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Midway in his life, Dr Toby Fleishman is lost in the dark wood of divorce. In this debut novel by Taffy Brodesser-Akner — a staff writer for the New York Times Magazine — we watch Toby trying to “find footing in this strange world where every aspect of his life was just slightly different than it used to be and yet immensely so.”
While he delights in sampling the sexual smorgasbord on offer via dating apps, Toby’s estranged wife, Rachel, a high-flying talent agent, goes missing, leaving their two children in his charge. Intimations of a Gone Girl-like whodunnit, however, fail to materialise: the twist comes down to determining whether it is Dr or Mrs Fleishman who is in hotter water.
The epigraph — Aeschylus’s “summon your witnesses” — implies we will hear both sides of the story on the dissolution of the marriage. Rachel’s version includes rage, bubbling up like hot magma, about the plight of working women. “There were so many ways of being a woman in the world, but all of them still rendered her just a woman, which is to say: a target.” (Case in point: the Fleishmans’ daughter is kicked out of camp for sharing nudes, while the boy who solicited the photos is left unpunished.)
In 1989, Tom Wolfe wrote a literary manifesto calling for a return to the social novel, addressing how social changes affect the inner lives of individuals and the relationships between them. He argued that Tolstoy’s concept of “the heart at war with the structure of society” provides “an infinite number of new agonies for the Annas and the Vronskys of the Upper East Side”. Brodesser-Akner fulfils Wolfe’s call to arms with her wry reportage on shifting social stratifications, the ennui of the upper echelons, and the erosion of eroticism at the hands of technology.
But while Fleishman Is in Trouble holds up a mirror to Manhattanites practising “self-care” in athleisurewear, the portrait remains a still. Plot is propelled by desire, and it is difficult to determine here what the characters are after. While Toby considers himself a good father and a good doctor, what he seems to want most is to be left alone with his phone, awash with text messages containing “underboob and sideboob and just straight-up boob and all the parts of a woman he never dared dream he would encounter in a person who was three-dimensional”.
The pixelated parts of the women with whom Toby engages online never quite coalesce to form a whole in the flesh. “She wasn’t who I thought she was,” he says of one of his lovers. “She was just regular.” Even Rachel is reduced to the undulating ellipses of text exchanges. Unlike Updike, in whose work marital sex retained its libidinal lustre, the Fleishmans — still at it after their separation — couple wordlessly, expediently, devoid of the carnality that their surname implies. A glimmer of optimism at the end of the book reads more like resignation than redemption — unsurprising, perhaps, when the pathway out of a mid-life muddle is illuminated only by the dull, cold glow of a smartphone screen.
Fleishman Is in Trouble, by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Headline, RRP£18.99/Random House, RRP$27, 384 pages
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