[7 January 2014]
Masculinity, like all identity classifications, is a tricky thing to define. Especially in this generation, when the boundaries for and expectations of what it means to be a “man”, “woman”, “heterosexual”, “homosexual”, “metrosexual,” and “asexual” are being challenged like never before. As an English professor, I often like to discuss essays and stories that tackle controversial issues, and so studies of gender and sexuality are at the top of my list. Although I’ve come across a plethora of fine readings on these subjects, I’ve never read a compilation as honest, eloquent, entertaining, and multifaceted as The Book of Men: Eighty Writers on How to Be a Man. Its easily digestible selections and variety in form and approach make it universally appealing and rewarding.
The Book of Men is the culmination of a striving experiment. Essentially, a new literary project, Narrative 4 (“a group of authors and activists who believe that something as simple as a story can change the world”), joined forces with Esquire magazine to ask 80 writers to submit untitled stories that revolved around the idea of “How to Be a Man”. As Esquire Fiction Editor Tyler Cabot explains,
… [Esquire] has always sought to instruct. Men need guidance on the small things… the eighty stories in this collection are sometimes funny and other times soaked in regret. They are about fear and love, ambition and lust, laughter and sex. They are about what it means to be a man today. These stories… use storytelling as a means to understand ourselves and one another.
While many of the authors are relatively obscure, a few names (and their respective tales) stand out. Afghan-American novelist Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner) writes one of the most heartbreaking and beautiful tales here, in which a man suspects his wife of adultery before learning the much grimmer truth. He then tries to rationalize his own value and options for the future, all the while seeming a bit selfish in the process. Hosseini’s language is precise and poetic as he veers into a second person perspective, forcing readers to contemplate how they’d feel in the same situation. It’s a masterful example of flash fiction.
Likewise, Michael Cunningham (The Hours) tackles S&M, burlesque dancing, male-to-male admiration, and transgender culture in a successful attempt to explore taboo lifestyles and relationships. His narrator is infatuated with Buck Angel, a resident celebrity and obvious stand-in for adult film starts like Ron Jeremy and John Holmes. He concludes with the following line: “Men. I mean, what are we, anyway?” which speaks to his overall thesis. It’s remarkable complex yet amusing, with a rhetorical purpose that feels like a more thoughtful (and less perverse) Bret Easton Ellis account.
Salman Rushdie crafts a delightful stream-of-consciousness piece in which the speaker shifts focus every couple sentences or so. He talks about an abundance of different visions, circumstances, and interpretations through the lens of his analyst, questioning the meaning and reason behind life in the process. There’s a superb level of visual specificity here, as well as eccentric ideas, which really sucks in the reader. His final thought—“Finally, inevitably, I died. I don’t what that meant, either, but it solved a few problems.”—is genious.
Of course, there a dozens of other gems here. For example, Tiphanie Yanique provides a humorous account of a boy who discovers his parents’ sex tape while they’re out of the house. Her descriptions run the gamut of emotion, from initial curiosity and confusion to fascination and arousal. In the process, she touches upon Freud’s Oedipus complex, as the child pictures himself dating and seducing this younger version of his mother. The story is so powerful because it brings to light a forbidden scenario that some children (particularly, boys) probably explore during adolescence.
Elsewhere, actor Gabriel Bryne surprises with his literary skills, as his Bildungsroman centers on a kid who reflects on apocalyptic weather and profound life lessons. There’s a bitter, hard truth in his details, and it reads like a prose poem at times. Bill Cheng structures his brilliant offering into seven segments, and each acts like a snapshot of brutality and beauty through the eyes of an animal. His symbolism is rich and his metaphor palpable, like a written interpretation of a painting.
Expectedly, there are also some lackluster contributions, including ones from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jodi Angel, John Boyne, and William Kittredge. To be fair, most these stories only feel subpar because the other ones are so strong (although a few are just plain pointless), and they help give the collection its diversity. One could argue that inconsistency is a necessary part of any artistic assortment (otherwise, nothing would be exceptional), so they’re definitely a valuable asset even though they aren’t worthwhile individually.
The Book of Men is a wonderful experience brimming with poignant realizations, colorful situations, and regale linguistic permutations. There are some truly breathtaking stories here and plenty of unique voices. Most importantly, the sheer amount of emotionality, sincerity, and imagination on display means that the anthology moves beyond examining manliness to touch upon the human condition as a whole. For this reason, it should appeal to anyone looking for social commentary and introspective tranquility laced with sadness, anger, joy, and absurdity.