it's been a sealed labyrinth where we keep arriving at the same dead ends, theme, and mediocre variations.

So this is my column. I'm going to read novels by men and hope that I find what I'm looking for, which is what? A voice that gives me anything new about speaking as a man. Which I say, as a male writer and the son of one, at the age of forty-six, I want something better. I want the surprise, the astonishment of reading Kathy Acker or Marguerite Duras. I want anger without an entitled sense of grievance. Pride without noxious swagger. Sentiment without self-pity, or self-parody, or a pandering for extra credit. Love that remembers what generosity is, not just trauma. An acknowledgement of history without being trapped in it. I want transcendence and purity. I want better from the useless, lying, pussy gang of male novelists who ought to write a braver, smarter, newer book. I want a man to try harder and take just one little risk. Is that too much to ask?