by Adam Timms
Several weeks ago, former president Barack Obama released his summer reading list. This collection of books was shared by us folks at New Forum several times and I was struck by its thematic diversity: speculative fiction, autobiographies, social commentaries, and short stories. One title struck me and stuck in my mind, “Men Without Women”. So I bought it, and I read it, and it made me feel silly.
To give some context, “Men Without Women” is a collection of short stories following the lives of men as they deal with loneliness. They are crafted gems that use very few brushstrokes to outline the story and delve into the psychology of loneliness. I was only disappointed by one thing: every story prominently features women.
I had hoped that this book would give me back a piece of me that is missing, some vital force whose lack I can sense but cannot describe. Secretly I dreamed it would be a magical book, a panacea long sought and never found that would teach me how to be content as an individual. Unfortunately, opening the box it was delivered in did not invoke any revelation, nor did laser lights and confetti come streaming out from the cardboard darkness. It was just a book full of women narrated by men.
Most disappointment arises from a misalignment of expectations. My situation was no different. I had a built notion that this book would teach me how to be a man dealing with loneliness by omitting women, by creating a vacuum wherein the male framework is isolated and actualized. That some alchemy would occur where taking “maleness” out from all other elements its true properties could be discerned. I wanted a 150-proof distilled truth that might burn my throat on its way down but would have one hell of a kick to it. Instead the book is inhabited equally by men and women and its truths have a nuanced, complex flavour.
This became obvious once I managed to eschew the lens of wishing and see the work for what it is. Loneliness is the foil of intimacy. It is characterized by longing for something that is not possessed, so how could anyone write “Men Without Women” without women? The emotional intimacy of relationships needs to be present and explored for their absence to be felt. You need to drink to be hung over. Without reference, there can be nothing to measure loneliness against, no backdrop against which it can be seen and then examined. In fact, if there were not such equality in character depth between the men and women in the book the whole thing would crumble from inequity.
I described the book as “women narrated by men”, and I stand by that. The loneliness of men must contain women, because the concepts of “man” and “woman” are intertwined. Just as loneliness cannot be felt without belonging, it would be meaningless to dissect a “male” way of thinking alone. With no point of comparison there is no “man” and no “loneliness”, there is only being.
Literature is incredible in its ability to mold itself to the mind of the reader. Each person reads the same words but receives a different piece of whatever truth it contains. I was disappointed in “Men Without Women” because it wasn’t what I had wished for, it wasn’t the solution. It describes relationships that are inseparable — men from women, loneliness from belonging, and, in many ways literature from the reader — and in doing so builds a deeply ponderous work that holds a mirror to the idea of manhood.