A Great Man Is Hard to Find: On the Literature of Contemporary Fatherhood
Janet Manley Considers The Great Man Theory, Raising Raffi, and Dad-as-Author
I was lined up in a mall outside a jungle gym, braving the closed-circuit plumes of COVID to tire out my kids on a glorified cat scratch tower, when I heard the child behind us ask, “Daddy, why do those kids have masks? Do I need one?”
The child was talking about my kids.
“Oh, no sweetie,” the father said, “masks don’t do anything, some people just wear them to feel good about themselves.”
He pointed the dickish remark at my back, at my tatty leggings, my halo of unfoiled roots, but also at my children, running in circles, the only victims of the Liberal Mask Agenda in the whole place.
Adrienne Rich, among others, impelled me to turn around. The man wore his toddler about his shoulders like a pelt, the spoils of war. Also cargo shorts.
“What’s your problem with masks, man?” I asked as calmly as I could in my mask.
“I don’t have a problem, you’re the ones making it a thing,” he replied.
“You brought it up, buddy. I’m just standing in line for a jungle gym.”
Here, the mass paused, gripping the shins of the child on his shoulders, then shouted, “You don’t have permission to talk to me!” He turned toward his wife, who was holding the shopping bags, and fixed his gaze over her head, waiting for me to turn back around.
As I fumed and prepared to drop $50 on entry and specialized socks, I listened to him jostling his son behind me. “I can do what I want with you, you’re mine,” he said in a kind of joking tone, certain once again that he was king of the place at the mall with the giant bumblebee mascot.
So often in literature, parenthood appears on the male as a kind of pelt thrown over like a prize. Something has been given to the father—some knowledge or form of power—but he has trouble decoding it, except maybe as an author.
Paul, the divorced intellectual Park Slope dad at the center of Teddy Wayne’s The Great Man Theory, has long wanted to teach his daughter something. When Mabel was small, he read to her: “Often she fell asleep as he read, and the moment she succumbed, curled up on him like a shrimp, had always made him feel most like a parent.” She has clearly come into her own, but he continues to see her as an extension of his own ego: Mabel is “his little baby girl whose vulnerability had given him a sense of mission beyond himself.”
Paul is an academic, if one demoted from staff to adjunct in the opening pages of the novel, and his daughter, now a tween, has begun to distance herself from her clueless dad who is soon living with his own mother in the Bronx. Paul tries to muscle through the disconnect with his powers of analysis, casting back to her birth: “When Mabel was delivered and thrust into his unpracticed arms, he supposed he felt something, thought it was more an acknowledgement of the moment’s historical import rather than overwhelming love for this wizened homunculus of a stranger who was about to upend his heretofore streamlined life.” You can see how great Paul might have been to have around in the difficult early days of parenting.
Ten years later, his ex-wife Jane has a new partner (she has also betrayed their values by getting Botox), and his daughter spends weekends with Paul, for whom “the raw magic of her existence hadn’t faded.” Parenthood had opened up his frigid soul, creating “a Mabel-sized space in his heart, an unexpected warm spot in an ice-cold lake.” And she continued to give him a reason, in his newly destitute adjunct state, to make something of himself, so he redoubles his efforts on his book, “The Luddite Manifesto”; something that will disrupt the status quo in ailing America—it will rail against anti-intellectual cable pap, against Trump, and against the dumbing down of children by social media—and something, like 99 percent of “manifestos,” that no one wants to read. It will be published by a university press.
Wayne specializes in this kind of alienated, troubling man. In Loner, his unreliable narrator, a smart, awkward Harvard undergraduate, took just a few chapters to go from social miscues to incel predation (Loner came out the year before “Cat Person”). The Love Song of Johnny Valentine followed an over-managed Bieberesque child star doomed by his industry and was published the year before Bieber’s entitlement culminated in his being hoisted up the Great Wall of China on his bodygurd’s shoulders.
The Great Man Theory leaps ahead of the “parenting discourse,” let’s call it, to ask what dads are bringing to the table, and to explore the undercurrent of panic about the End of Men. Paul is smart enough to know men are a problem, and sensate enough to get a whiff of toxic masculinity, but convinced that he, center of the universe, is the only person who can fix it: He is “a man writing to ward off global and personal crises”; he needed to prove to his family “that he had the stability and gravity of a sun.”
The psychology professor Jordan Shapiro observed in his book Father Figure: How To Be A Feminist Dad that men are brought up to see themselves as the dominant narrative in a household; protagonists on a hero’s journey, as in popular man-texts like Robert Bly’s Iron John: A Book About Men and the work of Jordan Peterson.Had Paul been a Park Slope dad in the ‘90s, you could see Iron John appealing to his intellectual sensibilities.
As parables attempting to explain our existence go, Iron John is cuckoo bananas. The base story (I’m paraphrasing) is that all men have in them a child who must steal a golden key from under his mother’s pillow, unlock a cage containing a wild, hairy man to retrieve a golden ball, then journey out into the jungle where he can become a warrior and awaken his inner Wild Man—the missing piece of himself that will trigger healing from the absent father and give him “Zeus energy.” Think men howling around campfires in the mid-90s.
Bly, part of the “mythopoetic” movement—the New Age but just for men—believed that separation from the mother is a key rite of passage for boys, though something moms get in the way of under our current societal structure: “A clean break from the mother is crucial, but it’s simply not happening.” Bly warns of female “tripod rage” and of the “she-wolves” a boy may encounter in the woods, and takes some strange turns in issuing warnings about the mother-child relationship:
A man’s moustache may stand for his pubic hair. A friend once grew a moustache when he was around thirty. The next time he visited his mother, she looked into the corners of the room as she talked to him, and would not look at his face, no matter what they talked about. Hair, then, can represent sexual energy.
