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The Ones Who Looked Back

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You wake up one day and the men in your life have disappeared. Your husband, your son, your father and your brother are nowhere to be found. Everything’s eerily quiet and it takes you a while to realize that the absent noise is the sound of traffic. You look around, calling out their names but only female voices float in the wind. Women in your estate are gathered in a group down the street talking about the disappeared men. Others like you, who are yet to accept this absurd occurrence as having truly happened, are still calling out for their loved ones. The ones in possession of the Y chromosome.

Cars are backed up on the highway, many of them crashed. The power is out, the water is gone and the gas stations will soon run empty since the men in those fields didn’t show up to work. The news is still running though. The women in journalism are keeping you appraised of the goings on – of the planes falling clean out of the sky, trains derailing, and the ships adrift at sea. Community organizers quickly mobilize workers to clear the highways and get traffic moving again.

There is a flurry of messages on online forums offering possible explanations for the disappearance. Reports of women self-immolating in different countries in response to the crisis start coming in. There are so many of them that they come to be known as the Burning Girls. A feed purporting to show the men in a different location also emerges. You begin to watch it in the hopes of spotting your kin, your man, your person. The footage on this feed is bizarre. No one knows who is filming it or posting it on the internet. Nor where it is being filmed or where the men – who are always walking – are going. Later, strange creatures are seen herding the men that are unlike anything anyone has ever seen.

Meanwhile, a new political movement is gaining popularity and vying for top leadership positions. The truth is labeled as a conspiracy theory early on and warranting no further investigation, it disappears. Mainstream media becomes the primary source of information, through which everything is politicized and polarization inevitably follows.

As soon as women realize that the men are gone, they empty out the sperm banks, triggering a reproduction crisis. Not to worry though. Big tech is on hand to invent a sperm-free way to have children. The only catch is that the children are produced through proprietary tech and are therefore legally property of the corporation. To the childless who will not pass up motherhood even at the risk of bringing forth a possibly soulless child, it doesn’t matter. The waiting list is years long.

While at first the disappearance is jarring, many things remain the same. Sure, there is no male gaze in the new world so women go out shopping in wrinkled pajamas, hair unkempt. Nip slips and up-skirts mean nothing because no one cares. There is no mansplaining, manspreading and groping on public transport. In the new world, narrow alleys aren’t a synonym for men’s public urinal. Women walk alone at night and host barbecues and camp outs in the streets unafraid. What a joy!

Even so, there are still hate crimes. Racism certainly doesn’t just go away and the levels of violence are especially surprising coming from women. Murder, looting, black market trade, capitalism, gaslighting and invalidating each other’s feelings along with a cesspit of other cybercrimes, it emerges, are not exclusive to men. There is no feminine utopia to speak of.

This is the story world in Sandra Newman’s ‘The Men’. I came across a review of it before the book itself. It wasn’t a glowing review. In fact, the reviewer said that the book was problematic but the premise intrigued me. A world without men? Tell me about it. Right off the bat I liked it, if only because it was such a page turner. It’s the kind of story you can soak up in a few short hours. Furthermore, it has just the right concentration of taboo to have you reading wide-eyed and mouth agape. With only three chapters left in the book, I knew I wasn’t going to like the ending. There just wasn’t enough left to wrap up the story to the reader’s satisfaction.

There is, however, a lot of crying – maybe too much crying. By the midpoint it starts to get a little tiresome. Every marginally unpleasant thing elicits bursts of crying from the characters. But maybe that’s what a world where people don’t treat your tears as an affront to them is like. No one acts like they’re personally aggrieved by your lived experience. No one thinks it’s dramatic or hysterical or manipulative. No one spits the word ’emotional’ at you like an accusation. Women just cry and cry and cry and no one asks defensively, “Why are you crying?”

Just as I thought, I did not in fact like the ending. In those three short chapters, my feelings about the book changed drastically. Here’s what happens. Spoilers ahead – but read on. I do not highly recommend this book anyway. I initially thought that The Men referred to the disappeared men, which the book puts at 3.9 billion. But towards the end I find that the men actually refers to the bizarre footage of the men I mentioned earlier. As time goes by, the footage gets darker. The men engage in the human sacrifice of boys under the supervision of their alien minders.

Still, back in the real world, some women are unable to let go of their men. They long for them to return. Without them, they are untethered ribs who are incomplete without their Adam. Without marriage and/or motherhood to define them, they are but formless shapes incapable of infusing other meaning into their lives. Newman aptly names them Lot’s wives — the ones who look back and turn into pillars of salt.

In this case, the consequences don’t stop with them. They are the doorway through which the men return to their world and transport the women back to the same old. Same old patriarchal society with its gender-defined roles, wage gaps and glorified misogyny. In the end, the realization that the women never had any real power waters down the narrative’s punch. The circumstances under which the men disappeared or reappeared were always beyond their control.

A supposedly crucial piece of information that would’ve allowed them to remain in their female-only world never reached them in time. Pointedly, it came from an unreliable source; from the manic writings of an unhinged bipolar woman. It’s hard enough to believe women – try believing a woman living with mental illness. Try believing a ‘crazy bitch’. The women never had a chance. Perhaps this is an indictment of women not believing other women, but I still found that narrative choice curious.

This same woman was one of the burning girls, who as it turns out were part of some kind of cult that was behind the spell that took the men away. I can’t say for sure whether it was a dark magic hex, hecatomb or whatever. It never comes out clearly despite the fact that Newman is a clever and meticulous writer who weaves each strand of the story deliberately. She draws the reader into a fog here, but what’s clear is that we are now squarely in occult territory.

Even more curious is Newman’s choice to link this eventuality to a fleeting conversation about human sacrifice once practiced in burial rites of the Yoruba people of West Africa. There are well-documented histories of other societies partaking in similar (if not more peculiar) ritualistic human sacrifice in the burials of their royalty. She mentions the Incas, Aztecs, Greeks and even British Druids but it’s the Yoruba one that really has wings.

I was not thrilled.

The buildup was well done and it showed great promise but then fell flat. I felt a bit like the author capitalized on the premise without delivering. But The Men is an American book chockful of American concerns so it’s not my cup of chai. If you have a few hours to kill though, grab your copy and tell me what you think. I’m always happy to talk about books.

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