Sunday, November 30, 2014

David Nicholls’ Us, and the minefields of modern marriage

Relatively few male novelists write convincingly and thoughtfully about male-female relationships, and almost none of them do so from a distinctly male point of view. (And before you say, “What about Nicholas Sparks?” let me stop you: Nicholas Sparks may technically be a male author, but he writes from a distinctly female viewpoint, with a female audience in mind.)

The male authors who do write about relationships (and who do it well) are so few that we can virtually count them on one hand: There’s Jonathan Tropper, and there’s Nicholas Hornby, and well…the list grows pretty short after that.

And then there’s David Nicholls. Nicholls is British, first of all, and he seems to write semi-autobiographically. This means that American readers will struggle with some slightly unfamiliar locales and cultural references. The characters also talk like Brits, not like Americans.

Yet Nicholls manages to cross the transatlantic divide with the authenticity that he brings to male concerns about heterosexual romantic relationships. Any man who ever sought the company of an unattainable girl during his adolescence or early manhood can certainly see a bit of himself in the hapless Brian Jackson, the main protagonist of Starter for Ten. (This never happened to me, mind you; but it might have happened to you.)

The male lead of One Day, Dexter Mayhew, begins the book as the sort of romantic hero that a female novelist would write: He’s suave and good-looking; a brash pretty boy. But by the end of the book, a much-humbled Dexter Mayhew speaks for the average guy, and gives voice to the average guy’s concerns about marriage, the compromises of middle age, and mortality.

The hero of Us, Nicholls’ fourth published novel, is Douglas Petersen. Douglas is about as average as a guy can get. He does hold an advanced degree in biochemistry. But this minor distinction aside, Douglas Petersen is a nerdy, socially clumsy male who wants to “do the right thing”: He wants nothing more than to get married, stay married, and provide for his family. That used to be a pretty good life plan for men to follow. But welcome to the twenty-first century.

Late one night in his fifty-fourth year, Douglas’s wife of twenty-odd years informs him that she has decided to leave him. There is no discernible reason behind this upheaval. Connie Petersen states matter-of-factly, “I think our marriage has run its course. Douglas, I think I want to leave you.”

Even the most cynical and hard-bitten reader will have to acknowledge that Douglas doesn't deserve this: He doesn't drink; he doesn't sleep with other women; he isn’t abusive. On the contrary, we learn throughout the novel that Douglas has made numerous sacrifices for his wife and son during the course of the marriage. He gives up a job in pure scientific research for a higher paying corporate position that he finds stifling. He forgives Connie numerous trespasses, including an affair early in their marriage. And such is his ultimate reward.

Us is a novel that conveys a deep and (largely unspoken) misgiving of the well-intentioned modern man in the age of no-fault divorce, institutionalized feminism, and what the men's rights crowd calls “hypergamy”: In the 1950s a man could remain happily married largely by following the guidelines of basic decency: Work hard for your family, be a good provider. Observe your marriage vows and provide a strong role model for your children.

Today things are much more complicated, of course. Women, not men, now initiate the vast majority of divorces. While the media still largely condemns male infidelity (men are pigs who can’t get enough sex, after all), the fashionable assumption in cases of female infidelity is that the husband must have dropped the ball somewhere. In a well-circulated 2012 essay, “Women in Their 40s Having Great Sex-- Just Not with Their Husbands”, Samantha Walravens describes female infidelity in triumphalist terms: The “mommy stage” is over. She’s got “shifting hormones” and her “confidence is growing”. And besides, sex with her chump of a husband is “boring”. You go, girl.

The trajectory of Douglas and Connie’s marriage is revealed through a series of flashbacks. When Douglas and Connie met, the latter was a struggling, hard-partying artist who had recently broken up with a “bad boy” boyfriend. Connie is by far the more sexually experienced of the two. During a trip through Europe, Connie is recounting her boyfriends on the Continent, and Douglas (who narrates the novel) resignedly assesses his wife’s view of travel as “been there, done him”.

Douglas receives even fewer rewards for his efforts at fatherhood. The couple’s seventeen-year-old son, Albie, adores his mother and openly disdains his father. He doesn't disdain his father’s money, though. Albie is always happy to accept money from his dad, yet he treats him with a level of contempt that would have gotten a kid knocked across the room before the UN declared spanking to be a human rights violation.

This is annoying, because Douglas is not an especially cold father, and not even a very stern one. He conscientiously does what fathers have done since time immemorial: He provides for his son’s material needs, and tries to prepare him for manhood. But in an age that idolizes youth and scorns “patriarchy”, this is simply not enough.

It is a testament of Nicholls’ skill as a writer that neither Connie nor Albie come across as irredeemably obnoxious or hateful, even though their behavior often is. Each, in fact, is sympathetic in his/her own way.

However, the lack of balance in the family dynamic is reminiscent of the media meme that typically portrays fathers as bumbling oafs who are hopelessly outclassed by their savvy wives and know-it-all children. Albie and Connie mock Douglas at seemingly every turn: sometimes lovingly, sometimes not so lovingly. In either case, the interaction between Douglas and his family brings to mind a point that Helen Smith recently raised in “8 Reasons Straight Men Don't Want To Get Married”:

You’ll lose respect: A couple of generations ago, a man wasn't considered fully adult until he was married with kids. But today, fathers are figures of fun more than figures of respect: The schlubby guy with the flowered diaper bag at the mall, or one of the endless array of buffoonish TV dads in sitcoms and commercials. In today's culture, father never knows best. It's no better in the news media. As communications professor James Macnamara reports, "by volume, 69 percent of mass media reporting and commentary on men was unfavorable, compared with just 12 percent favorable and 19 percent neutral or balanced."

Us makes the same arguments all the more convincingly, because there is no real evidence that David Nicholls set out to write a “men’s rights” novel, nor even a counter-feminist one. Despite Connie’s betrayal and Albie’s smug disregard, Douglas Petersen spends much of the book attempting to bring about a reconciliation with both of them.

I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone, but the promotional blurbs for Us make clear that Douglas’s sought-after happy ending is not in the cards (“what happens after the Happy Ever After”, per Jojo Moyes). Nicholls, nevertheless, ends the book on what might be called a “philosophical” note: Connie may be moving on, but not to worry: Douglas isn’t bitter! (Because what every fiftysomething man wants, after giving the best years of his life to working long hours for his family, is to be dumped by his wife and barely tolerated by his progeny.)

It’s all very postmodern; and Us vividly captures the essences of twenty-first century attitudes regarding marriage, fatherhood, and generational obligations. In this new worldview, everything is relevant; there are no moral absolutes. The fact that Douglas cheerily accepts his ill treatment is revealing of how far societal norms have shifted for the worse—Nicholls’ attempt at a sophisticated and amicable interpretation notwithstanding. This novel will probably be read by more women than men (because men read fewer novels), but perhaps more men should read it.

There are, of course, some other sides to this coin, and it would be remiss and one-sided of me to neglect them. Douglas married Connie despite a full knowledge of her character defects, with the notion that he could “reform her” and make her complete. This is what Dr. Laura Schlessinger used to call “stupid chivalry”. So if Douglas Petersen is a marital victim, he walked into his own trap. Connie was somewhat out of his league, and he was largely taken in by her physical charms. Douglas could have made a wiser, less superficially motivated choice.

Nevertheless, Us is a novel that shows that good intentions are not enough when marrying. In its depiction of female infidelity, casual divorce, and the devaluation of modern fatherhood, Us may (inadvertently, I think) provide some clues as to why far fewer young men are eager to rush into marriage nowadays. 

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