Monday, December 29, 2014

On discovering that WWPD the novel has already been written

The feminist dilemma of our age - at least according to certain articles I came across through my work over the past month or so - is that high-achieving women marry even-higher-achieving men. Something about a study, Harvard Business School... It's not quite the Second After Sartre problem (that is, being a female genius overshadowed, for gender reasons, by a lesser-but-male genius), but it can be. Why, one might wonder, don't elite women pair off with less-accomplished men?

The articles about Harvard Business School graduates (and now, Stanford graduates) do somewhat make my eyes glaze over. But this question is more entertainingly addressed in The Mind-Body Problem, Rebecca Goldstein's 1983 novel, which I just read, maybe reread, although I could be conflating it with Fear of Flying. Both involve questions of female identity as relational, and discuss Jewish female beauty as resulting from racial intermixing via pogroms. Both also have a few more oddly specific overlaps with my life (general biographical details, not from the racy bits!) than I'd have thought possible in fiction. Except for the bit about looking somewhat Slavic - these blondness-providing pogroms evidently spared my ancestors, unless that's where the pallor comes from.

Spoilers below; click on the post title for the rest...

The Mind-Body Problem is the story of a woman who's married a Too Brilliant to Bathe. Renée Feuer, Goldstein's narrator and protagonist, explains in great detail that ugly men can be irresistible to women, but that there are no ugly women with that effect on men, and that this explains a difference in how men and women experience attraction. Renée's situation is as follows: she's a Princeton philosophy grad student, and for various impostor-syndrome reasons, starts to wonder if she should maybe sleep with - or marry - a genius rather than be one herself.

If Portnoy was going to sleep his way into the American heartland, and Erica Jong's protagonist was going to do I'm now forgetting what with her own exploits, Renée engages in a kind of intellectual social climbing and wins herself an absent-minded (and - it's hard not to think, given current understandings, spectrum-residing) genius mathematician. While the idea had been that higher education would be her escape from the gender roles of her orthodox Jewish upbringing, she ends up the housewife of a (Jewish!) man who spends all day studying something of no practical use, except that it's math and not Talmud. A feminist victory this is not.

Having snagged the genius trophy, Renée ends up in much the same boat as the other disgruntled literary housewives she mentions - that one played by Keira Knightley (yes, I did also read the book; seems necessary to mention, what with the impostor-syndrome theme) and the one there were oh so many questions about on the French Department's MA exam. Whether because Renée is as beautiful as she thinks she is (not sure how literary analysis approaches the question of the narrator who describes herself as such) or because any young woman at one of these parties is a popular young woman, opportunities abound. But now she's not sleeping her way into the academic elite, but rather sleeping her way out of sexual frustration with a man who turns out to be (in fact, never gives indication of not being) quite a bit better at math than at sex. At one point, she laments the fact that her new lover also comes from the high-achieving pool, but attributes this not to a quest, just to proximity.

Then - spoiler of spoilers - comes the ending.

Turns out that the esteemed doctor of math and slovenliness is... not a fraud, exactly, but a has-been. His math ability is gone, but he hasn't admitted this to anyone apart from his wife, certainly not to the university paying him apparently quite a bit for three hours a week of teaching. But the story ends with every indication that he's going to go on reaping the rewards of having once been brilliant, in part because he was, indeed, once brilliant, but also because of his continued adherence to the TBTB aesthetic.

Are any questions answered? If the philosophical ones are, they went over my head. The think-piece gender-issue ones remain only hinted at, which is, I suppose, why fiction is the better arena in which to address them.


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