“Fleishman Is in Trouble” Turns the Marriage Novel Inside-Out
“Fleishman Is in Trouble,” by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, meanders amiably until it becomes, suddenly, all sharpness. The novel is about Toby Fleishman, a hepatologist in his forties who is undergoing a bitter divorce from his wife, Rachel. She’s left their two kids with Toby and vanished to a yoga retreat, which has complicated our hero’s foray into online dating. (“His phone was aglow from sunup to sundown … with texts that contained G-string and ass cleavage and underboob and sideboob and just straight-up boob.”) Our narrator, who sympathetically unwinds Toby’s side of things, is his college friend Libby, a former staff writer for a men’s magazine who is now a stay-at-home mom living in New Jersey. At first, Libby has an elusive presence: she pops up in asides (“he told me”) and teasing personal details. Midway through the book, though—and beware spoilers from here—she seems to wake from a trance. When was the last time Toby listened to any of her problems, she wonders? This asymmetry, or the recognition of it, launches Libby into a meditation on the career she spent profiling men, men who “said all the things I wasn’t allowed to say aloud without fear of appearing grandiose or self-centered or conceited or narcissistic.” “That was what I knew for sure,” she states, “that this was the only way to get someone to listen to a woman—to tell her story through a man.” Henceforth, Libby weaves fibres of Rachel—of her memories and point of view—into the main narrative, along with longer glimpses of her own life. The women’s perspectives provide a corrective to the man’s, and Brodesser-Akner’s true project begins to emerge.
Brodesser-Akner is not the first author to split a book about marriage into two parts, or to explore the unknowability of one’s spouse, or to subvert a man’s chronicle by means of a woman’s. “Fates and Furies,” by Lauren Groff, modified the golden tale of Lotto, a successful playwright and a complacent husband, with the spikier one of Mathilde, his angry, secretive wife. This conceit works best when you don’t see it coming. It requires the reader to fall under the hero’s spell, to view him as an Everyman with relatable urges and complaints. Toby compels our empathy, but something glib and superficial about his sections can strain the connection. He’s a sharp critic of the forever rich, as opposed to the precariously or hepatologist-salary rich, and he notices every Botox injection. A well-heeled patient projects “processed uptownness.”
Brodesser-Akner, a Michelangelo of magazine profiles (in an echo of Libby, she used to work for GQ and now lives in New Jersey), writes with a thrilling swagger, though her descriptions can feel cartoonish, more intent on charming an audience than on getting it right. (A woman is “golden and tan, like an Oscar with hair.”) The book channels Tom Wolfe’s fiction—the gonzo, swooshy sentences, the satirical edge—and Roth is everywhere, too, in Toby’s lust, Jewishness, and incandescent neurosis. This virtuosity is pointed, maybe feminist, a claim on the self-assurance (you could say self-indulgence) of Brodesser-Akner’s male forebears. She does not so much craft prose as notate brainwaves: “It couldn’t be. And yet. And yet. And yet and yet and yet and yet and yet she was clearly wondering what it might be like to fuck him.” The effect can be wildly entertaining. But the pyrotechnics feel a bit wasted on a guy like Toby, whose grouses and guilty fantasies we have heard so many times before.
Which is, of course, the point. There’s an electric surge wherever the raggedness of this language touches Libby’s own story. Her signature repetition conjures a sense of stiflement. (“I made lunch. I made dinner. I made breakfast. I made lunch. I made dinner. I made breakfast.”) Suddenly, the exuberance of the voice registers as desperation. Libby thinks, “What a strange thing, a lack of darkness. What a strange thing … for good things to make you happy and bad things to make you sad.” There is a glitter of Groffian fury, a mythological ire, to this narrator. You want her to talk about herself. And withholding her, in much of the novel’s first half, makes a point that perhaps does not need such lengthy elaboration. It’s a shame, the book seems to argue, for this elastigirl voice to be squandered on page after page of Toby Fleishman’s problems. Agreed! I found myself wondering how the novel would go if Libby were uninhibited from the start.
Toby, vigilant about his diet and insecure about his height, is persuasive as a well-meaning egotist. But he works better as a character than as a device. The reader senses the coming shift in perspective, and is impatient for it. She feels that she is being spoon-fed both political and personal outrage: of course a wordsmith as talented as Libby (or Brodesser-Akner) should have other routes to legitimacy besides her portraits of men. There is no need to convince us, and so much ground to cover. The best parts of “Fleishman,” its saddest and angriest passages, unfold female experiences: a doctor abuses Rachel as she is delivering her first child, and she struggles to recover from the trauma. Both Rachel and Libby contend with workplace sexism, the assumption that “whatever kind of woman you are, even when you’re a lot of kinds of women, you’re still always just a woman, which is to say you’re always a little bit less than a man.” In these scenes, the novel sheds its lightness. Updike, Roth, and Franzen are updated, not just invoked—the charismatic voice finds something urgent to say.
“Fleishman” studies women, but it also studies relationships. Brodesser-Akner prods the form of the marriage novel as though it were a sleeping lump on the other side of the bed. What if there were a third character? What if the talent chafing at domesticity were female, and the forlorn and long-suffering soul, the good parent, were male? “Fleishman” belongs to a lineage that includes Jenny Offill’s “Dept. of Speculation” and Rachel Cusk’s “Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation”—books that show the institution weighing on the spirit—but it also critiques the one-sidedness of these accounts, enshrining the idea of marriage as private and mysterious. Perhaps Toby and Rachel’s union is illegible to onlookers. Perhaps Libby’s intention—to profile the couple as an unravelling unit—is doomed.
And yet there is, in the end, a redemption at work, achieved not by novelty—the surprise of perspective—but by old-fashioned insight. As a profile writer, Brodesser-Akner kindles empathy for her famous subjects, and her novelistic approach is similar. She does not deny Toby’s humanity; she just extends the same attention and generosity to his wife, his best friend. Something interesting happens when the book swings open for Rachel and Libby—the remaining Toby sections, in contrast to the earlier, flatter ones, acquire resonance. His memories of his wife and his musings about the divergence of their once-shared lives become serrated and profound, as if a breeze has aired out the entire project. It’s a literary fulfillment of the notion that a rising tide lifts all boats, and though the “trouble” of “Fleishman” ’s title may refer to our collective exhaustion with a certain type of male protagonist, Brodesser-Akner is not simply knocking her main character off of his throne. She is, perhaps, staging a rescue.