What John A. A. Logan, master of the literary thriller noir, adds to startling revelations about the gender dance by Alison Wolf, ace public policy scholarIt is to a new novel that we at post-Gutenberg find ourselves turning to answer the question of whether the human race can continue by sexual reproduction – now that men and women have begun to live and work in ways growing ever less distinguishable.
In The XX Factor: How Seventy Million Working Women Created a New Society, published last year, Alison Wolf tells us that among the trend-setting elite of educated, high income-earning couples in the West, and for both men and women …
The new graduate norm is a full-time job, whether you are single or part of a couple. With no old-style wife to come home to.
Men in this social tier, she says, ‘put in more unpaid household work … the more educated the women.’ Will the shrinking gender gap, we wondered – scrolling through XX with musings about domestic goddesses still trailing from our last post – mean that mutual erotic interest will continue to decline, in these partnerships? A February article in The New York Times by Lori Gottlieb, a writer and couples therapist, quoted — to stunning effect — researchers reporting their discovery that, as one put it, ‘The less gender differentiation, the less sexual desire.’ Gottlieb herself was blunter: ‘In other words, in an attempt to be gender-neutral, we may have become gender-neutered.’
XX, in its details, contains equally startling revelations. It is so unlike the usual book by a scholar of Wolf’s standing – she is the Sir Roy Griffiths Professor of Public Sector Management at King’s College London, in addition to other directorships and lofty responsibilities — that to try to cherry-pick its discoveries and stimulating ideas, to recommend it to other readers, is to feel crushed, too soon, by the weight of a whole cherry orchard.
Overall, XX offers not the faintest glimmer of hope for anyone hoping to walk back the gender revolution in futuristic households. It shows brainy young women drawn from all over the East to the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh with exactly the same aim as their counterparts at Oxford – to climb to the highest attainable rungs on career ladders closed, in the recent past, to women. Female hunger for education is so extreme that …
Almost 60 per cent of medical students in the UK are now female; in US medical schools, women have made up just under half of entering students for the last ten years. And in the developed world it is now the norm for law faculties to have a majority of female students.
And the result? XX’s findings are arrestingly filtered through the review in last month’s New York Review of Books by Marcia Angell – a 74 year-old doctor and Harvard professor whose other formidable accomplishments include serving as the first woman editor of the American medical bible, The New England Journal of Medicine. The most striking passage of her assessment said, in part:
Upper-middle-class couples also give up home-cooked meals and spotless households, as documented by Wolf. Very little time is now spent on cleaning and other household drudgery (which still tends to be done mainly by wives), and even less on cooking. […] In the 1970s, there were ads for Wisk detergent that featured women who felt mortified because their husband had “ring around the collar.” Nowadays almost no one would be mortified, and certainly not the wife. In a New York Times article titled “The Case for Filth,” Stephen Marche concludes, “A clean house is the sign of a wasted life, truly. Hope is messy: Eventually we’ll all be living in perfect egalitarian squalor.” Despite the hyperbole, there is something to this view. Since housework takes time these couples just don’t have, I think lowering neatness standards is sensible, …
Women pay a price, where housecleaning standards remain high and exacting. ‘Italian inequality,’ Wolf says, ‘exists almost entirely because of the amount of time Italian women spend on unpaid work. More specifically, they spend world-record amounts of time cleaning the house.’ All across the developed world, at all levels of society, ‘there was a fall in the time women spent on unpaid household work.’
In one of many engaging glimpses she offers into her own life, she admits that on weeknights, she is liable to be found picking up ready-made dinners for her family from a railway station branch of the catering arm of Marks & Spencer in London – ‘a regular in their long lines of suited commuters, male and female, calculating time to checkout against time to the next train.’ With more than two dozen pages of tables and charts in her statistical appendix, and the confidence of a scholar long recognised for her rigour, she is free to have fun – as in disagreeing, tongue in cheek, with a high-ranking female American lawyer about the undesirability of ‘some of the nation’s most … powerful women’ being ‘stranded in cab lines and late for meetings,’ as they teeter in shoes with dizzyingly high heels. With an amused shrug, she classes these women with historical subjects of ‘swagger portraits,’ such as ‘wealthy seventeenth-century burghers of Holland’s golden years [who] wore Calvinist black and showed off their wealth with the size and fine quality of their lace ruffs and shirt cuffs’.
