Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

Fleishman is in Trouble
By Taffy Brodesser-Akner
Random House, 2019

Fleishman is in Trouble  By Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Random House, 2019

After a futile ten-year siege of Troy, the hostile Greek army sailed away, leaving in its wake a massive wooden horse. One Trojan was not delighted by the offering. Laocoön said, “Trojans, don’t trust this horse. Whatever it is, I’m afraid of Greeks, even those bearing gifts.” Millennia later, Taffy Brodesser-Akner thought to use “Trojan horse” as a verb.

She comes bearing gifts. The beginning of her excellent debut novel, Fleishman is in Trouble, is a romp. We feast on the cornucopia of Toby Fleishman’s sex life. Fleishman appears as a short, schlubby, well-meaning, recently-divorced forty-one-year-old hepatologist. To his great fortune and amazement, he finds himself the object of intense desire in the world of dating apps. He happily immerses himself:

These were women who would not so much wait for you to call them one or two or three socially acceptable days after you met them as much as send you pictures of their genitals the day before. Women who were open-minded and up for anything and vocal about their desires and needs and who used phrases like ‘put my cards on the table’ and ‘no strings attached.’ . . . Women who would fuck you like they owed you money.

Each holler he got—each little [winky emoji] or [purple devil emoji] or bra selfie or actual photographed upper-region ass crack—made him revisit the essential questions of his youth: Could it be that he wasn’t as repulsive as he’d been led to believe by the myriad rejections of just about every single girl he’d ever made eye contact with? Could it be that he was maybe attractive?

We enjoy all the fooling around along with Toby, and empathize with his encompassing tumult. Two struggling children, a vindictive virago of an ex who keeps not picking up the kids even though it’s her day, a stalled career, an incurable patient. Loneliness. Lust. Rage. Revenge. So urgent are Toby’s needs that it doesn’t occur to us for many pages that the novel isn’t written from his first-person perspective. Even later do we realize that the narrator isn’t omniscient; she’s Toby’s confidante Elizabeth Epstein, and she very much occupies the world of the novel. 

Elizabeth and Toby are old friends from a study abroad program (“Life is a process in which you collect people and prune them when they stop working for you. The only exception is the friends you make in college.”) And while Toby emotes about his nascent freedom, Elizabeth increasingly sinks into middle-aged despair. She’s long-since given up Manhattan for New Jersey, with two kids and a pool and a golden retriever of a husband. She works—infrequently—from home, having quit her job as a journalist for a men’s magazine. The differences in Toby and Elizabeth’s stations are made apparent when he visits her family for a pool day:

Through Toby’s eyes, it was unsettling just how much all the other women really did look like me. It was what I resented about where I lived, that after a lifetime of feeling lesser than the skinny blondes with straight hair and noses in Manhattan, I most hated that everyone here looked exactly like me. Or did I hate looking exactly like everyone else? Or did seeing them en masse like this allow me to finally see myself clearly and the view was no bueno? Our navy tankinis were reinforced with steel paneling so that our bodies were all mashed and wrung into hourglass figures, while our limbs told the true stories of our discipline and metabolic limitations.

I wasn’t self-conscious in front of the dads. This was how they knew me. But in front of Toby? Look at this withered thing I’d become. I’d seen his phone. Bodies were like produce to him now. He only looked at them for the ways they tempted and the ways they were blemished or unblemished. Legs, uncanny breast valleys, butts butts butts butts. I know what I looked like to him. Trust me, I had no sexual or romantic wish for Toby. I just didn’t like the record he was holding. I didn’t like being this way now with someone who still remembered me back at the beginning, back when I was all potential and kinetic energy.

“Through Toby’s eyes,” is the key to Brodessor-Akner’s thematic scaffolding. There is a long, if sparse, tradition of authors using a tangential third person as a narrator. The narrators in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions are a few motley examples. But this form was vitalized by Philip Roth in his so-called American Trilogy of American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000). Those books continued the long-dormant saga of Roth’s alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman, who had grown in previous books from amanuensis and writer of Anne Frank fanfic (The Ghost Writer (1979)) to successful author and playboy (Zuckerman Unbound (1981)) to unmoored middle-aged addict (The Anatomy Lesson (1983)). 

The younger Zuckerman of the seventies and eighties was a frenetic participant in life, but the American Trilogy of the late-nineties and early-aughts presents a reclusive Zuckerman in premature old-age. He lives high in the Berkshires, foregoing contact with civilization or his former life. From his cabin he writes expansive novels inspired by the brief encounters that his hermit’s lifestyle allows. A short conversation at a class reunion; a chance meeting with an ancient beloved high school teacher; a monthlong friendship with a fellow highlander.

