This Novel is in Trouble

‘Fleishman’: Shallow, Spineless, and Overrated

Despite what follows, I get no pleasure out of trashing debut novels. Debuts deserve every break they can get, in general. But Fleishman Is In Trouble sucks. It’s a bad book: badly imagined, badly executed, and badly written, with bad characters and bad description and bad philosophy. I don’t perfectly understand how it has garnered so much positive attention. It’s a thudding, tone-deaf piece of work, a shallow, spineless effort, a diluted dram of conceited mediocrity. And since it’s a debut, I’d try to be nicer to it if it weren’t precisely that bad.

The main character, Toby Fleishman, a hepatologist (livers, not lizards), copes with post-divorce life by dating prolifically and hating on his ex-wife Rachel, an ambitious talent agent. Across the novel, he calls her every possible insulting word: bitch, maniac, monster, and that old standby “crazy,” along with its many synonyms. The couple has a son and daughter, and Toby loves them but sees them as an annoyance about half the time.

Early on, Rachel drops off the children at Toby’s apartment and then vanishes. He can’t get through to her phone, her assistant, her friends, or the resort she’s supposedly staying at. Her disappearance disrupts his whole life, but especially his tightly scheduled casual sex. Finally, the wallflower narrator of the novel, Libby, bumps into Rachel at a bagel shop and hears/narrates the story of her nervous breakdown. After a feeble gesture at self-reflexivity, the novel ends.

A short list of the annoying things about Fleishman Is in Trouble:

Myopic focus on a tiny sliver of the population

This is wealthy white New York, a world in which Toby’s $285,000 salary makes his wife ashamed of him, and him ashamed of himself. Nothing about the political or economic landscape anywhere else in America leaks into the book, not a whisper of how badly other people are suffering under the policies and events that made thesepeople rich. The only character outside the racket is Toby and Rachel’s nanny, and Toby forces her to work during a special week off, when she is scheduled to spend time with a son she hasn’t seen in three years. Super likable move.

Fleishman Is In Trouble occasionally gestures toward how gross this little sliver of society is, but Toby and Rachel nevertheless participate in it. And even when confronted with the poison of privilege, Toby maintains a superior attitude. He asks, “What had he been thinking, raising his children among these people?”, and, in the same paragraph, name-checks the Upper East Side and enumerates the school tuition. “You didn’t tell them about your asterisks, how you were secretly and privately better than the world you participated in, despite all outward appearances.” Feeling morally superior to the monied class makes it okay to perpetuate its structures, apparently.

Snobby, thoughtless insults strewn in all directions

This encompasses fat people (a woman is “more than a little chubby but leaned into it, with a round butt and tight jeans”), renters (“How much did you invest in a rental, though? You wanted to feel at home, but it wasn’t really your home”), people who have kids earlier than the norm (“something crazy and awful would have had to have happened in his life for him to have fathered a child that young”), and Claudia Rankine (white middle-school girls are “lobbing microaggressions at each other in an all-night cold war” at sleepovers).

Anxieties and insights so mundane as to be meaningless

“Why had he put so much trust in elevators in the first place? Why did everyone? This entire vertical city functioned because of its elevator systems—ten million suckers in this city, not even thinking of the likelihood (and it felt likely) that one of the cables would snap or that they’d get stuck in the elevator for hours and run out of oxygen before anyone noticed.” Yeah. Duh. Pages and pages of this kind of “insight.”

Bad sentences

“On his face he had the kind of two-day stubble growth we used to suggest that cover stars at the magazine nurture before their photo shoot that looked like benign neglect but is actually so evenly shaded that it could only be the work of meticulous planning.”

Complicit sexism

“You should only be closing,” Toby’s friend Seth says about his dating life. Women are deals to be struck, not human beings with their own concerns. The novel emphasizes over and over and over again that Toby’s phone is the source of countless sexts from hot women, the prose worthy of Updike (not a compliment): “He thought about the way her nipples lined up so evenly and soldier-like under her stupid tank top. He was getting carried away, which is an easy thing to do when your phone is literally dripping with the lust of women who did definitely and assuredly claim to want to fuck you, fuck you bad, fuck you bad all night long.”

Cool. Thanks. There aren’t enough male novelists objectifying women, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, we really needed you to join in. “Only briefly did [Toby] think to wonder if he was doing a bad job of thinking of the women he dated as people.”

*****

Fleishman Is in Trouble livens up during the passages when Libby (who shares some traits with the author) comes forward, narrating her own story instead of Toby’s. Something about the prose glows brighter, feels truer and more intimate. I don’t know what this means, but the rest of the book is so flat that I certainly noticed.

In the opera world, a “trouser role” is a male character who sings music written for a female voice. The women who sing these parts must wear trousers; hence the name. I posit that a “trouser novel” springs into existence when a female author writes a novel with a main character who’s a horny, self-absorbed male, indistinguishable from the mass of fiction written by men primarily interested in…well, their trousers. So perhaps Brodesser-Akner has made a very savvy move by writing an homage to Updike. Such books do well. The mostly white-NYC-male critical establishment will shower her with praise for this trouser novel, a little sister to the books they’ve been reading and praising since the 1970s. And she will get an even better deal for her second book, which will be about a real fucking woman.

But perhaps not.

Katharine Coldiron

Katharine Coldiron's work has appeared in Ms., the Times Literary Supplement, BUST, the Rumpus, and elsewhere.

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