Abandonment 101

Why do men leave? People ask that question a lot in this family-values era, but the answer given by pop and evolutionary psychologists, “difference” feminists, and activists in the anti-divorce movement alike–that men have an innate fear of commitment and an irresistible urge to fuck around–doesn’t answer much.

It was only a matter of time before men would feel the need to defend themselves. Hanif Kureishi’s Intimacy, a novel, is the interior monologue of a man on the verge of abandoning his longtime lover and their children. John Taylor’s Falling: The Story of One Marriage, a memoir, recounts the story of one father’s marriage and divorce. Intimacy is a slim book with a single idea: Jay, a successful screenwriter in London, justifies his decision to leave Susan, an officious woman who rebuffs his advances with remarks about his personal inadequacies. Falling is a fat and digressive book, filled with descriptions of nature and memories of childhood and mundane details of marital strife.

Falling is also inordinately dull. Why that’s so, however, is strangely interesting. Taylor perorates around the one thing we really want to know, which is why his marriage fell apart. Why did Taylor resist all efforts to save it, even though he appears to be in love with his wife and realizes the harm to his daughter? He is unable to characterize his own motivations, although he does recite the circumstances: 1) His wife was unhappy because she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in her mid-30s; 2) she went stir-crazy raising their daughter; 3) he took lovers; 4) he remained only out of a sense of duty, a fact he made cruelly clear to her.

Intimacy ‘s Jay also sidesteps the core issue, with greater economy if a shocking amount of aggression. What went wrong with his relationship, exactly? He makes Susan out to be such a hateful snob that we can’t imagine why he settled down with her. And it’s hard to credit his belief that a few bouts of intense, sporadic sex with the ex-mistress he is leaving Susan to chase after are likely to blossom into emotional fulfillment. It is probably not a coincidence that in a book called Intimacy, the narrator seems unacquainted with the concept. Only his happily married friend Asif (as if!) seems to have a sense of it: “You remind me of someone who only ever reads the first chapter of a book,” he tells Jay. “You never discover what happens next.”

Here are two books that ought to have met a pressing social need–to testify on men’s behalf in the face of the forces that seek to condemn them. But instead, Taylor and Kureishi (or Jay, anyway) beg the key question: What allows a person to feel one thing one day and another thing the next? Each narrator hints that the relationship’s disintegration was the woman’s fault and tries to leave it at that. This is both implausible and morally unsatisfying, since it represents a refusal to deal with the essential conundrum of why they hooked up with such fundamentally flawed people in the first place.

It may be unfair to demand high levels of self-awareness from anybody, male or female, especially on questions of love, the most perplexing in all of human psychology. On the other hand, explaining the seemingly inexplicable is precisely what good literature ought to do. Taylor’s and Kureishi’s insufficiencies may be more of literary skill than of the male character. Let’s hope abler informants come along soon.

Judith Shulevitz