We could be forgiven our frustrations. After fourteen years of waiting, we are given only the smallest glimpses of Zuckerman’s uneventful life, often presented as vignettes between hundreds of pages of prose about his subjects. Indeed, Zuckerman seems to knowingly refrain from sharing of himself. In a wistful moment in Communist, he seems on the verge of a revelation before pulling back: “The martinis were Murray’s idea. A good though not a great idea, since a drink at the end of a summer’s day with somebody I enjoyed, talk with a person like Murray, made me remember the pleasures of companionship. I’d enjoyed a lot of people, had not been an indifferent participant in life, had not backed away from it . . . But this story is [not mine].”

Then we remember that Zuckerman’s dense stories are based on the leanest of source material, that the stuff of these novels is his imagining rather than his observing. So while we get nothing of Zuckerman’s day-to-day, we get something richer: a clear look into his psyche; the stories he chooses to tell, and the way he chooses to tell them. Zuckerman comes close to acknowledging this in the masterpiece, American Pastoral. “Writing turns you into somebody who’s always wrong. The illusion that you may get it right someday is the perversity that draws you on. What else could? As pathological phenomena go, it doesn’t completely wreck your life.” 

What has Nathan Zuckerman become? We get our clearest answer in the finale. The Human Stain is a shocking book, a dirty book, about an aging professor dealing with academic ruin and sex and more sex in the foreground of the Clinton/Lewinski scandal, an America “eager to enact the astringent rituals of purification that would excise the erection from the executive branch, thereby making things cozy and safe enough for Senator Lieberman’s ten-year-old daughter to watch TV with her embarrassed daddy again.” Here’s some representative dialogue: “If Bill Clinton had fucked her in the ass, she might have shut her mouth. Bill Clinton is not the man they say he is. Had he turned her over in the Oval Office and fucked her in the ass, none of this would have happened. . . . Her loyalty would have been earned by fucking her in the ass. That should be the pact. That should seal you together. But there was no pact.” This goes on and on and on. Not that Zuckerman is much scandalized. “To him they sounded sexually savvy and sexually confident.”

A picture emerges of Zuckerman. He tells the stories he can no longer live. He’s a formerly hypersexual man rendered impotent by prostate surgery, a family man left alone through the loss of his family and expatriation from the Jewish community, and a patriot without a country he can any longer feel pride in. So keen are his feelings that he gives us stories about sexual virility, the Jewish-American family, and the triumph of America over the Red Scare. Finally—finally!—we get a conclusion to this portion of his life at the end of Stain.  “I knew that my five years alone in my house here were over. I knew that if and when I finished the book, I was going to have to go elsewhere to live.”

As with most Jews born between, say, 1890 and 2006, Brodessor-Akner is familiar with Roth’s work. Indeed, she wrote a piece upon Roth’s death titled “What Philip Roth Taught Me About Being an American Jew.” Like everything else she’s written, it is witty and warm and personal. She writes about reading Roth as a teen and being “hooked, dazzled by the complicated, dirty, thousand-word sentences and the boobs.” She writes also about her struggle with Jewish-American identity. “What did it mean to be Jewish in America? Were we supposed to convey pride in our religion and our culture? Were we the punch lines to a joke that was constantly being made? Were the jokes at least funny? And such small portions? Was being Jewish a bad thing? Were we proud? Were we embarrassed? Did we still have to watch our backs? How should a modern Jew behave in the world? How should a modern Jew assert his or her Jewishness? Were we white? You’re kidding yourself if you think we’re white! Do the goyim like us, or do they simply tolerate us? You’re kidding yourself if you think they tolerate us! How to act, how to assimilate but not too much, how to remind them about the Holocaust when they got uppity about Jewish privilege. How to not break into laughter when someone used the phrase ‘Jewish privilege.’”

Just like each of Roth’s two-dozen novels, Fleishman is in Trouble is fundamentally Jewish. These characters summer at sleepaway camp and memorize their Haftorah portions. “Haftorah” isn’t italicized. They study abroad in Israel. Israel is a fact—a family member—free from geopolitical connotation. They swim at the JCC, these characters, and live on the Upper East Side, and eat blintzes and poppy-seed bagels with butter. They talk about their mothers in therapy and receive antidepressants like communion wafers. The main character’s name itself is a Jewish in-joke. Toby Fleishman. To be a man of the flesh, but in Yiddish.