Still, Bly’s ideas were a stepping stone from the patriarchal alpha prototype to something better, and a response to Feminism; he believed that men had female and male energy inside of them, and made a case for “the expressive men’s movement.” Had Paul been a Park Slope dad in the ‘90s, you could see Iron John appealing to his intellectual sensibilities.
From the distance of an additional quarter century, though, a new kind of fragility runs through manhood: a fear of cancel culture, to extinguish the men who mess things up. And Paul is quite far from unleashing his Wild Man—his 80-something mother is having more sex than he, and Paul finds himself mopping someone else’s semen out of the backseat of her car that he uses for his work as a rideshare driver. The key is back under the mother’s pillow.
Paul is painted as an Encino Man dug up from an earlier age when men’s ideas were deemed important and their place in society unshakeable. You do feel a bit bad for him, just barely grasping the most rudimentary shapes of a typical parents’ existential awakening: “His baby. Strange that after thirty-five years of independent selfhood, with relatives reaching backward in fixed history, he was now permanently linked with a human hurtling toward an undefined future.”
Needless to say, mothers are light years ahead in charting this territory. “I have created a death,” chimes Samantha Hunt, whose ghost story and journey through the woods Mr. Splitfoot is profoundly successful where Iron John is mostly confusing. “How can I become a god?” the hero of Rachel Yoder’s Nightbitch asks, skipping to the heart of the matter. For Nightbitch, birth and motherhood bring a terrifying and complicated shift in power: “She had that freedom when she gave birth, had screamed and shat and sworn and would have killed had she needed to.”
How can men compete with that?
Just before The Great Man Theory came Raising Raffi, Keith Gessen’s memoir of early parenthood. There were quite a few moments that leapt out at me, including this recollection of his wife’s (the writer Emily Gould) home birth: “At one point, when Emily was on the bed, just before the baby’s head started coming out, a geyser of blood shot out from her vagina.”
In this, I do indeed see a case for men as witnesses to birth, with access to an angle women can’t see, unless, I regret, with a hand mirror. Gessen has written an examination of the fatherhood condition, plumbing his own aggression and impotence, revising coarser Jungian ideas about the father-child situation as he goes:
Raffi did not want to kill me and marry Emily. It was more complicated and difficult than that. What he wanted was all her attention even as he also wanted to be his own person. He wanted to re-create the relationship they’d once had, when he was smaller, but in a way that it could no longer be re-created.
It is a proper reckoning. Understanding that the breastfeeding dyad can be hard for a dad to crack, he works to occupy a larger and more positive role as Raffi reaches toddlerdom, and grapples with his own eventual uselessness: “I think now that there is no tragedy like the tragedy of parenthood,” writes Gessen. “There is no other thing you do in life only so that the person you do it for can leave you.” Here, he hits on what I understand as key themes of writing about motherhood: the figurative death that takes place, the invisible work of care, the confrontation with your own shadow in your child’s personality, the knowledge that you aren’t writing the story in the end. Gessen is welcome at my witchy mom bonfire anytime.
When I otherwise think of the literature of good fathers, it often concerns surrogate fathers (Goodnight Mr. Tom, Heidi, The Box Car Children), or grief for a lost father (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, the wonderful H Is For Hawk). All of Shakespeare’s dads are terrible, likewise those of Steinbeck and Woolf. I guess we have Doctor Manette and Atticus Finch, proto-Brooklyn dad (whose outsized presence covered for the absence of Harper Lee’s abusive mother), Jayson’s Greene’s Once More We Saw Stars, and the work of Karl Ove Knausgaard and for good and wrenching and complicated dad thoughts. There are also a slew of dad manifestos—Between The World and Me, Dreams From My Father—which nevertheless get us back to dad as author.So often in literature, parenthood appears on the male as a kind of pelt thrown over like a prize. Something has been given to the father—some knowledge or form of power—but he has trouble decoding it, except maybe as an author.
If Paul doesn’t, in fact, have anything particularly worthwhile to say as an academic, or as a dad granted a cosmic glimpse of himself as a speck in the wider universe of humanity, you have to ask yourself what the point of him is. “How many generations of women had delayed their greatness only to have time extinguish it completely? How many women had run out of time while the men didn’t know what to do with theirs?” asked Rachel Yoder. “How easy—how wrong but easy nonetheless—it would be to walk away from it all,” thinks the hero of Lydia Kiesling’s Golden State, who is trying to help her Turkish partner gain access to the U.S., but otherwise spends the novel with their child Honey, traversing the state of motherhood:
a warren of beautiful rooms, something like Topkapı, something like the Alhambra on a winter morning, some well-trod but magnificent place you’re allowed to sit in for a minute and snap a photo before you are ushered out and you’ll never remember every individual jewel of a room but if you’re lucky you go through another and another and another and another until they turn out the lights.
The sadness of Paul’s irrelevance comes late in the book when he, touchingly, delivers the terrarium he has built and tended with Mabel to Mabel’s stepdad Steve, a seemingly great dad, the kind you or I might know:
Contained in his arms was the small world they’d created over the years: new bugs, new worms, new soil, but the same pebbles that they’d first collected together in the park when Mabel was a little girl.
“It’s better off with you,” he told Steve, and handed over the tank.
Lauren, the cable news producer he is seeing, informs him that she will be having a child by donor, but is happy to date in the meantime. By this point he has been fully cut loose from the university, after a female student reported him for being a creep.
After he carries out his last bad idea, his ex-wife and daughter will find it quite easy—if wrong—to walk away from him, and that’s the real tragedy, one he might not even understand.