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Who's The Man?

Forbidden Knowledge Revealed in Fiction

The Agony Column for June 3, 2002

Commentary by Rick Kleffel

"There are things man was not meant to know...and more things women had better not find out!"

One of the common conclusions of ultra-moralistic science fiction is thought along the lines of "There are things Man was not meant to know." Even now I can visualize the formally dressed Science Professor who pronounces this, protectively holding the slowly calming woman and smoking a pipe. It's a black and white movie, but alas, the world is Technicolor. These sentiments seem quaint, almost fascist now.

On the other hand, it's hard not to call for censorship when novelists release books like 'High Fidelity' by Nick Hornby, or 'Smoking Poppy' by Graham Joyce. That's because there are definitely things women were not meant to know. Men's actual thought processes have been successfully shielded behind the characters molded on Joseph's Campbell's 'The Hero's Journey'. Tough, flawed, going through the motions of this, uh heroic journey, these folks reveal no more about the day-to-day thoughts of mortal men than Michelangelo's David does about post-forty flab. Men have been allowed to blissfully continue their actual, rather non-heroic journeys while the women around them have precious little insight into the thoughts going through men's tiny brains.

That's been the status quo forever and anon, and as a male human, I'm not happy to have the truth revealed by quisling writers out to make a fast very big buck. Of course, these feelings certainly reveal as much about me as they do about the books in questions, but that's the point. These books reveal actual male thought patterns more fully than strictly necessary. It's time to close them down, keep them away from the women who, if they understood men might...understand us. Yikes! Perish the thought!

Nothing better to hide the truth than a cuddly movie cunningly adapted from a penetrating best-seller.

Fortunately, at least in the first case, men got off their fat asses and did something about it. Alarmed that 'High Fidelity' was as informative about men as a glance at any man in tighty-whities without a T-shirt, the canny executives of Hollowood made a wonderfully funny feature film to distract the Unfair Sex from the truths hidden within the novel. It took a novel so packed with searing truths that no man could read it without cringing and turned it into a fluffy romantic comedy with -- get this, is this clever or what? -- an attractive male star who made all that misogyny and misanthropy positively cuddly. By diluting the novel's jokes and insights to 1/100th of their original industrial strength, the movie managed to both preserve and prevent the harsh realities revealed in the novel. But it was close, very close.

You're a quisling, I'm a quisling too. I actually loaned this book to a woman friend to read. Traitor! Me!

'High Fidelity' is one of those novels that I bought fairly early on, but not early enough to be able to cash in on the value of a first edition hardcover. It's one of those books that I've loaned to so many people I've finally forgotten where it went. There will be no hand-made scan of this baby, no sir. Now, I haven't been single since we passed that glorious year celebrated by another famous misanthrope, George Orwell. But that didn't lessen the impact of the revelation in 'High Fidelity'. Time after time, from the thinking behind mix tapes to the lists of good -- whatever, this novel was the male equivalent of having Ted Coppel in your cranium, reporting live and giving thoughtful, insightful commentary on what he was seeing there. My reaction was simple. Women Should Not Be Allowed To Read This Book.

There Are Things That Woman Was Not Meant To Know.

Many of them are clearly stated and closely examined in 'High Fidelity'. It lays the single, dating man's thoughts in clear, easy to read prose. It's funny, hysterically so, and insightful, painfully so. But it's only half the equation.

This picture of a pretty flower might be appealing to women, who could be led to think this was a book about growing flowers or gardening, not an examination of the soul of a male parent.

The other half was recently released and fortunately for men, cleverly disguised as a genre novel by a British writer. Graham Joyce's 'Smoking Poppy' is probably one the best observed portraits of fatherhood I've ever read. Now to a certain extent all that it reveals does not necessarily come into the realm of 'Things That Woman Was Not Meant To Know'. Some of this stuff may be actually helpful to keeping men in their current ducky state. Nonetheless, the force with which the observations hit home is no less than that of 'High Fidelity'. And the power with which those thoughts are portrayed by the writer Graham Joyce is often stunning.


In the UK, they have a good sense on how to keep women from buying the book. Pictures of the jungle will put them off nearly as fast as a monster.

Again, fortune is on our side. Time and again, novels by genre authors have been passed by, their importance and clarity of observation diminished in the eyes of the Vast Wasteland by their association with a genre, which usually translates to 'childish' in the eyes of critics. This novel was released late last year and only appeared over here recently. It's pretty much sunk without trace. So men can once again rest easy, until another traitor shows his hand and tries to sell out to the Unfair Sex. In the interim, men can probably sneak this novel, enjoy it, bathe in the informed insights and leave it out on the coffee table with the near-certainty that their wives will ignore it as "just another monster book".

Great, yes, honey, it's just another monster book. Nope, it's not all about the mixture of joy and terror a father feels as his children are born, and become small children. Ignore the man behind the curtain telling his thoughts on the smell of his children's hair, and how that power carries through a lifetime. Especially refuse to pay attention when it comes round to the part about how you pour your heart and soul into babies, only to see them grow up into adults every bit as flawed as your yourself are. The last thing we want you to know is exactly how we feel. We barely know ourselves, and when folks like Graham Joyce or Nick Hornby come along and tell us, we don't really feel as if they're doing us much of a favor.

There Are Things Man Was Not Meant To Know.

Thanks -- A LOT! --


Rick Kleffel