Norah Vincent, Self-Made Man

An odd choice for a men's book club, or a predictable one? I'm not sure - there are so few of us, apparently, that there may not be enough data to say for sure. Either way, we're meeting this week to talk about Norah Vincent's Self-Made Man:One Woman's Journey into Manhood and Back Again, which - it must be said - isn't about transgendered individuals, or about transsexuals in the usual sense of the term. Instead it's an example of cultural anthropology, like Barbara Ehrenreich did in Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (which was, I have to say, a terrific book).

Basically Vincent goes undercover part-time, ranging from one night a week as the worst bowler ever seen by a men's bowling league, to 24/7 for three weeks at a monastery (Catholic, but otherwise nonspecific in denomination). Parts are funny, but mostly this is serious stuff, and not just because of the impact on Norah's psyche of having to inhabit Ned's mind as well. It's meant to be a look at how men live, and I gather that it started out of a sense that guys have it good - like the old Eddie Murphy SNL skit, in white-face out in the world, where cocktails are served on busses as long as there are only other whites there.

But of course things are not so positive in Man Land, at least not always. The inhabitants already know this, so Vincent goes through a shock that's not news to the more thoughtful among us. but she makes it worse by deliberately doing things she considers manly that have next to nothing in common with her own life. She can't bowl, so it's a crazy idea to join a cash bowling league; she's fairly urbane, so it's crazy to spend several consecutive afternoons and evenings at the lowest-class strip club imaginable; she doesn't like talking to people, so it's crazy to try a high-octane sales job. There are ways in which I'd be likely to crack in these environments, but she seems to have gone out of her way to find the darkness.

In a lot of her assessments about emotion, about men being unable to talk about them with other men, she's (sob! sniff!) mostly right. Most of us do a reasonable job of finding women for these conversations, but sure, a lot of us suffer in relative silence: I've gone through pretty significant crises, as have a few other guys I know.

Did I like the book, though? Good question. It's well worth talking about, but at least in part that's because I don't fully trust her self-assessment, or her assessment of other men or of what it's like on the inside. She did her best, and she gave up almost everything to achieve the deep cover, but - OK, I'll say it. It's a women's book, with a women's perspective about what women think men are like. I don't need an anthropology experiment to tell me what my life is like, because I'm already over-thinking it daily. Women will get a little better sense of how men exist, but I don't see all that much in it for me, and the Less Sensitive are hardly going to read this book in pursuit of More Sensitivity In Themselves.


fiona-h said…
sounds interesting - will look for it
richard said…
Yeah, it is interesting - the premise is terrific, but the book turns out to have been pursuing a slightly different premise. Not the end of the world, but it's not the book I hoped it was.

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