Having a character do something irrational early on in a book is a good way to hook a reader. Take The Corrections’ Alfred Lambert, a man working for decades in a pensionable job who decides months before his retirement to resign and forgo his benefits. There are many who consider Jonathan Franzen’s book a Great American Novel, something that has also been said of one of this year’s most popular debuts, Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner.
The New York-based author uses a similar mechanism to pique our interest in her narrative. Toby Fleishman is a recently divorced father-of-two whose ex-wife Rachel drops the kids over to his apartment one morning and then vanishes into the ether. Is she at a yoga retreat with a new lover? Is she expanding her business in LA? Is she planning on turning on her phone again? Is she ever going to come back?
These are the questions that drive the narrative but there is much more going on in Fleishman is in Trouble. A book that delves deep into the gender inequalities of sex, marriage, divorce and online dating in modern day New York, it is teeming with insights and humour, a genuine tour-de-force.
The style can feel too busy at times, with a dense narrative structure that works well to get in different perspectives but also draws attention to the artifice of the novel. Toby’s story is told by his old college friend Libby, a former city-living journalist who has moved to New Jersey to marry and raise a family.
Little clues at the beginning, the odd “he told me,” turn into long, dazzling sections in the middle of the book where we learn about Libby’s life and get to see the Fleishman’s divorce from her point of view. It gives an enticing fly-on-the-wall feel to proceedings, and says much about the marginalisation of women and mothers, but it’s also a stretch that Libby could possibly know all the details, dialogue and interior monologues of her friend. The frame takes us outside the story, which is perhaps the point – likeable, everyman Toby is giving us a one-sided view of the breakdown of his marriage.
But what a view it is. A hepatologist with a middling career, Toby moves into a new apartment and tries to adjust to life as a single man in his early 40s. His forays into online dating are hilarious. After a few dates with younger women, he settles on the 40-50 age bracket: “It was there that he found his gold mine: endlessly horny, sexually curious women who knew their value.”
Both turned on and horrified at the fast-paced, sexually charged communications, Toby struggles to imagine meeting any of these women in real life: “How could the human parameters of shame ever permit it?”
There is plenty of humour throughout, but the heft comes from Brodesser-Akner’s analysis of a marriage breakdown, or as Toby puts it: “How miserable is too miserable?”
We see how himself and Rachel fall in love, agree to build a life together, and slowly, incrementally chip away at this pact until nothing but rubble remains. There is great sadness (“he was lonely for conversation and the company of someone who had chosen him”) and also much shirking of blame, as evidenced by witness Libby: “She couldn’t be the wife without you. So hating her or turning on her or talking to your friends about the troubles you have with her would be like hating your own finger.”
Libby is not an objective witness, however. Prejudiced against Rachel, she seems to be solely on Toby’s side until Brodesser-Akner succeeds in upending her views in a neat twist that opens the story up further. Like Libby, the author is an acclaimed journalist, a staff writer for the New York Times Magazine. She is particularly noted for her considered profiles of celebrities, and this deep interest in what makes human beings tick is certainly evident in her fiction.
There are so many quotable lines and observations – “divorce doesn’t make you any less married”, “She was becoming, it seemed to him, the kind of girl that it was completely exhausting to be” – that the reader may feel dizzy by the end.
But the real success of the book, the reason it is justifiably being touted as a Great Novel, is that it makes us take stock and appreciate what we have even as it shows us how easily things fall apart. For all its entertainment value and virtuoso writing, readers will remember Fleishman is in Trouble for its chastening lessons: “You were only at risk for not remembering that this was as good as it would get, in every single moment –that you are right now as young as you’ll ever be again. And now. And now. And now and now and now.”