“Think Lost meets The Power” – The Men by Sandra Newman

IMG_2022-5-20-211106Jane Pearson is camping with her husband Leo, and her five-year-old son, Benjamin. They’re safely in the tent and she’s outside, indulging in a daydream—she’s never married, she’s never had kids, she has her ‘whole life free’. And then, abruptly, she does: at 7:14pm, August 26, every person on Earth possessed of a Y chromosome—man, boy, transwoman—disappears. Jane searches the mountainside for ten days in a state of growing panic and desperate magical thinking (‘I would die to save Benjamin. That had to make a difference.’) before descending, bereft and traumatised, into a world utterly transformed. And that’s before the videos appear online: weirdly coloured clips of the disappeared men traversing a barren landscape, surrounded by alien creatures.

Newman does a superb job of evoking the scale of the varieties of disruption brought about by this pseudo-rapture (note: it’s not The Rapture): the inconsolable grief of those who’ve lost their loved ones, the rage and joy of those who’ve been released from servitude and abuse, the societal chaos when the bulk of the workforce simply vanishes—planes plunge from the sky, surgeons disappear mid-operation, cops’ guns are found ownerless on the ground. (As well as the drama, of course, here we’ve got a superb evocation of gender-based workplace imbalances.) Janes notes ‘the day the power first went out, the day the hospital was invaded by drug addicts, [and] the water contamination crisis’ without going into detail; much as in Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, we don’t need the detail. This isn’t that kind of book. What we get instead are the human stories, as a handful of characters first stagger, and then pick themselves up, in this sudden new matriarchy, where a variety of anarcho-socialism, Commensalism, begins to patch the world (well, the USA anyway) back together.

So, who have we got? Jane is a convicted sex-offender, groomed by her charismatic dance teacher at the age of sixteen to rape other children while he watches; she’s just about gotten her life back together when all this kicks off. Ji-Won is an artist, with no friends other than her now-disappeared former roommate, Henry, who didn’t seem to have wanted her around much anyway. Blanca is twelve, with a congenital heart condition, and nobody left but her uncle’s third wife, who isn’t delighted by her new parental role; Blanca, like many kids her age, is convinced that this whole mess was caused by the Burning Girls, an apparent mass suicide by almost three hundred women and girls the same day as all the men vanished. Alma, an alcoholic and a fuck-up, is left squatting in her brother’s old bosses’ mansion, unsure what to do next but drink. Ruth, in her fifties, has been bailing her older son out of mental health crises for what seems like forever; now, to her immense guilt, she’s free of all that responsibility. All five women—plus Jane’s old friend, Evangelyne, leader of the Commensalist Party of America—move slowly into each other’s orbit, and all five end up hooked on The Men: the bizarre videos in which they each spotted the people they’ve lost, even as they slowly begin to wonder if they do, in fact, want the men back at all.

Now, if I were to go into any more detail, or trace the plot any further, we’d be firmly in spoiler territory, and that would be a hell of a shame, as this is a compulsively readable book. The hook is simple, but really innovatively explored—it’s tense and heartbreaking, and the characters are, without exception, engaging. The dialogue is smart and funny; the attention to detail is, at all points, phenomenal. In fewer than 260 pages, Newman has created an alternate reality as convincing as anything Stephen King’s done in 500. The speculative elements—the disappearance, sure, but also the videos and their otherworldly appearance and odd creatures—are handled lightly, lending the book an air of menace and intrigue that doesn’t (usually) draw essential attention away from the more pressing interests: the psychological journeys of these left-behind women. The writing is elegant; here’s Jane, in the aftermath of the disappearance, amongst a group of bewildered, grieving women:

‘She realised they were all part of something, something strange and malign and enormous like a war. They were all brave children together. They were children who would never be happy again.’

But, of course, they are happy again, because Newman is also exploring the resilience and capability of women, of human adaptability, of our capacity to love.

While The Men is Jane’s story (and that of her peers), it’s also a deeply political book. Here’s Jane again, on the transformation to the actual planet after August 26:

‘With the power outage, there was a shift of balance to the advantage of the heavens, and it looked as if the still-living sky were drifting away and leaving a black dead earth behind. I was looking at the sky. It was all so clear.’

Climate change, mass extinction, ecological crisis: the men’s disappearance heralds the beginning of a reversal, of a planetary healing. It’s not, of course, that Newman is drawing a simple link between maleness and destructive capitalism (the book has its fair share of destructive, right-wing women), but she’s showing us a world in which half the overblown population is gone; in which nature has a fighting chance. So it’s looking at what happens if we get a hard reset on overpopulation, boosted by the rise of a not-quite-Communist almost-ruling Party. But if it’s in part about climate justice, and gender, it’s also about racial(in)justice. In different ways, via Jane and Evangelyne, it’s all about deep-seated trauma: race-based violence, the carceral state, and the hope, or fantasy, of another way the world might be.

This, then, is a novel firmly rooted in our contemporary moment, complete with commentary on online discourse, from social media conspiracy theories to New Yorker personal essays gone viral. The plots are seamlessly intertwined, and while the ending (no spoilers!) raises a couple of questions around the allegorical nature of what’s gone before, it also zeros in on the intersection of personal responsibility, regret and blame, and structural, systemic injustice.

Any Cop? Loved it. Think Lost meets The Power. If this isn’t on the next Women’s Prize list, I’ll eat your hat as well as my own.

Valerie O’Riordan

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