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Book Reviews Laura Kipnis investigates her obsession with men behaving badly in her new book of essays

Laura Kipnis

Pieter M. van Hattem

Title
Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation
Author
Laura Kipnis
Genre
Non-fiction
Publisher
Metropolitan Books
Pages
224 pages
Price
$28.99
Year
2014

I first read Laura Kipnis back in the nineties, when she published her book of essays Bound and Gagged, a wide-ranging, prescient and super smart collection on the topic of pornography. I'd never read anything quite like it – her views were both hyper-rational and daring, challenging me, surprising me and even sometimes offending me. It was all kind of a thrill. I expected to see a lot more of her in the years to come. Well, the author and academic – she's a professor at Chicago's Northwestern University – has not been fallow, but 16 years later, she remains something of a hidden treasure. Not through any fault of her own – she has continued to publish books on a variety of hot-button topics: love, femininity, scandal, envy. But rather than becoming a hero in the mould of Naomi Wolf or a polarizing anti-hero in the mold of Katie Roiphe, she has remained a quietly prolific force.

Perhaps the most revolutionary thing about her is the very thing that keeps her from being more widely known: she could neither be hero nor anti-hero because, in her world, such absolutes scarcely exist. This quality, more than any other, sets her apart and, I hope, heralds a new kind of dialogue, a change from the tenor set by the Hitler-invoking cranks who populate online comments sections.

Kipnis is, by her own admission, a moral relativist. "There I sit," she writes, "fingers poised on keyboard, one part of me (the ambitious, careerist part) itching to strike, but in my truest soul limply equivocal, particularly when it comes to the many lapses I suspect I'm capable of committing, from bad prose to adultery."

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Whatever you think of the sentiment, please just appreciate the turn of phrase "in my truest soul limply equivocal" for a moment. Limply equivocal! Really, of the honest among us, how many can say we've never felt this way about at least one inflammatory issue? Yet opinions, it seems now, have to be served up like meals in prison: hastily, loudly and with a minimum of care. Sure, I'll blame the Internet: the competitive pressure to be first out of the gates with Something Relevant, whether you're a blogger, a newspaper columnist or an ambitious tweeter, has leeched nuance from public discourse. Strong, ideological opinions earn you a quick following; you're embraced as part of a tribe, if not as one of its leaders, if you're fast and forceful enough. Humankind loves a tribe. They provide us with the shelter and safety of the absolute. Which is why it's so disconcerting when the little voice saying, "But, guys, I see a problem here" is coming from the corner, not the other camp.

"It's what we'd prefer not to know about ourselves that I'm trying to speak of here," Kipnis writes in the preface to Men. No wonder, then, she's not more popular.

She's our very own imp of the perverse – a brilliant feminist who has just written a book that's a collection of essays on … men. And not just any men, but the scumbags, the con men, the gropers and cheaters (to name the topics of a few of the essays). "They force you to think about them," she says, humming, as all the overshadowed do, with frustration at this predicament.

"What strikes me the most about these essays," she adds, beginning to rev her self-interrogating engine, "is my covert envy of men, including the ones I would also like to thrash and dismember." Immediately, Kipnis closes the distance between us (women) and them (men). So much for tribalism.

The enterprise of being human would be so much easier if each of us only felt what we were supposed to. Kipnis, though, seems to thrill to the experience of exposing what the rest of us try to conceal. She anatomizes her psyche, tidily peeling back every layer of thought, revealing her own internal conflicts, attempting to see herself with objectivity while acknowledging that no one can really succeed at that. Reading her is likewise thrilling, partly because of her sheer exhibitionism, and partly because the reader begins to feel she should match Kipnis's honesty with her own.

Inevitably, the author offends, as I believe she intends to, insomuch as offence is a byproduct of a challenge to one's values. Because she not only interrogates her own opinions, she interrogates those of the world at large, and more specifically, of people like her – academics, critics… eggheads. People who are big into their opinions.

What it means is that the book is not a comfortable read that bolsters our ideas of who we are, but it is a valuable one. An essay about male university professors veers into a truly thorny, but riveting, examination of student-teacher relationships. The essay is imperfect in ways I can only begin to enumerate, but ends on an anecdote that I found myself revisiting over and over, in an attempt to settle on a definitive opinion of it. These points of friction in the book are discomfiting but exciting. After being bludgeoned with certainty from so many different angles, it's good once in a while to just hang out feeling not sure.

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Where she is on point is in her discussions of the ways power becomes eroticized, and the way, also, that the erotic is powerful. Any endeavour to make something absolute out of most sexual transactions runs aground on these shoals.

Camille Paglia famously trod this ground 20 years ago, but Kipnis is a far less pungent contrarian, and, unlike Paglia, she has no time for gender essentialism. Nowhere is this more evident than in the chapter in which Kipnis squares off against noted neo-con Harvey Mansfield. A transcript of their debate reveals a Kipnis who effortlessly steamrollers over Mansfield's conjecture that feminism harms humanity, and what we need is more "masculinity." This is Kipnis as an old-school feminist, and she kills at it. She excels as both crusader and critic.

At a certain point, the astute reader must notice that Kipnis is trying to have it all – her book is both about "men," broadly, while also refuting the idea that there is any such a thing as an "us" and "them." But who can say women can't have it all? Not Kipnis. Of that, you can be sure.

Lisan Jutras is The Globe and Mail's deputy Books editor.

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