Amber Tamblyn — actor, director, writer and prominent voice in the #MeToo movement — has written a book about a female serial rapist who preys on men. “Any Man” (Harper Perennial, $15.99) is her debut novel, and it has a few interesting things to say about rape culture and social media, shame and survival.
These flickers of insight are spread thin across a short, experimental novel, built with odd parts that never quite come together.
The storytelling is eclectic by design: a collage of poetry and prose, OkCupid chats and diary entries, tweets and interview transcripts. There’s even a series of drawings.
These fragments relate the experiences of several men over a period of many years, all of them victims of a twisted sexual predator known only as Maude. Violent and amorphous, she becomes a bogeywoman who fascinates the media, dragging her victims into the public eye. Their voices, and those of the people around them, form a sort of chorus that reports on our culture.
Tamblyn has a natural ear for colloquial writing. The strongest parts of the novel belong to Pear and Jamar, two of Maude’s victims who speak in a direct, confessional style. (Jamar’s struggle with self-harm is especially poignant: “I was disappearing here in this world, which in some way meant I was reappearing somewhere else. I was whole somewhere else. I was free somewhere else.”)
Her poetry, though, is mildly excruciating, and the book suffers when Donald, a poet and Maude’s first victim, is driving the narration: “I feel a tongue./Or a tongue is felt./It is my tongue/or it is a tongue/belonging to someone else./I am someone else./Or I am the tongue/belonging to a self.”
Tamblyn takes some admirable stylistic risks, but the book reads like a first draft — a handful of good ideas thrown out and left where fallen, without the rich language or disciplined structure needed to give them power.
It isn’t even clear, in the end, what “Any Man” wants to say. I don’t demand a clear message from my fiction, but this is a book that asks us to look in the mirror and see — what?
Tamblyn criticizes the exploitation of victims by a public hungry for viral content but also seems to lament that female assault victims are ignored on social media. (She does this by highlighting their lack of retweets.)
As one character notes, men are frequent victims of sexual violence. Yet, when men are attacked in this novel, they’re all assumed to be victims of Maude even when the only common thread is her cruelty. Speaking of which, the sexual violence in this book is over-the-top grotesque.
“Any Man” nods vaguely in the direction of a cluster of cultural problems. But it favors form over substance — and suffers on both counts.
Steph Cha writes the “Juniper Song” mystery series.