We have those shoes to thank for the mental leap to Agency Woman, John A. A. Logan’s latest thriller noir — on which we had started a few weeks ago, and set aside for want of the right sort of reading time — to consider far more important parallels between XX and what this irresistible story has to say about the sexual revolution. In one of its early pages, the woolgathering of a character sitting on a bench in a train station in the Scottish Highlands is invaded by vivid sensations of being a knight on horseback when his eye is caught by a mesmerising woman shod in red high heels.
The owner of those heels turns out to be a powerful, high-ranking, female spy – seemingly a ‘better man’ in every respect than the book’s chief male character who, in this scene, is a dissolute, aimless, and troubled wanderer. Other readers surely asked themselves, as we did: will this woman, Lucy, plausibly become this man’s, or any man’s, heart’s desire – or be restricted to acting out the role of a sexual fascinator and dominatrix? For much of the book, it seems as if that could indeed be her fate, at her creator’s hands, judged by fragments like these:
I wish there was more gentleness in her, more kindness. She seems so intent on meeting life head on, smashing into it like a hammerhead shark rupturing its way through the water.
… and …
It’s the information, going into her … She believes it now. She’s processing it. Female computer with blood on her hands.
But, no … John Logan is not remotely a simple-minded thriller-writer – say, Dan Brown, whose female heroine in The Da Vinci Code has all the complexity of a soap dish. For reasons impossible to explain without trampling all over this surreal, often very funny story’s masterly unfolding, we realised, at the end of Agency Woman, that men John’s age – fortysomethings – take for granted, as Alison Wolf says in The XX Factor, that ‘Highly educated women are far more likely to have developing careers, jobs they find fulfilling, jobs that are part of their core identity.’
He writes like a choreographer effortlessly adding new steps to the dance of the sexes, in a novel that has echoes of both John Buchan’s grand, whimsical yarn, The Thirty-Nine Steps – because of chase scenes in rural Scotland, and a spirit of high adventure – and of a 1978 film about America’s Vietnam War, The Deer Hunter, because of excruciating, long-drawn-out ordeals of suffering and endurance inflicted on a reluctant conscript.
The message from Agency Woman about how instinctively astute men are coping with female incursions into traditionally male territory is neither new nor different from the critical prescription for any life: try never to lose your sense of humour. There is a splendid illustration of the right way forward in one encounter between the sexes in this book:
‘It must have been a glacier,’ is all I can think to say. We’ve passed the row of white houses and we’re back at the top of the hill now, just above where the bus dropped us off. We’re looking out over the sea and the sea is obviously sitting in some great depression, long and deep and scooped out from the land. I know nothing about geology or the history of the formation of the earth, but only two thoughts had entered my head when I looked down at the sea and the steep hillside that rose from the edges of the channelled water. First thought: huge dinosaur footprint, the footprint of some giant dinosaur with long, long bunny feet. Second thought: glacier. So I kept the dinosaur bunny feet private and expressed my certainty that this channel had been cut into earth by a mass of ice. A glacier. I know that she has her strong social side. I know that glaciers are socially acceptable, because current scientific theory approves of them, and they are taught in schools. I want her approval so I say, ‘It must have been a glacier.’ In my heart though, I hope it was a dinosaur bunny that did it, running after some dinosaur girl-bunny through this treeless zone. ‘I don’t think this warm weather is very usual up here,’ she replies. ‘The view too, I think this much sunshine is a real rarity up here.’
… No, not for a moment are we supposing that Agency Woman settles the question about reproduction with which this post began, proving Lori Gottlieb wrong – only, that it is strongly suggestive of how Alison Wolf’s research findings are playing out in some actual lives, and in the male psyche, in particular.
Or, as the rascally John Updike – an unreconstructed male supremacist, if ever there was one — put it in one of his last novels, Toward the End of Time: ‘We are condemned, men and women, to symbiosis.’ Only a first-rate novelist can show what he means — now.