Jennifer Schaffer,  March 21, 2018

Fucking the Patriarch

In three new novels, women write their lives—and men serve their purpose

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Recently, at a party, a man told me about his virtues. He considered himself a “good man”—the updated edition, I think, of the now-scorned “good guy”—and he graciously laid out for me his “good” approach to sex and desire in the modern age. “The only thing for good men to do now is let women make the first move,” he said, solemnly, in what I do not believe was a pick-up line but, more frighteningly, a genuine political stance. “Oh,” I said, “I’m not sure that’s how it works.” He looked at me expectantly. I realized that I—like so many women over the past few exhausting months—had unwittingly taken on the role of educator, was being asked to clarify rules and instructions. The impulse to learn how not to be a terrible person is a positive one, but the desperation for clear prescription is, to my mind, futile. Every genuinely erotic experience in my life has involved thousands of minute, ever-shifting imbalances of power. Every harmful one has been the result of men too cowardly to engage in those shifts, gunning instead for some definitive, final affirmation of a power they were never certain of, but felt divinely entitled to nonetheless.


It is difficult, amid the present moment’s necessary and overdue discussions about abuses of power, to find the right language with which we can discuss the erotics of imbalance. Yet three debut novels over the past year have done just that, each taking as a central concern the relationship between a bright young woman and an established older man, a tale we’ve heard a thousand times, turned upon its head and then flipped back on its feet, to dizzying effect. In Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, twenty-one-year-old undergraduate Frances has an affair with moneyed, married thirty-something actor Nick. In Hermione Hoby’s Neon in Daylight, twenty-two-year-old Kate, fresh out of Oxford and aimless in New York, engages in an extended fling with the dad-aged, bad-boy author Bill Marrero. And in Lisa Halliday’s extraordinary Asymmetry, twenty-five-year-old book editor Alice falls in love with seventy-something American literary giant Ezra Blazer. The power imbalances in these relationships are set outside of professional working environments but still within the boundary-less, open-plan space of patriarchal late capitalism, where women are expected to serve with a smile, regardless of the affirmations printed on our coffee mugs and tote bags. The young women in these novels are conscious of the structural inequality that surrounds us all like rusty scaffolding—if anything, the age gaps between Frances and Nick, Kate and Bill, and Alice and Ezra allow both the characters and the readers of these novels a certain clearheadedness. In an older-man, younger-woman relationship, the gendered expectations of each are set in relief: security and wisdom, beauty and purity.

The young woman is brought into the worlds of money and influence—worlds still run, albeit poorly, by men.

The “sage older man seduces beautiful ingénue” trope is, of course, well-trod territory; late in Conversations with Friends, Frances idly reads Middlemarch, a classic of the genre. What is new and generative about these novels is that they attempt what is so rarely attempted: to weigh the power young women hold, beyond Dorothea-esque beauty and eagerness to please or Isabel Archer-like innocence and inherited status, beyond the exhausted trope of the hot, slight, voiceless muse. Frances, Kate, and Alice do not seem to derive their power from innocence or even beauty, the twin faculties young women are led to believe are our strongest. Innocence isn’t really ever on the table; these are women, not girls. Alice gets an abortion after a one-night stand; Kate leaves her period smeared on sheets at the Standard Hotel; Frances self-consciously self-harms. As for beauty, none of these novels offer definitive descriptions of their protagonists’ physical appearance; our understanding of their attractiveness is derived almost entirely from depictions of their effect on men, and the ease with which they move through the world more generally. (The latter should also be attributed to each of these characters being white and well-educated, privileges that inevitably embolden and protect, though this reality is acknowledged only in Asymmetry.) Instead, Frances, Kate, and Alice derive their power from their potential and their intelligence, and from aspects of socialized femininity that we are not taught to view as powerful: their attentiveness, their depth of perception, their reflexive consideration.

The young women in Rooney and Hoby and Halliday’s novels are active characters—not prey for the slaying but players with agency in a game where neither holds all the cards, though at any given moment one may hold the thicker stack. And in each novel, these asymmetrical relationships serve as both initiation and inoculation: the young woman is brought into the worlds of money and influence—worlds still run, albeit poorly, by men—and sees, from up close, the cracks and wrinkles and weak spots inside. Under capitalist patriarchy women are brought up as shiny things: polished for the first two decades of our lives, briefly serving as a reflection of hetero male desire, then left to tarnish. But for some of us who, in our prescribed shiny days, became intimate with older men, eros can serve as an education in screwing the system, a chance to see the face of power and sit on it.

That is, at least, what Alice and Frances and Kate manage to do, and these novels could form their own curriculum of assigned reading for self-declared good men, or anyone seeking an education in erotic nuance and, in the words of its chief historian Philip Roth, “the radical destabilization that is its excitement.”[1] These novels do away with the pernicious Pygmalion myth—that these cultured, well-off men would graciously bestow status and poise on the ingénues they bed—in favor of what I imagine is a far more common reality. Unintentionally, Nick, Bill, and Ezra demystify the patriarch’s power, and its source. Usually women are alienated from the end results of their emotional and intellectual labor; but in these novels, young women are brought to face those results directly, and given the chance to weigh their efforts against their payouts. Nick fills Frances’ fridge with minced beef, when he learns she is broke. Bill pays for Kate’s drinks, and offers to buy her a lap dance at a strip club. And Ezra pays off Alice’s student debt (in a moment that filled this reader with envy). Even still, on the page these compensations seem meager. Set beside the young women’s care, no payout could be sufficient.

