On Reading: A Cool Masculinity in The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer and Terms of Enlistment by Marko Kloos
The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer and Terms of Enlistment by Marko Kloos both do two core things wonderfully: world-build and discuss the nuances of modern masculinity. In The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, worlds exist on top of one another: live changes based on the eras of time in which Greer places them. In Terms of Enlistment, Kloos expands the world from the small, filthy, almost subhuman conditions of futuristic public housing units far, far outward.
From these two starting places, the male characters come to approach both personal freedoms and the process of conformation in a strange sort of alignment. I’m not sure how many people would outright link these books based on cursory reads (I know their genres diverge greatly, and so what about it?), but their greater stories delineate, in so many different ways, the sometimes most robust implications of what it means to become a fully-formed man.
For example, through Greer’s character Nathan, we see the lives of a soldier pained by war, a warm but distant father, and a self-realized, quiet man who has gone through emotional trials and resurfaced new. They are multiple men and at the same time one. Greer’s Felix, like many gay men in the early 1900s, is closeted to the point of suffocation and trapped for a lifetime at his sister’s side. 1940s Felix has lost the family he built around him to support the guise he was required to keep up, and would finally move from New York to California with his de-facto husband to be free of the stifling, limited east coast community he and Greta grew around. And 1980s Felix, as the book begins, passed from living his life truly, suffered and died from AIDS, as was so unfortunate at that time. An aside: this was also the experience of my own great uncle in the 1980s, and truth be told this book drew me in partially with the concept of dealing with the emotional consequences of this reality.
Almost like Felix, trapped like Nathan, Terms of Enlistment‘s protagonist, Andrew Grayson, is young and disenfranchised. Unlike Greer’s characters, he grows among horrendous squalor in futuristic public housing, where water and food are recycled back into our systems, crime and disparity are rampant, and the only way out is to win an impossible lottery or enlist in the military. Though his experiences as a soldier in both training and practice have been documented well in other media, Grayson’s particular expectations of what it means to be a man and to have dreams resounds with a carefully-revealed familiarity: to overcome his father’s subterranean expectations, to retain emotional stoicism, to match the highest-performing men and women around him… all the while, absorbing the shocks of assaults on his sense of what it means to be a guy. They are the masks of Robert Ferris Thompson Pan-African definitions of cool masculinity: that when the world around him is dramatic, a man can always retain his stoicism.
Both books, in almost a reflection of real life, do a strong job at helping us understand that–as men–in order to overcome the trails of chaos, the characters must be willing to cooly cope with the complexities of their decisions. Yet, of course, we are still only human. In 1918, Nathan attacks his wife for cheating on him and must then live to manage his own feelings as they intertwine with his WWI Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In 1943, Nathan must be still and loyal for his wife, given that his true love, the unnamed mistress, has left him. And 1980s Nathan must find a new way to honor his own feelings and own what it was about his relationship with Greta that did not allow it to work.
The Felix of 1918 is lost, has been left by his lover and left without his wife. Instead of suicide to escape of life of falseness, he chooses to live with his sister, she whom he can openly and cooly love. Conversely, 1943 Felix is given the freedom to choose real love (and real freedom!) and, thus, seizes it… which it seen both as an opportunity and a virtue; a transcendent state, beyond drama and therefore beyond stoicism.
Like Greer’s characters, Kloos’ Andrew Grayson conforms to this coolness to discover a greater dream of freedom and self-love (the transcendent state). But similarly Grayson’s decision to become a soldier leads him to the frontlines of an even greater fight. As 1980s Felix risked death itself to live truly, freely and so unlike the Felix of 1918, Grayson only discovers what he wants by straining his view of the world through strife. And all that Grayson, Felix and Nathan are left to do is face the chaotic realities of their own decisions head-on, taking responsibility at each step. Stoic through emotional turmoil, decisions that seemed logical or forced suddenly appear to have been neither. Like real people, self-actualizations are made quickly and through bursts of such trauma… as though their destinies could not be written without first immersing themselves entirely in thick, black ink. All the while, they are expected to hold themselves together. To stay cool.
These are both, of course, very American attitudes toward masculinity: the catharses, the independence of thought, and the process of suddenly believing that one can grip his fate and somehow command it.
But both The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells and Terms of Enlistment tell this story, the story of what it means to be masculine, in nuanced ways that cross a great socioeconomic divide: between Greta’s historic apartment at Patchin Place in New York City to the grim slums of Andrew Grayson’s Boston super-city. In The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway wrote that “you can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another.” Coolly or not, that — I believe — is the clearest aphorism for what these books would consider masculine virtue (and also Greta’s).
Despite the outer mask, there is only so much of being someone else anyone can take. At the very most, these men owe it to themselves to grow up. At the least, they are expected to be cool.