Review: Fleishman Is in Trouble

You go and think of how horrible all the people are, how same-shaped the women are, how stupid everyone is. The women wear these yoga pants instead of regular pants and they yell at their children, and then you realize you’re wearing yoga pants. [285]

This, Libby tells her friend Seth, is her experience of Disney World.

The exchange takes place in Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s debut novel Fleishman Is in Trouble (2019). Libby would like to experience the park from an ironic distance––to be in it but not of it. This cynical positioning is symptomatic of the dominant culture at the turn of the twenty-first century. Who among us hasn’t watched a TV-show from an ironic distance, allowing one to look down on both the format and the audience while simultaneously constituting the audience (fractionally) and endorsing the format? You might ask if there is another way to watch it. You justify continuously, even just to yourself, that it’s okay because I’m experiencing this ironically. And how horrible a moment it is when, like Libby, you walk in on yourself wearing yoga pants. In this way, Fleishman speaks to something specific about our current moment and the way we are able to distance ourselves from our actions.

Rachel and Toby Fleishman are getting divorced after fourteen years of marriage. The novel’s first section follows Toby as he attempts to orient himself and his children, Hannah and Solly, to their new circumstances. The Fleishmans are materially comfortable. Toby is a hepatologist while Rachel is a talent agent. Toby’s $250,000 a year is small change to Rachel’s goliath income. With these funds, they have constructed a life for themselves with the schematics drawn up by somebody else––or maybe by everybody including themselves. They are privately disgusted both by the company they keep and the character-outlines they feel obliged to fulfil. Their values, it seems, are at odds with their actions. And, like Libby, they are repulsed to look down and see that they, too, are wearing sweatpants.

Toby makes this explicit in realizing that he has ‘forgotten something essential about life, which was to make sure his children understood his values’ [254]. He realizes that

[n]o matter how many times you whispered your values to them, the thing that spoke louder was what you chose to do with your time and resources. You could hate the Upper East Side. You could hate the five-million-apartment. You could hate the private school, which cost nearly $40,000 per kid per year in elementary school, but the kids would never know it because you consented to it. You opted in. You didn’t tell them about your asterisks, how you were secretly and privately better than the world you participated in, despite all outward appearances. [254]

Fleishman, in a sense, is about confronting the implications of the ironic distance from which we self-justify the gap between our values and our actions. It is about exploding the asterisks through which we justify living in contradiction to our ideals. In conceptual resonance with this, Slavoj Žižek writes that ‘[c]ynical distance is just one way […] to blind ourselves to the structural power of ideological fantasy: even if we do not take things seriously, even if we keep an ironical distance, we are still doing them[1]. Even if we experience Disney World ironically, we still pay the entrance fee.

Toby recognizes that cynical distancing does not extricate him from the effect of his actions. This is exactly the point that is missed by The Harvard Crimson (8 April 2019) in their argument that Fleishman ‘rarely [shows] more than the various characters’ selfish desires to run away from the lives they've willingly signed up for’ [2]. Dramatizing the tension between our actions and the revulsion that our own actions cause us to feel (even when they are materially beneficial) is important. Brodesser-Akner handles this complicated issue in a way that is subtle and well-supported by the overall narrative.

The act of cynical distancing has wide-reaching political implications. Writing in 2008, Mark Fisher glosses Žižek’s position succinctly: ‘So long as we believe (in our hearts) that capitalism is bad, we are free to continue to participate in capitalist exchange’ [3]. Likewise, Toby’s cynicism allows him to enjoy the material benefits of his lifestyle. It is to be noted, however, that distancing our values from our actions might be the only way to stay sane in a world of obfuscated causality and emergent scale-effects. It might be that, otherwise, I am paralyzed by the economic and material systems that circumscribe my possible actions.

For brevity’s sake––and to encourage you to read it––I am deliberately narrowing my scope to this one facet of Brodesser-Akner’s novel. There is something to be said, however, about the clever positioning of Fleishman as a story about a man written by a woman through the filter of another woman. Libby muses that ‘the only way to get someone to listen to a woman [is] to tell her story through a man’ [236]. She recommends that you ‘Trojan horse yourself into a man’ so that ‘people [will] give a shit about you’ [236]. As somebody who used to work for a men’s magazine, Libby feels as though her voice is always-already stripped of the neutrality that men take for granted. To conclude her metaphor, Libby’s story storms out of Toby’s wooden stomach like a thunder of Greek soldiers in the night.

I’m drawn to Brodesser-Akner’s dramatization of the pull between our actions and our ideals because Covid-19 has left us unable to ignore the tension created by trying to position ourselves in but not of the crowd; Fleishman makes us question whether this is possible at all. When I buy an extra (maybe unnecessary) bag of pasta I am contributing to something I can simultaneously be disgusted by (which is that if everybody acts as I do then the shelves are soon bare). Fleishman, moreover, makes us question the value of cynicism and to explore the ways in which it damages and divides us. It is about examining yourself before you criticize others.

And all too often, when I look down, I’m wearing yoga pants too.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman Is in Trouble is due to be published in paperback 14 April. It has been longlisted for the Women’s Prize 2020 (shortlist to be announced 22 April).

Tell your mates.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Fleishman Is in Trouble (London: Headline, 2019) 978-1-47-226705-4

[1] Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989), 33. [2] [3] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Alresford: Zero, 2008), 13.


©2020 paul cockburn