Everybody I know loves reading Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Even though I understand the gender-political problems inherent in referring to female writers by first names, I struggle to resist expressing my love informally, as in “Have you read Taffy’s profile of Gwyneth Paltrow?” or “Have you read Taffy’s essay about Justin Bieber’s church?” If you haven’t, please do. You will be enlightened and delighted. You’ll laugh and get angry and text the best sentences to whoever in your life deserves them, and at the end, you will be moved and inexplicably grateful. This is the Brodesser-Akner magic, and it’s unmistakable. I consider her the best profile writer of the past 10 years. So how did her debut novel, Fleishman Is in Trouble, still surprise me, and how did it make me cry so hard?
Fleishman Is in Trouble has one of those familiar Manhattan covers, and it opens in familiar Manhattan territory, i.e., the Upper East Side. The Fleishman in question is Toby, a short — he mentions this frequently — Jewish liver doctor who loves his kids, his job and his dating apps, in that order. Toby has recently gotten divorced from Rachel, a social-climbing talent agent who, during fights, “went for Toby’s masculinity like it was an artery,” and he’s recovering, “learning to use the I instead of we.” As an I, Toby seems pretty decent: a good dad, a sweet guy, though a bit self-righteous about his politics and work and more than a bit overexcited about the nudes flooding his iPhone screen. But these are the flaws of social comedy, to which all signs seem to point.
Only one thing seems off-kilter: The narrator keeps butting in. Soon, she reveals herself to be Toby’s friend Elizabeth, whom he met during a college semester in Israel. Two decades later, she’s a stay-at-home mom in New Jersey, having quit her staff writer job at a men’s magazine after realizing that in her workplace, “Whatever kind of woman you are, even when you’re a lot of kinds of women, you’re still always just a woman, which is to say you’re always a bit less than a man.” But Elizabeth, who has stopped writing, is longing for a story to tell. When Toby rekindles their friendship, she dives gleefully into his.
And God, does she tell it well. She makes his hapless dating life into a Tinder-age Portnoy’s Complaint. In a recent interview, Brodesser-Akner described her style as “dancing in every sentence,” and Elizabeth is the perfect partner: whip smart, digressive, eloquent and profane. Her descriptions are especially perfect, divided as they are between beautiful — a woman with a “palace of rough, wild hair” — and funny — a woman who’s “golden and tan, like an Oscar.” The resulting blend is profoundly addictive. That’s how the novel gets you.
Once Brodesser-Akner has her hooks in, she radically reorients her story. This happens swiftly and simply. Elizabeth and Toby are talking, except Toby is too distracted by his dating apps to listen. She points this out, saying, “I’m a real person with a real soul and I could use a friend, too,” and Toby shoots back, “What possible need could you have?” Suddenly, the previous 200 pages shake themselves into a new form. Elizabeth sees that she has been telling Toby’s story because he expects it and because she has become accustomed to telling men’s stories — and not only that, but telling them through the man’s eyes, emasculating ex-wife and all.
This raises some questions of the reader: What do I expect? What am I accustomed to? The moment these questions appear, the novel seems to shake like a wet dog, then reset. Toby’s ego balloons. His attitude gets a not-great adjustment. His fervent scrolling and sexting begin to seem unsavory. Does Toby know that all the women on his screen are real people with real souls? Does he know that his ex-wife is real? And is she really as bad as he makes her seem?
The great trick of Fleishman Is in Trouble is that it cons the reader into siding with Toby. Brodesser-Akner demonstrates how women get suckered into acquiescing to misogyny by suckering both narrator and reader — and then showing us what she’s done. When I saw her trick, I was floored. Like Elizabeth, I had let myself — a woman! a female writer! — get taken in by a man’s story about his poor, put-upon, misunderstood self.
Many novelists have written excellent fictional indictments of interpersonal and systemic sexism. Not since Teju Cole’s Open City — a very different book in all other respects — has a novelist put the reader on the wrong side the way Brodesser-Akner does. To do so, she uses a lot of intelligence, a lot of anger, a great sense of humor and a whole new variation on the magic we know from her magazine work. The result is a maddening, unsettling masterpiece, and, yes, you will be moved and inexplicably grateful at the end.
Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Washington, D.C.