A Review of Sandra Newman’s “The Men”
Novels (including graphic novels) that feature people of one gender entirely disappearing or being written out of the human life equation have proven to be popular. Stephen King and his son Owen wrote a sprawling book called Sleeping Beauties not too long ago, and this novel posits the question, “what would the world be like if all the women in it just fell asleep, only to be reawakened as savage beasts who attack men?” However, it’s the flip side of that proposition that’s arguably proving to be more attractive to writers: what would the world be like without men? To that end, you have the comic book series Y: The Last Man, whose title pretty much tells you all that you need to know. More recently, Christina Sweeney-Baird published The End of Men, which is the story of a COVID-like virus that kills off most of the world’s men and what the fallout of this means for women as they try to remake society for themselves. There are probably plenty of other examples out there, but here comes a new book that fixates on the notion that one day all the world’s men just … poof! … disappear. Readers, meet Sandra Newman’s The Men.
The story centers around a woman named Jane Pearson, who is camping with her husband and her five-year-old son in the wilderness of California one late August day when, suddenly, they vanish without a trace. And I mean vanish: they didn’t simply just wander off down some canyon trail or anything. After Jane spends days looking for her family and struggles with her loss, she starts to ruminate on her tumultuous past: she’s a former ballerina and convicted sex offender (which is a bit of a long story) and was friends with a Black woman who killed two police officers — a woman who will wield a lot of power in this man-less world. Jane’s story is interwoven with the tales of other American women who are experiencing the tragedy of losing their male loved ones — even if these men weren’t really all that loved or loveable. Tying this all together is a series of Internet videos that have mysteriously appeared in this female-only world. These videos show nearly catatonic men languishing in a desolate, strange landscape with alien animals and creatures hovering around them. However, complications arise when some women watching the footage recognize loved ones they’ve lost.
I’m going to say that The Men is a very mysterious novel, even with its feminist trappings. It also starts out very slowly, and it will take many readers a long time to settle into the plot. It wasn’t until I was halfway through the book that I really started to warm up to this one. Also, potential readers should know that Newman spends an awful lot of real estate detailing women’s sweat and how women sweat — seemingly to prove that women are capable of being as gross as men, perhaps. In any event, this is one slow burn of a read. It doesn’t help much that the videos that feature prominently are so out there that the author thinks they’re more interesting than they actually are. Folks, I minored in film studies at university and can tell you that I’ve seen many experimental films in my day — and what I can tell you about them is that most of them (save, perhaps, for some of Jean-Luc Godard’s work) are quite boring. (And I realize that’s kind of the point of these films — they’re trying to score leftie political points without resorting to Hollywood spectacle.) Put that experimentation on the printed page, and you wind up having to settle in for a massive snooze-fest. It’s only when Jane’s backstory really emerges and the loose ends with the other women of the narrative get tied up, that things start moving and turn interesting.
People are going to think that I’m really slamming this novel, but the whole stories within stories aspect of The Men was quite unnecessary. It felt like padding in a book that’s already less than 300 pages long. The novel would have been much more interesting if it focused solely on what happens to Jane — and cut down on some of that narrative, especially in the early going — rather than breaking off and telling us what’s happening to other women. It’s a bit confusing trying to keep character names straight for people we barely get to hear from. And, as it turns out, their stories really have absolutely no barring on the narrative at all! A more scrupulous editor was needed for this novel. What’s more — because I’m on a roll here — the ending feels like one big cop-out. It’s as though Newman had written herself into a corner, didn’t know how to get out, so — by magic, in the same way that anyone with a Y chromosome just flickered off into the ether at the start — she just abolishes the corner she had written herself into entirely. It’s particularly disappointing, even if there’s a point to how this all resolves.
All this to say, you might think that I disliked The Men. It does have its pluses. The backstories of the main characters in this are interesting, even if Jane’s sex offender background is a little hard to believe (in that the police would even charge her knowing that she was being coerced by an older man into raping young boys). There’s an interesting examination of the notion of race and privilege, and the all-woman setting is quite fascinating — even if it doesn’t hop around to other countries, and the women of America somehow manage to get society quickly back on its feet without much in the way of catty infighting. Thus, there are a lot of things to feast on in this novel — even if some of it is as bland as the oatmeal I sometimes make. Essentially, the great American novel of men’s disappearance has yet to be written, but The Men is interesting enough at times. If you’ve read the books talked about in the first paragraph of this review, you should enjoy this uneven dystopian novel. That’s all that needs to be said, really. The Men knows who its audience is, that’s for sure, and that audience is bound to enjoy a story that shit-kicks the hell out of (sometimes toxic) masculinity. Passing this one now over to you.
Sandra Newman’s The Men was published by Grove Atlantic on June 14, 2022.
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You may also be interested in the following review: Sandra Newman’s The Heavens.
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