But what Brodessor-Akner truly borrows from Roth, and what suggests her as his successor, is her outsider’s sketching of negative space. Just as Roth tells the on-its-face boring story of elderly male impotence through a litany of “fucked her in the asses,” Brodessor-Akner uses a pastiche of eggplant and peach emojis to tell an even sadder story: middle-aged feminine invisibility.  Fleishman contains a hilarious Hamilton stand-in called Presidentrix: a one-woman show about Edith Wilson. “The play was about the way a woman could only really have her own story if she did it through a man—in this case Edith Wilson’s half-dead husband, Woodrow Wilson.” That’s the alchemy that Brodessor-Akner conjures. She gives the game away when Epstein writes of her reporting career, “This was what I knew for sure, that this was the only way to get someone to listen to a woman—to tell her story through a man; Trojan horse yourself into a man, and people would give a shit about you. So I wrote heartfelt stories about their lives, extrapolating from what they gave me and running with what I already knew from being human.” 

Like Zuckerman before her, Epstein gradually reveals herself by imagining and telling an exciting story about what she is not. After exhausting the exploration of Toby’s psyche, Elizabeth asserts her own story two-thirds of the way through the novel. She acts out, smoking cigarettes and joints in secret, and leaving her husband with the kids while she enjoys all-nighters in the city. She’s bored with her life, and tired of feeling invisible. “People didn’t look at me anymore. I’m allowed to go into bathrooms that are only for customers now anywhere in the city. I could shoplift if I wanted to, is how ignored I am. The week I turned forty I’d been sent to profile one of the New York Giants. I wasn’t given access to the locker room, and my lanyard said Restricted Press: No Locker Access in bright yellow and it covered half my torso. I walked into the locker room anyway and stood right there among all the penises, and the very people who had issued me the lanyard walked by me as if I were there to set up for the bake sale.”

This is Brodessor-Akner’s real message: How the sexy stories of needy men overwhelm those of women, whose bodies, careers, and marriages are sacrificed to child rearing. How in storytelling, as in professional and private lives, women are “unwelcome, auxiliary at best, there to fill in the rough spots that men don’t want to.”  Elizabeth’s story is less flashy than Toby’s, but more tragic and compelling. Upon re-reading this novel, I found myself skipping the voluminous Toby sections—there’s a point at which a middle-aged man masturbating to sexted sideboob becomes tedious—to get to the more classically dramatic Elizabeth sections. This shift forces a reckoning. Would we have been as enthralled with a novel that had started with female ennui rather than male virility? Were we just as pleased as Toby with the easy pleasures of sex, anger, and misogyny? And why did it take us 239 pages (an egregious bit of mansplaining at a yoga class—the universe can’t actually retract with our breath, you see; it’s physics)—to realize that Toby is a vulgar boor? On a second reading, it’s plain in every line. 

The gambit works, as Brodessor-Akner knows it always does. Successfully Trojan horsed, Elizabeth Epstein reveals herself as the most insightful, sensitive fictional voice in many years. She sacks Troy. She is full of casual wisdom, and her wordplay rewards close reading. Re-read the above excerpts beginning with “Through Toby’s eyes.” Notice how she uses 100-level French and Spanish in the same sentence to distance herself from her sentiment and to mock ersatz suburban culture. Notice how she changes the meaning of “tank” in “tankinis” by joking that they are reinforced with steel paneling. Note how good of a joke is “uncanny breast valley, butts butts butts butts.” It manages to pun on “cans” and “butts,” invoke Freud and Masahiro Mori, and suggest robotic retouching. A lengthy rant excoriating Hamptons culture is laugh-out-loud funny. 

Above all, Epstein has the frankness and courage to observe, to imagine, and to tell the stories of the unseen. Having been ripped apart for most of the book, Toby’s careerist ex Rachel even finds some redemption at the end. Like Zuckerman before her, Epstein provides meta-resolution to her tale. The story of this novel was the process of writing this novel. “I would write my book, and it would have something in in that [a man] was incapable of, which is all the sides of the story, even the ones that hurt to look at directly—even the ones that made us too angry to want to hear them.”

For all her Trojan horseplay, Brodessor-Akner begins Fleishman with a quotation by Aeschylus. The Oresteia and Fleishman both have tripartite structures, and both explore themes of moral responsibility and revenge. Both also understand that a person cannot be a reliable reporter of his own life, that a tale and its teller are inseparable. The epigraph? 

Summon your witnesses.

—David Culberg is a lawyer in Chicago. He reads books on the train.