Howie’s Book Club

The Story of a New Name and Masculinity

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Had it really been so wonderful? I knew very well that at that time, too, there had been shame. And uneasiness, and humiliation, and disgust: accept, submit, force yourself. Is it possible that even happy moments of pleasure never stand up to a rigorous examination?

I like shopping. In the most culturally loaded sense of the word. Like when comedians of the 80s used to make jokes about how women like to shop. That’s the kind of shopping I like to do. I don’t get to do it often, but I like to look at and try on and buy clothes. I like to have them in steadily accumulating bags as I go from store to store. I feel like the bar is so low for men my age, that even a cursory effort to look remotely nice is deeply satisfying.

I like shopping with my wife, too. I know. I’m supposed to sit outside the dressing room with a vacant look on my face with other vacant-looking men as we contemplate the series of events that led to this hell. But look at it this way: I get to see my wife in all sorts of different outfits, most of it she’ll look great in, and some of it will be too tight? I’m not sure where the drawback is here.

When I shop, though, I go straight to the back of the store. That’s where the clearance section is, and that’s my domain. This is why for years many of my clothes were bright, odd colors. Because that’s what had been picked over for the requisite weeks or months that it takes before something gets moved from the well-organized racks of the bourgeoisie to the Mos Eisley cantina of the back of the store, where the disheveled hoi polloi seek out something that is not perfect, and instead simply good enough.

I’m getting better at this, but it’s still my first look. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that one day while looking for deals, I found a baseball helmet that I thought would make my son safer than the loose ones that they were using in his first year on a fast-pitch team that would spin around comically and face backwards like some kind of Looney Tunes cartoon prop. Look, you guys, I was on baseball teams as a kid. I got hit in the helmet. My friend got hit in the thumb, which broke it. So when I saw a baseball helmet with a grill for like 80% off I thought that this is clearly a good dad situation.

A helmet that fits snugly, and an erratic (and let’s face it, they are all erratic at this age) pitch can’t get in there and bust up the moneymaker. Because the helmet doesn’t slip down over his eyes, he can see better, and maybe it might actually, you know, work.

So he shows up for the next game and set it down in the pile of helmets. I’m sitting there watching the game and see that my son isn’t putting it on before he bats. I hustle down because I spent money on that thing and it’s nice and it’s safer. He begrudgingly puts it on and the pitcher, who is the coach’s son and maybe the best player on the team, looks at Ethan and says “You’re more woman than man.”

Poor kid sort of shrugs it off and goes up to bat. I’d like to say that he hit a home-run and everyone lifted him on their shoulders and paraded around the field but we all know that’s not what happened. I can’t remember if he struck out or got a base hit or whatever, but those words have stuck in my head ever since. It’s maybe 3 or 4 years later now and I’m still thinking about it.

“How difficult it was to find one’s way,” Elena Ferrante says in her astounding novel The Story of a New Name. “How difficult it was not to violate any of the incredibly detailed male regulations.”

How difficult indeed. It’s hard to summarize the emotions I was going through watching the rest of that game. As the dad, am I screwing up my kid’s life because I never fully understood all the rules of masculinity? Am I passing on all the awkward moments I’ve had while surrounded with guys in manual labor jobs, or while shooting guns for my job, or during pick-up games of basketball and football?

Another time picture some very nervous parents about to send their son on his first Boy Scout campout. Kristin drops him off and while he’s unloading his foam pad an older kid laughs at him, again calling him “woman” in a mocking voice I guess because we had the temerity to decide not to let our son sleep directly on the ground. Apparently while looking at the checklist we were provided, his dad was supposed to peruse it and remove any stuff that would violate some kind of man code. Whoops.

We had grown up thinking that a stranger must not even touch us, but that our father, our boyfriend, and our husband could hit us when they liked, out of love, to educate us, to reeducate us.

The Story of a New Name is the sequel to My Brilliant Friend. If you click that link, you’ll remember that I really, really loved it. I loved it so much. But listen, The Story of a New Name is even better. Ferrante’s portrayal of a tiny village in Italy is so detailed, so authentic, and so affecting that I couldn’t stop reading it.

