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Does Male Suffering Matter?

The Souls of Yellow Folk: Essays, Wesley Yang, W. W. Norton & Company, 256 pages

You Know You Want This: “Cat Person” and Other Stories, Kristen Roupenian, Gallery/Scout Press, 240 pages 

Do men suffer? Should anybody care when they do? Somehow these questions are part of an active and bitter debate about the status of men in modern society. A Gillette advertisement and new guidelines from the American Psychological Association sparked outrage by characterizing masculinity as largely or essentially “toxic.” It’s also controversial to suggest that male suffering can be the result of the exigencies and caprices of modern romantic dynamics. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat found this out last May when he wrote about “incels” and “the redistribution of sex.” And Tucker Carlson spurred controversy earlier this year when he suggested that men are “in decline”—male wages going down, male-dominated industries like manufacturing disappearing—and that this has something to do with women wanting higher-earning mates. Feminists blast such ideas as the product of male “entitlement.” But recent data seem to show that twentysomething men are far more likely than one might expect, and significantly more likely than twentysomething women, to experience sexlessness. Just last month, Harper’s Bazaar ran an article titled “Men Have No Friends and Women Bear the Burden,” suggesting that this loneliness is not limited to the romantic domain.

Two recent books, The Souls of Yellow Folk, a collection of essays by Wesley Yang, and You Know You Want This, a collection of short stories by Kristen Roupenian, both tackle the harshness of modern dating and the place of men. Roupenian conjures a phantasmagorical terror of relations between men and women in the age of Tinder. In her telling, this terror is almost exclusively created by men. Indeed, male suffering, as she presents it, is itself essentially a cover for inflicting yet more pain on women. Yang probes the same dating landscape, but in an entirely different way, exposing real male pain and vulnerability. While Roupenian is a fabulist, reveling in caricatures created for the sole purpose of passing judgment on their grotesquery, Yang’s profiles are of real people, and with close study and pinpoint precision he creates empathy even for those for whom it seems impossible.

The title of The Souls of Yellow Folk suggests it’s a book about race, but it isn’t, as Yang’s critics have pointed out. It may seem to be a book about sex, too, but that’s not really it either. There certainly is a lot of sex in the book, to be sure; it’s even present when Yang muses about what might have been had Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech mass murderer, expressed his pain as a result of his being Asian rather than as a result of his being a sexless male. But more generally, Yang is not concerned with buttressing or disputing any broad idea of masculinity, or even investigating modern dating for its own sake, so much as he is in examining human pain, objectively, as it is. And he focuses in particular on male pain, especially in cases where it seems likely to be overlooked.

The early chapters are all profiles of men: Seung-Hui Cho; young, successful Asians experiencing the workplace limits of America’s hard-working, rule-following culture; Eddie Huang, relative bad boy author of Fresh Off the Boat; Aaron Swartz, genius programmer who committed suicide under the pressure of federal prosecution for sharing academic articles; Tony Judt, iconoclastic historian who suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis; Evan Francois Kohlmann, boyish expert witness in terrorism trials; Francis Fukuyama, political theorist and author of The End of History, whose work has been reevaluated now that history seems very much not to have ended. Some of these are Asians, “yellow folk.” But what about the others? 

What connects them is weakness and pain. Yang dwells not only on Swartz’s suicide but on his stomach problems and social anxieties. He is fascinated by Judt’s illness and seems invested in portraying Kohlmann as a child. It’s easy to see why Yang has become the media’s most eloquent and prominent defender of Jordan Peterson, whose message concerning the inevitability of pain and suffering, and the growth that can accompany its acceptance, has been most popular among men.

There could be no better foil for Yang’s empathetic portrayals of vulnerable men than Roupenian’s You Know You Want This. A doctoral student in “postcolonial and transnational literatures” at Harvard University, Roupenian rocketed to stardom in late 2017 when the New Yorker published her story, “Cat Person,” about a bad date. Her strategy is to take moderately unpleasant but ordinary situations, usually from a woman’s perspective, and infuse them with elements of fantastical horror. “Cat Person” stands somewhat apart because of its realism, but it conforms to the general pattern.

In “Cat Person” a man is unimpressive to a woman, but his vulnerability engenders feelings of tenderness in her, which prompt her to try to get to know him. He proves sexually incompetent, and she stops seeing him, whereupon he calls her a whore. Similarly, in another of Roupenian’s short stories, “The Good Guy,” the narrator apparently earns his fate—he is murdered by a spurned lover—by calling someone a “bitch.” Much of the book boils down to this dynamic: women are portrayed sympathetically even though they commit murders, because men use words such as “whore” or “bitch.” “Cat Person” is a morality play, essentially suggesting that violence is what you get if you don’t see that male pain is simply a prelude to male cruelty. The narrator learns the lesson: to avoid men who show any weakness. Bad things happen, Roupenian seems to say, if you don’t overlook male pain.