In Asymmetry, Ezra Blazer is talented, hard-working, and dignified, but he is all these things at a cost to those around him. Alice, whom Ezra gives fake business cards identifying her as his “research assistant,” to protect her real identity, becomes a kind of personal caretaker to him. Halliday’s way with dialogue in the first section of Asymmetry is masterful: Blazer’s tone is always dominant,  but we watch as Alice slips away from him, speaking her own language. When she begins to seriously consider embarking on a life like Ezra’s—living in Europe, progressing as a writer—he tries to convince her that the “real adventure” is their relationship, a cheap premise Ezra would never accept for himself; and it is clear, from Halliday’s understated dialogue, that through her relationship with Ezra, Alice has grown far past the version of herself that would embrace such a line, or such a life.


We are drawn to situations that reveal us to ourselves, and consciously or not, we crave the reveal that would bring us to our knees. “At any time I felt I could do or say anything at all,” Rooney writes in Conversations with Friends, “and only afterwards think: oh, so that’s the kind of person I am.” Throughout the novel, Frances approaches her relationship with Nick as a kind of testing ground, often viewing their relationship at a remove, even or perhaps especially in bed, where she realizes that doing things that make Nick lose control gives her more pleasure than the experience of losing control herself. Similarly, Kate, in Neon in Daylight, comes to an awareness, as Bill places his hand on her thigh, that “being desired felt like desire.” The moments of self-recognition collected in these novels have a deconditioning effect; they test our own ideas about what we need from each other. And they ask the impossible question: Can we derive power from within a system that disempowers? As if there was any other system for us to turn to. As if the world were teeming with choice.

Ezra becomes a vanishing mediator, a means to an end, a purpose served.

It is not coincidental that Frances, Alice, and Kate are each framed, in some capacity, as writers. As a woman, becoming a writer can mean appropriating the imperative placed on you from birth: to listen, to observe, to predict. To understand motivations before they are actions; to recognize the momentum of a moment and anticipate its break. In Conversations with Friends, Frances’ keen observation of Nick’s moods, her near-clinical analysis of his writing style in texts and emails, her film director-like approach to their sex life, and her decisions to give and withhold information in anticipation of Nick’s reactions coincide with Frances suddenly and unexpectedly writing her first short story, which is accepted for publication. In Neon in Daylight, Kate grows more bold, unpredictable, and outspoken through each interaction with Bill (the least interesting of these three patriarchs, though the only actual father). Bill accuses her of being a “tourist” not just in New York but in their relationship, and that’s exactly what she is. Though she denies that she is writing a novel, Kate too transmutes her experience with Bill into a kind of becoming, an act of creative improvisation out of which her New York identity is born.   

And in Asymmetry, Alice pays close, loving attention to Ezra’s needs and whims, and takes all of his professorial recommendations—whether for a coat or a jar of jam or a history of the Holocaust—to heart. She watches carefully his approach to writing, the manner in which he centers himself in his narrative; and, late in the novel, we learn that Alice chooses to center herself, too, when she walks away from Ezra in order to create her own life as a writer. We are given a sample of what she produces, and its complexity and power far exceed any glimpse we are given of Alice’s interiority during her time with Ezra. He becomes a vanishing mediator, a means to an end, a purpose served.


My own coming of age took a similar form to these characters’. I had just turned twenty, he was thirty-one. At the time, I was in a long-term relationship with an undergraduate engineer so straightforward in his needs that I spent days of my life tracing the pattern of his personality, over and over, feeling for the snag. I was, indisputably, the dominant force between us: if I hadn’t been, our days would have consisted of video games, takeout, and watching viral clips in bed. The relationship offered me these genuinely simple pleasures, which is what I needed, or thought I needed, at the time.

Then I met a man, let’s call him Jack, and at first it felt like going from Go Fish to high-stakes poker. Jack was observant and condescending, domineering and erudite. We met in a writing group, and he read my work with an acuity it had never been read with before. So much of our relationship consisted of Jack describing me to myself: the way I held a wine glass, the way I wrote, the way my body felt, the way I looked while I was reading. Over time, it grew clear to me that Jack—and maybe all the grown-up boys I had known, or would know—derived much of his power from my willingness to listen, to absorb, to watch, to reflect back to him what he told me he was seeing. If my energy and my attention, my enthusiasm and my youth, were deep wells from which men drew their power, what would I be left with in due course? Jack wanted to a be a professor, and often made me into his classroom of one, but what I learned from him—so central to who I am now—never came from his lessons. The payout is never enough. Go fish.

“Come and get me,” Frances says, at the end of Conversations with Friends. The passive turned active, an invitation that commands. Asymmetry ends with Ezra pulling his old lines on a new listener, and they come across limp, a trick you wouldn’t fall for twice. Where is Jack now? I don’t know. I took what I needed, and I’m sure he took something, too.

But here I am, writing about it.

[1] The Dying Animal.

Jennifer Schaffer is an American writer living in London. Her work has appeared in the Paris Review Daily, the New Statesman Staggers, the Awl, VICE, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter at @jmschaff.

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