Sandra Newman’s The Men Review: Vision of a World Without Men | science fiction books

men Sandra Newman’s fifth novel, all Y-chromosome humans and fetuses vanish in an instant, leaving the XX to celebrate, mourn, or organize in a radically altered world. To create a work of fiction with such a crude premise, as Newman also did in his earlier high-concept novel The Heavens, a time-travel story set between a reconfigured modern-day New York and 16th-century England, runs the risk of confronting the reader with a task of reimagining that is difficult to see beyond.

But while it is true that The Men never lets us forget its first dramatic beginning, many other threads and themes emerge: the long aftermath of trauma and coercive control; various manifestations of charisma and complicity; the insidious and dehumanizing effects of a society enslaved to screen representations of reality. It is also a novel about the lengths we can all go to ease individual loss and grief; If the world turned out to be a better place without your loved one, would you sacrifice the greater good to turn back the clock?

It is in the exploration of these areas, the interior beyond the shocking headline, that The Men truly intrigues and disturbs. Indeed, once both characters and readers have absorbed the mass disappearances and their immediate effects: the collapse of industries and public services run primarily by men and the resulting plane crashes, power outages, and lack of policing; the great reduction in violence and sexual assault, and the “sweet clamor of voices in the air” when those voices belong only to women and girls: it is the less obvious consequences that dominate.

For his central character, Jane Pearson, a tall, white, blonde ex-ballerina to whom Newman offers the only first-person narrative, the loss of her husband and young son brings not only mourning, but also the opportunity to try to integrate two parts. her. her life and psyche. There’s her youth, when the predatory boss of a dance company used her to procure young men and boys, leading them to become “America’s most notorious sex offenders”; and her adulthood, in which she tried to become the perfect wife and mother, “a saint of love.”

Bridging the two is Evangelyne Moreau, a black woman who, after a prison sentence for shooting the cops who massacred her family, founded a political party and looks poised to become president of the United States. Evangelyne and Jane have been lovers and colleagues in the past, and Jane’s disappearance from domestic life means they could be again; the ambiguity about who holds power in their relationship, and to what extent the structural privilege of race and class erases personal dynamics, is another of the novel’s most fertile subplots. Tellingly, Jane’s story takes precedence at all times; she is the white protagonist whose trauma is considered most worthy of elaboration and understanding. Several key scenes suggest that Newman is aware of this, including one in which Jane mistakenly assumes Evangelyne is chasing her through the streets due to her notoriety; in fact, the black woman simply wants to ask him not to attend a class aimed at black students.

Evangelyne’s name clearly suggests HG Wells’ novel The Island of Doctor Moreau, but despite her obvious desire for influence, she is not the book’s mad scientist, desperate to create half-animal, half-human beings. That story thread unfolds in the form of a mysterious video that appears online, featuring the missing men in a terrifying, wild apocalyptic setting. Several of the novel’s characters become addicted to “The Men,” as they are known. Soon, the images ensnare viewers desperate to see her loved one on screen, her obsession fueled by the gradual release of additional material.

Utopias and their failure, and outright dystopias, are a concern of Newman’s work; in 2014’s The Country of Ice Cream Star, a post-plague society must figure out why everyone dies before reaching 20, while alternate life forms represented by aliens and visions emerged in their 2002 debut The Only Good thing. Fact, in which the possibility of metamorphosis was clearly indicated by the name of the protagonist, Chrysalis. In this novel, she seems more concerned with the conflict between the individual and the group, and the ways that might threaten any form of progress. The landscapes of “The Men” are impregnated with environmental degradation, where “not a stick was alive, not a seed floating.” “We understood: this was a future world in which men had never disappeared. It was the hell they would have condemned us to, the Earth they would have made,” notes Jane.

The novel caused problems before its publication. There were vehement charges of gender essentialism and transphobia; in Newman’s scenario, the disappearance of anyone with a Y chromosome means that trans, intersex, and non-binary people are swept away. (“Now this,” one character thinks, sadly, “those trans girls gone like the men. Just another way God screwed you.”) There were also accusations of misandry over the idea that violence, war, and cruelty could simply disappear in the absence of men, instead of moving on to another host. Unsurprisingly, most of these reactions occurred in the absence of the text itself, although some detailed criticism has recently appeared. Even then, though, it was the novel’s easiest-to-summarize premise, its elevator pitch, that dominated.

But it seems too literal to read the book as a simple equation in which the existence of men is equal to the death of hope for the future, although one could also argue that the crude configuration makes such a conclusion difficult to avoid. The Men is a confusing novel, full of tense ideas and jarring emotions, and a prose style that veers from lack of affection and distance to attempts to capture vulnerability (Ji-Won, an artist turned a volunteer trucker, she shaves her head for practicality, and then has “the feelings of a tortoise coming out of its shell, or perhaps of a bare heart on a self-conscious foray out of the body”). At its strongest, however, it is an exploration of attachment, its allure and its danger, and its ineradicability from human affairs.

Sandra Newman’s The Men is published by Granta (£14.99). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply.

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