Yang reminds us that male pain is, indeed, often overlooked. For instance, Yang writes of Asian men: “Maybe they were nerds, maybe they were faceless drones, but did anybody know they were angry? What could they be angry about?” Seung-Hui Cho courts women and tries to become a writer. His face, Yang writes, belongs “to a person who, if he were emailing you…you would consider reporting it to campus security. Which is what they did, the girls who were contacted by Cho.”

Take a famous 1998 statement from Hillary Clinton: “Women have always been the primary victims of war. Women lose their husbands, their fathers, their sons in combat.” People say things like this not because they believe soldiers can’t be victims, but because they believe that being male is somehow antithetical to being victimized. Men are blamed for their higher rates of homelessness and death by murder, suicide, and disease. The imbalance is considered normal. Put another way, men are seen as active agents, and women as their passive casualties. That is, men create their own problems, and quibbles about “blaming the victim” do not apply. Another easy example is mainstream reporting on the fact that women are significantly more likely to graduate from college than men. Ironically, it’s often women who are framed as the victims of this circumstance, against whom “the odds are stacked” when it comes to the prospect of “finding a like-minded man.”

In her book Down Girl, Cornell University philosopher Kate Manne argues that men, especially powerful men, are the beneficiaries of “himpathy”—an excess of sympathy reserved for men, which women don’t receive—especially in cases where they victimize less powerful women. But Manne’s treatment of the 2014 Isla Vista killings undermines her own theory. Half of the shooting victims were men; however, it is taken solely as an example of misogynist violence against women. Once again, male death is treated as normal, not noteworthy.

The Isla Vista shooting, like the Virginia Tech shooting that Yang considers in his first essay, was motivated partly by romantic failure. The connection between romantic failure, especially involuntary celibacy, and spree shootings-cum-suicides is not well-understood at this point. And while Yang does not treat this connection in any real depth, the structure of his book is a sort of symphonic poem of emotional growth. The first movement confronts the capacity for violence; the second, the capacity for pain; the third, the highs and lows of modern romance; and the fourth, concerns about justice through essays about political movements on modern college campuses.

In the introduction to The Souls of Yellow Folk, Yang notes that circa the writing of “The Face of Seung-Hui Cho,” he mused that, “as the bearer of an Asian face in America, you paid some incremental penalty, never absolute, but always omnipresent, that meant that you were by default unlovable and unloved.” But he concedes almost right away that this is “a dogmatic statement at once unprovable and unfalsifiable.” He writes, “It had no real truth value, except that under certain conditions, one felt it with every fiber of one’s being to be true.” This gives us a sense of Yang’s indecision, but it also gives us a sense of his potential to marry the realist and romantic approaches. If he allows that, as Ben Shapiro likes to say, “facts don’t care about your feelings,” Yang simultaneously pushes this contention aside: feelings matter anyway, regardless of the facts.

Yang identifies an even deeper tension relating to his overarching theme of vulnerability. In the age of quickly passing, contractual romance, he writes, “our individual quest to render ourselves invulnerable to the storms of fortune makes universal vulnerability the rule from which none of us can opt out.” The soul, David Foster Wallace might say, is not a spreadsheet.

Similar themes emerge in “On Reading the Sex Diaries,” an examination of selections from New York’sThe Cut section, where people write stories of their sexual experiences. I have read a few of these in my time, and the descriptions, and thus the experiences, always seemed to me unerringly emotionless, bland, and ultimately uninteresting. Characteristically, Yang finds in them a beating heart of human yearning for companionship and an improbable source of some sort of hope.

Roupenian tries instead to manufacture gritty realism through unbelievable caricatures and stock horror-genre tactics. In her volume’s first story, “Bad Boy,” a boy begins sleeping on his friends’ couch during a prolonged breakup. For some reason, the two friends he’s staying with (the story is narrated by a “we”) begin to take a sadomasochistic interest in ordering him around. They discover that the boy is still texting his ex-girlfriend, and when they later find the two having sex, they order the boy to kill her, which he then does. It’s like a crappy sexual version of Don Barthelme’s short story “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby,” but without any of the humor or the joy.

Unfortunately, Roupenian’s roundabout attempt at storytelling does not suffice to give us any understanding of these characters’ motivations. Why do the narrators feel the need to order the boy around as they do? Why is the boy such a pushover? Who does the “we” represent—society?

