Review: ‘The Men,’ by Sandra Newman; and ‘When Women Were Dragons,’ by Kelly Barnhill – The New York Times

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THE MEN, by Sandra Newman


Are women, when you get right down to it, better than men?

Some think we are. They point to statistics: Men commit most violent crime and have started most wars. So, if women could physically overpower men or get rid of them altogether, would things be better? Two new novels investigate.

In Sandra Newman’s “The Men,” all cisgender men and transgender women suddenly vanish. When the protagonist Jane’s husband and son disappear from their camping vacation, she seeks out Evangelyne — her charismatic ex who now heads the country’s Commensalist Party (ComPA). “Evangelyne who I believed in above all people,” Jane thinks, “could find my son if anyone could.” Jane, a former dancer with a criminal record, is not alone in her quest — the story also follows other women longing for their men: a father, a best friend, a brother, two sons.

In their desperation, these women gravitate toward a mysterious online channel called “The Men,” which shows videos of the vanished “marching or standing in groups, mouths opening and closing in unison,” against an alien or demonic landscape. “The men were infinitely varied but their movements all the same,” a woman named Alma observes. She cannot pull herself from the screen: It even cures her alcoholism. The women hope that watching this channel will bring the missing back. But the rest of the world is moving along without them — inventing ways to fertilize eggs using female DNA, reunifying North and South Korea, reaching climate agreements, training women and transgender men to take on previously male-dominated jobs, like truck driving, or being the pope.

Some early readers have called “The Men” transphobic, because transgender women disappear along with the cisgender men. I see what they mean. The novel states that an unexplained force “had removed every human with a Y chromosome, everyone who’d ever been potentially capable of producing sperm.” Given that this is an imaginary landscape that Newman could have organized any way she chose, she’s effectively made a strong statement about where transgender people “belong”: Transgender men remain on Earth with the cisgender women. Some readers will — very reasonably — want to avoid this book because of it.

But for those who do read it, there are other elements worthy of discussion. Evangelyne’s political philosophy of commensalism — a biological term for a relationship between species in which one benefits and the other is not harmed — is fascinating. The sections in the demonic landscape are tremendously unsettling, and perfectly conveyed. In one clip the men stand stock-still on a riverbank, staring fixedly at the far shore. “Among the frozen humans … horse-sized felines stalk restlessly. An elephantine behemoth switches its tail.” The image begins to rapidly darken and lighten: “We see the shadows of the men and animals turning, lengthening and shortening. At the end, the men are visibly thinner.” These sections are eerie, propulsive and horrifying. The worst thing imaginable happens to a young boy in footsie pajamas. A friend who happened to watch me as I read this section told me my face changed shape almost beyond recognition. It is a book whose disturbing imagination reaches through the page into our world.

Jane’s story too is deeply troubling. At 16, she was groomed by the older director of her ballet troupe, Alain, who taught her to seduce — to abuse — boys as young as 13 so he could watch them having sex. When it came to trial it was harder to prosecute Alain than Jane; after all, he hadn’t touched the victims. Jane is branded a criminal and left destroyed: “I will never be whole, I can never feel good.”

Though the details differ, I too was groomed as a girl by a powerful man in my field with a sexual interest in young boys: Sidney Greenbaum, the Quain professor of English language at London University, who was convicted of his crimes in 1990. I know how it feels when your abuser deliberately cultivates an atmosphere of confusion around appropriate touch; and Newman portrays the mechanics of Jane’s grooming with pinpoint, and queasy, accuracy. The compliments, persuasive adult attention, slowly but inexorably shifting norms, being made complicit in something without the maturity to understand let alone consent to it. Jane’s complex feelings about men haunt the novel: Both her abuser and their victims were male. In the world men are warmongers but also innocent civilians. Men are more often victims of violent crime than women. The harder you look, the more intricate matters between the sexes become.

Things in Kelly Barnhill’s fable “When Women Were Dragons,” on the other hand, are much simpler. In 1955, a “mass dragoning” event turns more than 600,000 American women into giant, fire-breathing creatures who leave their husbands and children. Among them is 11-year-old Alex’s Auntie Marla, the mother of her cousin Beatrice, who comes to live with Alex thereafter. Alex, a physics prodigy whose own mother dies six years later, is a plucky, tenacious heroine, selflessly devoted to Beatrice and undaunted by her dismissive father or pervasive 1950s sexism. Is she too perfect to be real? Probably. But a book in which women spontaneously morph into dragons (amid social pressure to forget it ever happened) isn’t aiming for realism, just delightful fun.

Before she died, Alex’s mother worked with the mathematics of knots, writing “calculations and algebraic expressions that defined the ways in which each wobble, loop, twist and elbow intersected, interplayed.” Alex didn’t understand at the time that her mother was developing a magical practice to ward off dragoning. This is a lovely motif in the novel: knots of string and twine and wire forming and unraveling, as women try to stop themselves from dragoning. It’s a pleasing metaphor for the ways the ties that bind us to our lives can also hold us down.

Like Newman, Barnhill intersperses a variety of fictional “found texts” throughout her narrative, and they make for enjoyable and very funny sketches. There are academic papers on the history of dragoning in ancient Carthage; and news accounts of teenagers turning into dragons on a field trip and leaving one gibbering boy in their wake, or of a mysterious fire at a munitions factory where the corpses of the sexist foremen are found “in terrible states.”

Which brings us back to the question: If women were to turn into dragons and slaughter the men who have enraged them, would justice necessarily be served? If cisgender men and transgender women all disappeared, would this solve the modern world’s most pressing crises? Both books are aware that this isn’t the whole story. Evangelyne, who is Black, is viciously targeted by more than one racist woman, and even her white friend Jane is using her for her own ends. Alex’s stepmother is cruel and stupid. Neither novel truly believes human viciousness is confined to one gender.

Of course, these books are engaging fantasies, not political treatises. But their underlying premises are shaky. Surely it’s not gender but inequality that is important: When any one group holds power over another, some will always abuse it. If the only way to make the world better is to get rid of all men or burn them alive, then we really are screwed.

THE MEN, by Sandra Newman | 263 pp. | Grove | $27
WHEN WOMEN WERE DRAGONS, by Kelly Barnhill | 340 pp. | Doubleday | $28

Naomi Alderman is the author, most recently, of “The Power.”

Categories: books

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