This review was originally prepared for Shelf Awareness for Readers, but was not accepted for publication due to a missed deadline. Shelf Awareness provided me with a publisher-furnished galley to facilitate the review, and no additional compensation.
“The Scumbag.” “The Con Man.” “The Lothario.” “The Critic.” “Humiliation Artists.” “Cheaters.” These are some of the characters that Laura Kipnis (Against Love) groups into the categories “Operators,” “Neurotics,” “Sex Fiends,” and “Haters” in the essays that comprise Men: Notes From an Ongoing Investigation. A survey of the table of contents might well lead the reader to wonder if Kipnis herself is one of the subjects of the last piece in the collection, “Women Who Hate Men”–too many encounters with men like these could understandably sour a woman on the opposite sex.
In fact, Kipnis comes across as far from a man-hater. She’s very interested in what makes men tick, intrigued by what makes them act out against social norms and moral standards, and curious to understand why that bad behavior not only doesn’t completely repel women, it sometimes draws them in. It often draws her in, at any rate, and Kipnis’ analysis of her own responses to men like these is a significant component of her “ongoing investigation” into their fascinatingly flawed psyches.
Kipnis seems equally interested in fitting specific men–whether fictional characters, personal acquaintances, or public figures–into the context of the archetypes she wants to consider and in discussing the archetypes themselves and offering men who illustrate them. The essays in Men seem to originate from both perspectives, and while it might be interesting in some cases to know where the inspiration came from, it might not be terribly enlightening, and it would surely be less significant than the questions Kipnis proposes or the conclusions she reaches.
Striking a balance between the objectively academic and the deeply personal, Kipnis doesn’t seem to be trying to support any particular argument with these essays as a whole. With that in mind, her characterization of these provocative, sometimes frustrating pieces as “notes” seems accurate. But as documentation of one woman’s serious reflections on a reluctant attraction to “bad boys” of all sorts, Men: Notes From an Ongoing Investigation is a fully realized, remarkably articulate set of “notes.”
Book description, from the publisher’s website:
From the notoriously contrarian author of Against Love, a witty and probing examination of why badly behaved men have been her lifelong fascination, on and off the page.
It’s no secret that men often behave in intemperate ways, but in recent years we’ve witnessed so many spectacular public displays of male excess—disgraced politicians, erotically desperate professors, fallen sports icons—that we’re left to wonder whether something has come unwired in the collective male psyche.
In the essays collected here, Laura Kipnis revisits the archetypes of wayward masculinity that have captured her imagination over the years, scrutinizing men who have figured in her own life alongside more controversial public examples. Slicing through the usual clichés about the differences between the sexes, Kipnis mixes intellectual rigor and wit to give us compelling survey of the affinities, jealousies, longings, and erotics that structure the male-female bond.
Excerpt from the opening, essay “The Scumbag”:
“I met Hustler magazine’s obstreperous redneck publisher Larry Flynt twice, the first time before he started believing all the hype about himself and the second time after. By hype, I mean the uplifting stuff floated in Milos Forman’s mushily liberal biopic, The People vs. Larry Flynt, and dutifully parroted in the media coverage—that Flynt isn’t just a scumbag pornographer, he’s also some big First Amendment hero. I liked him better as a scumbag pornographer, though I realize this could be construed as its own form of perversity. Nevertheless, I had a certain investment in protecting my version of Flynt against Forman’s encroachments, though, as anyone can see, I was severely outgunned in this match.
“The reason we’d met in the first place was that I’d written an ambivalently admiring essay about Flynt and Hustler, which the ghostwriter of his autobiography had come across and passed on to Larry, and which he’d apparently admired in turn. The ghostwriter contacted me. I was invited to drop in on Larry the next time I was in Los Angeles, and as it happened, I had plans to be there the following month. A meeting was thus arranged. If I said that getting together for a chat with Larry Flynt was an unanticipated turn of events, this would be a vast understatement. The whole reason I’d written about him so freely was that I never expected to face him in person and could therefore imagine him in ways that gratified my conception of who he should be: a white trash savant imbued with junkyard political savvy. In truth, I found the magazine completely disgusting—as I was meant to, obviously: it had long been the most reviled instance of mass-circulation pornography around and used people like me (shame-ridden bourgeois feminists and other elites) for target practice, with excremental grossness among its weapons of choice. It was also particularly nasty to academics who in its imagination are invariably prissy and uptight—sadly I’m one of this breed too.”