The story is too stupid to make us care. The “lesson” is that, ultimately, it is the boy’s vulnerability, loneliness, and eagerness to please that enable him to commit murder. This problem comes up in almost all of the volume’s stories. If the narrator of “The Good Guy” is as pathetic as he makes himself out to be, why are women so attracted to him, and so broken-hearted when things end? Why does the narrator of “Cat Person,” “surprising herself,” give the portly, insecure customer her phone number? 

In a way, Roupenian shows admirable restraint by making her female characters nearly as unlikable as the men. The main character in “Biter” is a woman who gets off by sinking her teeth into unsuspecting male coworkers. In “The Night Runner,” a male Peace Corps volunteer in Africa spends the whole story being harassed by the class of young women he’s teaching English—Roupenian’s punishment for anyone with a “white savior complex” who her readers might hate. The last few stories are just about hurting people: biting them, punching them, cutting their hearts out.

Roupenian’s prose is ugly, too, perhaps intentionally. It’s written like the diary of an ineloquent teenager, with phrases inexplicably rendered in all-caps, Jezebel-style single word sentences (“What. If. She. Did.”), and colloquy (“the D”). There is never a lovely or even particularly pleasant turn of phrase, perhaps reflecting Roupenian’s apparent belief that nothing particularly pleasant ever happens and that nobody ever enjoys anything, even the things they claim to enjoy or work to achieve.

Roupenian obviously takes herself to be a brave writer. On Twitter, she praised herself for writing the first sentence of “Good Guy”—“By the time he was 35, the only way Ted could get hard and remain so for the duration of sexual intercourse was to pretend that his dick was a knife, and the woman he was fucking was stabbing herself with it”—saying: “Still can’t quite believe I was bold enough to open a story with this line, tbh.” But as Yang’s work should remind us, there’s nothing bold about hating vulnerability or about turning human connection and community into an ugly spectacle. She describes one character’s first kiss as “Two boneless slabs of flesh, flopping around, like a pair of slugs mating in the cavern of your mouth.” It’s the one move Roupenian knows, as though the inspiration for every story was saying to herself, “Imagine someone did something and didn’t enjoy it.”

In “Sardines,” a divorced mother’s unpopular daughter makes a birthday wish that leads to her father, his girlfriend, and all the happy neighbors and their children fusing together into a monstrous hive-mind-body. In “The Mirror, the Bucket, and the Old Thigh Bone,” a princess falls in love with a strange contraption featuring a mirror that reflects her own face.

This is not the signal “literature” of the #MeToo era, as some have claimed; instead, Roupenian’s attitudes exemplify the era of the phrase “catching feelings”—an era in which emotion, yearning, real desire is seen as pathological and alien. You Know You Want This exists in a world in which pain and vulnerability are attempts to control and hurt, and any efforts toward tenderness and care are merely internal projections, ways of matching up to an image of ourselves we have in our heads rather than supporting others whose feelings we understand and sympathize with. How could anyone really enjoy someone else’s presence? How could anyone really want to connect with another person? Don’t they see they’re just connecting with an idea inside their own heads?

Near the end of “Biter,” Roupenian writes about sexual harassers: “There was one in every office: the man everyone whispered about. All she had to do was listen, and wait, and give him an Opportunity, and, soon enough, he would find her.” The two are of a piece, we’re meant to think, the harasser and the biter. They operate in the same way. Of course, the harasser deserves the biting, but this isn’t why the biter does the biting. The picture of the world we’re left with is one in which everyone is out there, waiting to consume others in their own particular way, waiting for their own kind of Opportunity. These devouring urges seem to arise ex nihilo. Human warmth and fellow-feeling are just other ways we eat each other.

The good news, as Yang tells us, is that Roupenian is wrong: wrong about men especially but wrong about humans in general—wrong about romance, even modern romance, wrong about people’s motivations and their desires. Even the pickup artists, with their spreadsheets of ranked hookups and their cold, mercenary attitudes are looking, in their own confused way, for the warmth of human companionship. 

People don’t suffer as a pretext for hurting others; they hurt simpliciter, though they sometimes find no other way to express their suffering. People don’t, by and large, join and assist one another in order to develop a certain narrative of themselves. They do it because they feel called to, by the fully real other people with whom they’re dealing. Vulnerability, and recognizing the vulnerability of others, including of men, is not the symptom or the disease, nor one of Roupenian’s derivative monster figures. It’s the cure for the strange culture, so intricately networked and yet so hopelessly atomized, in which both these authors write and we all live.

Oliver Traldi is a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.

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