Wow, where did Norah go?
Is there possibly some cosmic significance to the fact that David Kamp, who reviewed Norah Vincent's Self-Made Man for the Times was also the reviewer of A Million Little Pieces?
There's your premise in a nutshell: assertive, opinionated Vincent, best known as a contrarian columnist for The Los Angeles Times, goes undercover as a man to learn how the fellas think and act when them pesky broads ain't around.
Hold it right there. Norah Vincent is assertive, "opinionated", and a "contrarian" the way McDonald's is a fast "food" "restaurant". That is, she's the one-out-of-three which disproves any claim to the other two. Being a lesbian doesn't make her tired "I'm a libertarian with very little use for civil liberties" schtick any fresher. As far as I can tell, it's just what makes it marketable. It sure isn't her prose stylings.
(Here's a little secret for ya. Aside, perhaps, from the Young, Dumb, and Full of Cum crowd that no self-respecting "fellah" wants to be around unless he's a) one of them, and b) dead drunk, we pretty much think and act exactly the same whether the pesky broads is or ain't around. Have any of you broads noticed a particular layer of masculine refinement you imagine comes off when you're not around? Really? Because the only Behavior Formerly Known As Stag I know of is the occasional kneeing each other in the testicles, which is another strike against Norah. But thanks, David, for droppin' in t' th' Beverly Hillbillies dialect.)
And how much longer, O Lord, do we have to endure this contrarian crap? (And isn't it time we start insisting that anyone so-called demonstrate a smattering of familiarity with the arguments they're being contrary to?) The only thing that distinguishes Norah Vincent's work from any of the hackery at the Corner is that she's apparently capable of satisfying a woman.
Okay, enough about Norah, because no amount of money could possibly get me to feign interest in anything she has to say, and God knows I'd never review a book I didn't read and make Kathryn Jean Lopez cry, but apparently being a White Heterosexual Male who supports civil rights for Non-Whites and the Differently Oriented makes me a contrarian, so here's some opinionated assertiveness: being a Lesbian in 2006 does not make you de facto interesting. On the other hand, being a self-promoting Camille Paglia impersonator makes you recursively, almost vertiginously, boring.
Though not, it seems, to David Kamp:
But "Self-Made Man" turns out not to be what it threatens to be, a men-are-scum diatribe destined for best-seller status in the more militant alternative bookstores of Berkeley and Ann Arbor.
See my earlier piece, "Can We Stop With the Contrarian Crap Already?"
Though there's plenty of humor in "Self-Made Man," Vincent - like her spiritual forebear John Howard Griffin, the white journalist who colored his skin and lived as a black man in the South for his 1961 book "Black Like Me" - treats her self-imposed assignment seriously, not as a stunt.
Honest to God. Y'know, if it weren't for the internets and the large number of very smart young people I read and converse with on a regular basis, I would really consider simply willing every white person born in America after 1970 back to Alabama 1955 and make them tour the place like a zoo before allowing them to return, assuming they could pass a quiz.
In fact, that tears it. I'm switching over to Andrew O'Hehir's "My life as a man" in Salon (you know the drill if you want to read it):
I'd be surprised if these culture-war ideas about the ingrained and inflexible nature of gender weren't views Vincent has long held, and which she summons up at the end of "Self-Made Man" to explain, and depersonalize, the pain and difficulty she experienced as Ned. Vincent's compassion, sympathy and friendship for the men Ned bowls with, works with and drinks with are real; the last thing you can call her is a man-hater.
Okay, sure, I've got plenty of other stuff to call her. And if someone will do me the courtesy of diagramming that first sentence maybe we've got another point of agreement. I'm pretty well convinced that the idea of Homo americanus bowlaramus as a basically swell guy with bedrock values an' all that is a long-held view of Norah's, at least in print. In fact, I'd be shocked to learn she'd come up with something, I dunno, contrarian in her little experiment.
Which I'm here to tell you she might, in the event she meets some. Let's just say I'd make it even money the gang at The Smoking Gun has picked up a copy of the book. Because, look, I'm not sure what passes for quasi-Neanderthal in New York. And I guess we'll never quite know:
In the wake of recent publishing news, and considering Vincent's refusal to name names or identify places (not even cities, or states, or regions of the country), I suppose one has to ask whether the details of Ned's life are invented or embellished. It makes me profoundly uncomfortable that "Self-Made Man" is so thoroughly unverifiable, but I don't think it's a con job. Vincent's moments of sharpest perception -- into the intricacies of male camaraderie, or the dreary, mutually hostile gamesmanship of heterosexual dating -- feel unfakable, and if she were making it all up the material would probably be both more explosive and less ambiguous.As opposed to predictable and stilted. Let's give the woman some credit.
