There’s something a little bit ‘funky’ about reviewing another author’s work. By which, I mean off-beat… slightly wrong. A little deviant, even. After all, who am I to cast judgement over what might have been three, four, even ten years’ work? More than that, of course – more than the slog, the hours, the time not spent with husband/partner, kids/dog – is the actual living, beating heart that writers must put into their work. 

I say “must”, because I know that it is a must. You simply cannot write something of meaning, of actual relevance in today’s world, without addressing your heart like an old friend (or enemy): tapping it, collecting the blood, then ciphering it, undiluted and cloying, into your work.

Forgive the biological references, but I do view a novel as a living thing – yes, a life-form. It is conceived, it gestates. It comes to term, and it is born. It is suckled, nurtured, and then – oh, and then! – it is told off, reprimanded… cultured, refined… rebuked, refused, reinvented. At some point – after much heartache, shouting matches, mild abuse and occasional run-ins with the police – it reaches maturity. The literary equivalent of turning thirty, I suppose. It matures. It starts to feel ‘at one’ with its parent (the author, in case my train of thought has departed Platform Coherent, destination unknown). In other words, your long hard slog becomes the well-adjusted kid you always hoped you’d have. And then, yes, it overtakes you. 

Ah, that. That glorious/cruel day when your novel spreads its wings, flexes its muscles, and finally takes flight. No longer does it need those tickles under the chin, the tucking in at bed-time, the cheese on toast after a three-hour snowball fight. It’s off to live its life somewhere out in the ether. It will make its own friends, find its own niche, start making an honest living.

The writer/parent is an empty-nester once again.

I thought this while reading the latest work of fiction I skimmed off the shelves of my local bookstore. Now let me get this straight right away: I am NOT a high-brow reader. I like real stories; tales of adventure, love, desperation. Ne’er-do-wells committing heinous acts of self-indulgence (ah, they’re my favourites!) Would-bes and wanna-bes doing anything they can to fit in, fit around, fit under. I love people, and I love them laid bare in all their icky, sticky human-sluttiness. Yes! – we’re all sluts, let’s face it! Come on, aren’t we?! For entertainment, for gratification… for success, money, or even for those more ennobled echelons. Attunement. Adjustment. Atonement. 

Anyway. I was thinking about all of this: the bleeding heart, the suppurating human desire, the where-the-fuck-are-we stuff, when I opened the pages of Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman is in Trouble

The title alone makes me want to put on my heaviest leather jacket, my reddest lipstick, and sally forth in aid of Poor Fleishman, whomever he may be. All sex-and-ready, a rescue package in stretch-denim and Rick Owens.

He – it turns out – is exactly the sort of person that I was irrevocably drawn to in my early-twenties, which makes him doubly interesting. Not least because the leather-and-denim would put the fear of Moses into him. Mission: failed. Interest: quadrupled.

Jewish, successful, intuitive. Newly-divorced, newly-liberated and terrified at both. No wobble on that lip, though: commando happening beneath those cargos. Two emotionally contorted kids right there for the looking-after. Short – okay, that’s maybe not on my shopping list (at 5’8’’, I’ve stopped stooping to snog. It is not becoming, and it screws with my posture). Hadron Collider-level anxiety. Self-awareness on a par with the Dalai Lama.

But Toby Fleishman is a real, living man – not just a guy character in a book. He exists: in all of us, among us and around us, walking the streets of London, New York and Melbourne in a double face-mask, swimmer’s goggles and construction-site gloves. Just in case.

Because, when you consider the Mad Max reality that is life today – 24-hour hysteria, complete with crumbling cities, monstrous overlords and brain-meltingly awful music – Toby Fleishman’s paranoia becomes sort of understandable; desirable, even. Fleishman has – really has – the kind of angst that pounds through the blood and brains of approximately eighty percent of thirty- and forty-somethings today – only he’s taken his angst and boiled it up with last night’s leftover chicken. Angst-soup: drinkable, digestible (because bio-cultures) on the lowest-possible level, which probably hurts the most, because – right? – it’s the stuff we can most easily address, can most effectively cure. Angst about our relationship(s). About our kids – their mental health, their bodies, their relationship(s) with us. With their friends. (Oh God, their friends!! Bad influence, or good?) Health again – theirs, and ours. Mostly, ours. The future: will we live to see them marry? Divorce? Push out babies? Adopt?)

Never mind what’s happening in Gas Town (aka Westminster, Brussels, Capitol Hill).  Those ego-pumped super-freaks will battle it out for themselves. What we – what Toby Fleishman – wants is to solve his own internal Yemen. His own landmine-strewn, COVID-ridden, colour-mismatched, financially-fucked universe.

Did I mention that Brodesser-Akner’s writing is unutterably sublime? Sure, I might not ever present it to my parents; any more than I might encourage them to read my own novel (actually my mother did try, for which I am eternally grateful. I don’t think she got past the first gay-fat-rape, and I can hardly blame her, but – stoicism). But really, B-A’s writing is so good. By turns it is hornet-sharp, brutal; a concrete edifice of real-life tragedy – and then, on a pin, it becomes wafty, wallowing, wishy-washy with recrimination (Fleishman’s) and reason (B-A’s – or Fleishman’s too? Who knows? Who cares?)

Fleishman is in Trouble is <strokes chin, thinks of most three-dimensional description possible> the literary equivalent of a dozen Krispy Kremes washed down with a bottle of Maker’s Mark. In other words, get stuck in and worry about the consequences tomorrow. Ultimately it is like having the most self-indulgent, self-obsessed, neurotically-charged and wine-fuelled conversation imaginable with – and this is the crucial part – someone you’ve only recently met: say, on a flight to New York, or to London. You share the miniatures you’ve managed to scrimp from the stewardess. He lends you one of his ear-buds so you can hear the sad Radiohead album he’s listening to (Pablo Honey: he says he prefers “original intent”; you just think he’s scared of Electronica. Whatever). He orders the Chicken dinner but only eats the little rectangle of cheese and the limp salad. You (because you’re fucking starving, of course – it’s a six-hour flight!) order the same, and eat it all. And then ask for extra crisps.

You are appalled by his self-restraint.

He is obsessed with your appetite for life. 

You wish you had his depth of self-awareness.

He wishes he was you.

Hello, Toby Fleishman. I’m in an air-pressured capsule with you for six hours. 

Do your worst.

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