“Can I borrow that when you’re done?” a woman asked on a recent flight, affectionately patting my copy of Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation.
It wasn’t the first time Laura Kipnis’s work got mistaken for self help.
“I don’t [give advice], and I never wanted to,” Kipnis says, “but when you write a book called ‘Against Love,’ people do try to read it for advice. So it’s true I get email from people—and maybe this will happen after Men, too—asking for advice, or running through life problems they’re having.”
But Kipnis is no guru. She’s a cultural critic, essayist and professor of filmmaking at Northwestern University. Against Love is her spirited polemic on modern monogamy. And rather than addressing readers’ relationship problems, Men was born of one of her own: her longterm boyfriend complaining that she too frequently mentioned ex-boyfriends in conversation.
The ensuing argument led to a keen introspection. “Maybe men had played this larger part in my life and psyche than I had ever really given credit to,” Kipnis says. “Then I also realized that I had spent a lot of my time writing about men, directly or obliquely, so I did have this thought about collecting the essays as sort of one of those documentaries someone makes—where they go and confront the old boyfriends and put a microphone in their face.”
As Kipnis revisited the types who drew her critical attention, a taxonomy emerged. These men were operators (“The Scumbag,” “The Con Man,” “The Trespasser,” “Juicers”), neurotics (“The Victim,” “The Lothario,” “Humiliation Artists,” “The Manly Man”), sex fiends (“Gropers,” “Cheaters,” “Self-Deceivers”) and haters (“The Critic,” “Men Who Hate Hillary”). But for what sounds like a malign crew, Kipnis displays far more fascination than condemnation.
“What strikes me most about these essays is my covert envy of men, including the ones I would also like to thrash and dismember. Men have always wrested more freedom from the world and I envy that, even when it’s a stupid kind of freedom,” she writes.
She appreciates the “echt-Rabelaisian” qualities of Hustler magazine, and its “obstreperous redneck publisher” Larry Flynt. She sympathizes with Lance Armstrong’s post-doping disgrace. (“Frankly, if they distilled moral seriousness [for critics] and sold it in dime bags, I’d be shooting it up like there’s no tomorrow...” she writes.) And as a writer, she grapples with the concealment/exposure dichotomy that so evidently troubles boxer-briefed erection-Tweeting politician Anthony Weiner.
“Sure, writing has its moments of sublimity—grasping after the ineffable, realizing something just out of reach—yet at every instance modulated by the chronic substratum of shame about having taken a dump in public,” she writes.
Like a modern-day Michel de Montaigne, Kipnis has the boldness to follow the natural course of her thoughts—even (or especially) when they turn away from political correctness. In “Gropers,” she offers an alternative perspective on professors’ student-directed sexual advances—specifically Naomi Wolf’s New York magazine article exposing literary superstar Harold Bloom for a clumsy hand-on-thigh move made 20 years earlier. “Isn’t it possible that the recipients of unwelcome advances wield some power in these situations—the power to reject and humiliate the advancer, at the very least?” Kipnis writes. And of such overtures: “How do you know they’re unwanted until you try?”
Kipnis identifies Men as a sort of companion volume to 2006’s The Female Thing, an analysis of the incompatibility of feminism and traditional femininity, and its implications for gender relations.
“It seems like a complicated experience for [men today], and I think all this acting out and all these scandals that you see are the symptoms of that, because so many things have transformed. I don’t think just as a result of feminism....It was really before feminism that men started yearning for freedom, and the changes in what it means to be a man have been in play for quite a long time,” she says.
“I think it’s very hard to be a self—that’s what I guess Montaigne was writing about, too,” says Kipnis. “Once you think of yourself as a self, it’s just an endless problem.”
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.