I wasn't accusing Kamp earlier of missing anything in the Frey book he should have caught, because, again, not only have I not read it, but nothing whatever could get me to read one of Oprah's recommendations, to the extent that I'm considering forgetting I've read Faulkner and One Hundred Years of Solitude now that I've learned she's profaning real literature. But it seems that he ought to be the one mentioning it, certainly if O'Hehir does. And if that earlier experience doesn't make us a bit less credulous than we were, maybe a glance at that picture would do it.
C'mon. Stage makeup works on the stage, sometimes. If a disguise is convincing you'd imagine it would be even more so in a reproduction of a reproduction of a photograph. We've even heard of gaydar out here in the vast emptiness between the oceans. Do you think we imagine it to be the exclusive province of homosexual males? Pah. To begin with, let's just ignore the stylistic points. She looks like k.d. lang made up for an Ed Wood film. Maybe it's different on the coasts, but out here, where we get sunlight, a man's beard does not end at his jawline. In fact, you might try this if you're not repulsed by the idea: choose a clean-shaven man over twenty-five at random and look at him. Even one with Miami Vice stubble. A few years of shaving chews up the neck. You can't fake that anymore than you could fake the hands of a master carpenter. But Norah fools the Quintessential Troglodyte Trio--the plumber, the appliance repairman, and the construction worker who welcome a hapless non-bowler onto their highly competitive squad:
Her bowling chapter ("Friendship") is a mini-masterpiece of sympathetic reporting, and there's no question that it took enormous courage for this New York lesbian intellectual to walk into a highly competitive bowling league somewhere in the American heartland, one of the most male of all male sanctums. Ned completely sucked as a bowler, and as Vincent ruefully admits, by the standards of this working-class environment, even the butchest woman in drag comes off as a girlie man.(By the way, could we have oh, maybe, a century where the Coasters either find out what they're talking about or shut the hell up about Middle America? Lots of women bowl. Lots.)
So, three regular Joes in a highly-competitive league take an inexperienced gutter-baller under their protective wing. Maybe--but not in any highly-competitive league I've ever known.
Ever, uh, been to a bowling alley? They're brightly lit. Two four-man teams on two lanes take up all the seating. But nobody notices that the new guy just stepped out of a dinner theatre production of Victor/Victoria.
Ever, uh, do any bowling? Full-court hoops it ain't, but it is athletic. Men generally use 16 pound balls. They're not light, not when they're lugged around and hurled over the course of thirty frames in a night.
Ever, uh, play sports? American men grow up throwing and catching balls. My sister is a superb athlete. She played baseball in the backyard with my Dad and me her whole life. My dad was a bowler, and we grew up doing that too. But her arm mechanics are not a man's. The best women bowlers might be able to fool a man who pays some attention. But someone who just picked up a ball for the first time? Prove it.
Norah eventually owns up to her teammates. So why, exactly, has she "changed the names of the characters and obscured the locations to protect the identities of her subjects"? Why do so regardless? Did they sleep with her thinking she was a man? Did they reveal some deep-seated Red state male fear of being fooled by a New York lesbian intellectual in drag? Ever watch the way people behave when they know they're on teevee? Christ, these guys would be braggin' all over town how they were in a book.
If the males sound like stereotypes, check out the women she dated:
the 30-ish single women Ned dates in the "Love" chapter come off as aggressively hostile and profoundly confused creatures -- on one hand, they want sensitive men capable of emotional communication, while on the other they want a take-charge guy who can pay for dinner, open doors and then, a bit later, "pin them to the bed." Wounded in previous relationships, they transformed each new man (even when he wasn't a man) "into the malignancy they were expecting him to be," thereby fueling a "self-perpetuating cycle of unkindness and discontent."
Boy, I bet you weren't ready for that bit of contrarian insight.
Is there something here that couldn't have been written without the masquerade? Is there anything that sounds like genuine insight from a successful charade? Maybe the Smoking Gunsels will tell us; I'm not buying the thing to find out. But, Norah Ned, if you make it back to the heartland, the lane fees are on me.