The story continues the life of Elena and Lila, two best friends as they move from childhood into adulthood. Elena is an extremely driven achiever who is always at the top of her class, but she’s always aware of Lila’s dazzling brilliance and feels she’s in constant competition with that potential. While Elena continues her education, Lila marries young to a wealthy businessman. And while she lives a life of luxury, the marriage, I’m afraid to report, is not a healthy nor happy one.

It’s frustrating, writing this blog, and trying to tell you what a book is about when sometimes a book is about so much. The Story of a New Name is about domestic abuse, sure. It’s also about the paths we take in our lives, and opportunities deferred, and risks taken and not taken. It’s about friendship and betrayal, true intelligence versus knowledge acquisition and regurgitation – is brilliance squandered if not educated? Or does education stifle brilliance? – it’s about so much. If I had to summarize it to someone who is already trying to overcome the deeply, deeplyuninteresting cover, I would say it’s the best analysis of being human I’ve ever read.

Do you see what I’m dealing with here? Never has something so good been put in such an unattractive wrapper. It’s like a reverse Johnny Depp

It also serves as a perfect antidote to the voice in my head that worries about raising a son who is not perfectly versed in the complicated dance of traditional masculinity. It’s a book about strong, intelligent, and driven women whose potential would be limitless, save for the deeply ingrained poison of fragile masculinity in their village.

Once, she closed the book abruptly and said with annoyance, “That’s enough.” “Why?” “Because I’ve had it, it’s always the same story: inside something small there’s something even smaller that wants to leap out, and outside something large there’s always something larger that wants to keep it a prisoner.”

The women in this book are not the only prisoners. The men who feel compelled to play their roles are withheld as well. When self-worth is tied exclusively to financial success in the eyes of their neighbors, the men in the village all find themselves indebted to the same family. When a wife does not obey the social norms of how a married women should “behave,” it reflects not on her choices, but on her husband’s ability to control her.

Love in my case is not indispensable to pleasure, nor is respect. Is it possible, therefore, that the disgust, the humiliation begins afterward, when a man subdues you and violates you at his pleasure solely because now you belong to him, love or not, respect or not?

I have a hard time thinking that these 11-14 year old kids who call other young boys “women” as an insult were born that way. I imagine this is something they’ve heard many times in their lives by men they’ve been taught to respect. And honestly, even though it’s sad thinking of my little boy stepping up to the plate with what was meant as an insult bouncing around in that very safe helmet of his, it’s sadder thinking of the prison those boys are growing up in.

One where they are taught that men are buffoons when it comes to running a household, or dealing with emotions, or parenting. One where simple tasks like laundry or vacuuming are beyond them and they will simply never understand them and where role models in TV and movies will be useless buffoons in the home, only serving their true purpose when they’re outside of the house, earning a paycheck.

These boys’ wives will someday be taught to joke about how they actually have four children in their household, “counting my husband.” In which the brunt of financial stability lies on their shoulders and where, when visiting a friend’s house that is bigger and nicer, or riding in a neighbor’s truck that is newer, they’re reminded of this failure again and again. Or where a period of unemployment or underemployment will be a crushing burden that they bear alone.

A prison in which they’re told that they are the spiritual leader in their household, even though they’re also told that due to their gender they are naturally less inclined to be spiritual. Where in church their wives are told that due to this inherent defect, they should quietly remind their husbands of their duties in a way that does not offend their very, very, very fragile sense of what a man is or should be. They’ll be told that the sex written on their birth certificate makes them bad at a calling, but also the only one who can have that calling. And they’ll learn to give their wives all the credit, while simultaneously being in a position of authority over women for their entire lives.

They’ll be raised with this needlessly complex set of rules and standards, and worse, the mandate to enforce these rules on the boys and men around them. This list they’ll carry around in their heads of acceptable hobbies will restrict them every time they see something interesting that shouldn’t interest them. And most of all, they’ll miss out on all that great shopping.