You’re probably aware of the trope where male writers try to write female characters but seem to think that body weight and breast size are adequate substitutes for personality traits. If you’re not familiar with this, take a few minutes to browse @menwritewomen, a Twitter account that could be sustained for weeks solely on excerpts from David Bergen’s upcoming book, “Here the Dark.” Through a novella and a collection of short stories, “Here the Dark” explores the stories, according to the inside cover, of “men and boys bewildered by their circumstances and swayed by desire, surprised by love and by their capacity for both tenderness and violence.” While this description is shallow, I could not find enough potential value or meaning in “Here the Dark” to allow me to write a worthwhile alternative.
Most of the stories in “Here the Dark” follow some variation of this predictable formula: Man is troubled. Man meets woman. Man is no longer troubled. Rinse and repeat. The man usually fixates on some perceived deficiency in the woman and then makes a point to show that he doesn’t care about it or loves her in spite of it. For instance, in “Never Too Late,” the main character, Bev, falls in love with a woman named Janice, who uses a wheelchair. On their first date, Janice notes, “you’re not particular, I like that,” later clarifying, “you’re not put off by a gimp,” to which Bev responds, “never crossed my mind,” essentially pulling an “I don’t see color,” but with disability.
In “How Can n Men Share a Bottle of Vodka” (this title only makes marginally more sense after reading the story), an alcoholic teacher meets Jennifer, a coworker of his. They become friends after he tells the story of his wife cheating and leaving him. This is followed by quite possibly the worst sentence in the entire book:
“Why I related this all to Jennifer Donne was not a surprise. I needed a gentle breast to fall upon and Jennifer was both gentle and ample, for she was a large woman, fat some might say, though I would not describe her so, perhaps because I found her attractive, and later, after we became lovers, I discovered that desire will always surprise us.”
The narrator brings up Jennifer’s weight several more times, assuring himself that he finds her attractive in spite of it. I tried and failed to read these stories as precautionary tales. By the end of the story, the narrator shakes his drinking habit, and it’s implied that meeting Jennifer motivated him to do so. How exactly this happens is unclear.
The not-so-subtle subtext with stories like these is that the main character is settling by getting with a woman he perceives as having some sort of deficiency (overweight, disabled, etc.), but in accepting this, he is at peace with himself. Women in these stories are little more than plot devices to prompt some vague sense of growth in the male main character. They’re portrayed as having some quasi-mystical wisdom that is never explicitly expressed, but instead seems to be imparted to the main character via osmosis over the course of the story. Needless to say, most of “Here the Dark” would fail the Bechdel Test spectacularly.
The book ends with a novella told from the point of view of a girl growing up in a conservative Mennonite community. She’s expected to dress modestly, to not question the Bible, her parents, etc., but eventually she gains some freedom. This story is a boring and empty rendition of much better feminist narratives. Not knowing much about the world, the girl feels, at least in the beginning of the story, that she has no identity. It’s quite fitting that the one story told from a woman’s point of view is about a character whose primary personality trait is that she doesn’t have one.
I should be fair and point out one of the book’s few strengths. Bergen writes very clearly; I imagine he would do well writing assembly instructions for IKEA furniture. His clear prose does, however, end up being a double-edged sword since it removes any doubt about the book’s shallowness. “Here the Dark” claims to “deftly render complex moral ambiguities,” but more accurately it makes the moves of narrative resolution without actually saying anything or revealing any unexpected nuance.
If you can forget the fact that many people had to read and approve the book before it could’ve been published, “Here the Dark” is actually really funny. Large portions of it feel as though a fourteen-year-old tried explaining sex to an alien and then asked said alien to write a bunch of sex scenes. If there’s anything to gain from “Here the Dark,” it’s that no one should be discouraged if they can’t get their book published, because quality evidently isn’t a must to sell copies.