Open Book/Open Mind
In conversation with Jake Silverstein, editor-in-chief of The New York Times Magazine
Sunday, Jan. 12, 4 p.m., Montclair Public Library, 50 South Fullerton Ave.
Free, but registration required.
By GWEN OREL
Maybe there is a happy ending.
Maybe there isn’t.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner is not saying what happens to Toby Fleishman and his wife Rachel at the end of her bestselling debut novel, “Fleishman Is in Trouble.”
I did ask, prompted by several requests on Facebook.
Rachel appears at the end, after vanishing unexpectedly and leaving the kids at his house during the summer.
But the reader cannot be sure her appearance is real.
It’s like (SPOILER ALERT) the tiger in “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel.
I think the tiger is real.
Your mileage may vary.
Brodesser-Akner said in an email that her early title for the book was “Schrodinger’s Marriage.”
She will appear in Open Book/Open Mind at the Montclair Public Library this Sunday, Jan. 12. Watchung Booksellers will have copies of her book.
Brodesser-Akner spoke to Montclair Local while driving to visit her father this past weekend, where she would conduct some research on Great Neck for her second book, “Long Island Compromise.”
The New York Times Magazine writer has taken a leave of absence to work on her second book, and to write the limited TV series of “Fleishman Is in Trouble” for FX.
Before “Fleishman,” Brodesser-Akner was well known for her work at NYT, as well as her profiles in GQ, ESPN the Magazine, and mny others. One hallmark of her work is that she sneaks in herself as the interviewee, using “I” where often writers would not. (Now you know why I’ve done it here, and while I’m here, let me add that of the 119 books I read last year, “Fleishman” was in my top five.)
The narrator in “Fleishman” is named Libby. At first, she’s barely there. Then, she’s a central part of the story.
And the whole book turns on its head.
What at first seems a comic romp about divorce, focusing on short, nebbishy doctor Toby Fleishman and his expanding sexual horizons, turns into a burning exploration of gender.
Libby was always going to be part of the story, Brodesser-Akner said. Originally, Brodesser-Akner wanted the reader to understand that “Fleishman” was the book Libby had not been able to write. But her team did not get it until she explained it.
“My whole point was to say something meaningful about gender. There was no reason to insert her into the story if I was not going to close her case in a meaningful way. One of my former magazine editors, Mark Lotto, kept saying to me after he read the third-person version, ‘Why are you not writing this the way you write? The way you write about other people and then you have first person.’ I said, ‘that’s journalism, this is a novel.’ He said ‘Your journalism isn’t so strictly journalism in this way. Perhaps if you were a man you wouldn’t be asking yourself so many questions about what a novel looks like.’”
Those remarks hit Brodesser-Akner. She rewrote the book.
Several reviewers have seen echoes of Philip Roth and John Updike in Brodesser-Akner’s novel. Brodesser-Akner did read Roth growing up. Her mother, who became an Ultra-Orthodox Jew when Brodesser-Akner was 12, thought “The Babysitter’s Club” and “Sweet Valley High” books were too racy — so her sister found a way around the rules by bringing home tamely-named Roth books instead.
“I was reading ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ at 11 years old,” Brodesser-Akner said with a laugh.
She also found she did not enjoy Jane Austen, partly because the women were always worried.
“I grew up in a house of girls with a single mother, I had enough of that,” she said. “I was so in love with how men are allowed to think without worry, allowed to be passionate without worry. It was such a relief.”
When she decided to write about divorce she could have written it from a woman’s point of view.
She decided not to deliberately. A book about the aftermath of divorce from a woman’s point of view was something Brodesser-Akner did not want to read, much less write.
One thing that happened to her friends was that they began using apps to date, she said.
“Men were having this delightful, amazing wonderland of smart successful women, who were educated in enough pornography to know how to pose to appeal to a man. The men did not have a second thought about it, they were just delighted,” she said. Meanwhile, Brodesser-Akner’s women friends were dating passive-aggressive jerks.
The Jewishness of the Fleishmans is another element that reminds some readers of Roth. Some Amazon reviews begin “Oy vey,” an aggressive if not openly anti-Semitic way of dissing the book.
Jewish-Americans are “supposed to have all this privilege, and yet they are oppressed,” Brodesser-Akner said.
“While we’re talking [Sunday, Jan. 5], there are people walking across the Brooklyn Bridge to protest attacks on Jews that took place every single night of Hanukkah this year. It’s astounding, and alarming, the amount of ways it is not polite to talk about it because of all the privilege we have as Jews, and how good America has been to us.
“America is the best thing that ever happened to Jews. It doesn’t mean we are not a target.”
When she was naming her book, people told her it wouldn’t sell in the United Kingdom because “they hate Jews there.”
Brodesser-Akner replied, “People hate Jews everywhere.”
She pointed out that many Jews who rage against hate crimes are silent when there are attacks on Ultra-Orthodox Jews, such as those that happened in December in Jersey City.
“The attack only happens because they are visibly Jewish,” she said. “The very next step is identifying people who you can’t tell are Jewish.”
Brodesser-Akner’s characters, like Roth’s, have Judaism as a factor in their lives, not the factor in their lives.
“When people ask me how I came up with the fact that [Toby] is short, I cannot tell you,” she said. “I went to Yeshiva High School, and to Israel for a year. A short Jewish specialist on the Upper East Side was the least specific person I could conjure.”
MARRIAGE AND MONEY
“Fleishman,” she said, was “written in a fire of anguish about all the ways that marriage can screw a woman.”
She is married and loves her husband very much, but here in suburban New Jersey, if she gets pulled over for a broken tail-light, she will still be told to talk to her husband.
“When you finally realize how you’re treated as a woman, it makes you crazy. When you’re made crazy, the first thing you look to is what is a constant in your life from before you were crazy,” she said. So that might mean from before you were married. But it doesn’t mean your life would be better without your husband or children.
Partly the book was a way to understand why she was resentful of “all the ways my life has turned out well,” she said.
Libby, like Brodesser-Akner, is a feature writer (in Libby’s case, a former feature writer and a stay-at-home mom).
As Libby tells Toby’s story she realizes that “this was the only way to get someone to listen to a woman — to tell her story through a man.”
Her ambivalence clearly struck a nerve: the book zoomed up the bestseller list.
When she sold the book, she came home and told her husband, “We have camp money for 2019!”
Her book came out around this past spring, around the time “Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens came out, so it took Brodesser-Akner a while to understand how well her own book was doing, because its progress was slow and steady.
“I say in all humility, I watched as it happened and could not believe it. The way I think of it now is a terrifying thing,” she said.
That night, he had a dream that he was in space and Rachel was there, but he couldn’t tell if she was a planet or a star, and he couldn’t ascertain her orbit, and yes it was a little on the nose but what are you going to do. He woke up three times. The first time, it was panic: You are in trouble. Fleishman is in trouble.
The second time he woke up he was angry. It was more than a week now, which was long, yes, but that was just like her. Or it was thematically like her. She’d never pulled this kid of thing quite this long. He knew her too well, though. She was doing something he wouldn’t approve of, and had decided to apologize later. Or maybe not! Her apologizing days were probably over as far as he was concerned.
The third time he awoke, he was back to panicking. He got out of bed before a dead image of his ex-wife could turn to him and say, “Why didn’t you save me, Toby?” He thought that maybe the one upside to Rachel having vanished and the kids being at camp would be the tiniest shot that he’d feel something akin to freedom, but he didn’t; he just felt untethered and lost.