In her new book, The Husbands, Chandler Baker presents a social commentary that would be familiar to anyone in 2013, when Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook executive, published Lean In—her manifesto for women who sought to maximize the glowing success of their professional and family lives simultaneously. Critiqued then for its limited view of the burdens women often encounter in a gender-biased work environment, the book nonetheless became a cultural meme and touchstone for women in the corporate workplace to accept or reject. Eight years later, Baker has penned a comfortingly old-fashioned, circa 2013 jeremiad against the bad men in every woman’s life, where even well-to-do, upper-middle-class women fall “victim to their selfish, bumbling husbands and overbearing bosses,” as The New York Times wrote in their glowing review of the book. Recently optioned by MGM, the movie version of The Husbands will star a producer of the film, the actress Kristen Wiig, who one can easily imagine as the voice-over narrator during the film’s opening, reading the dedication at the front of the book: “Because women can do anything, but they can’t do everything.”
Indeed, books like The Husbands are properly looked at not as “novels,” either in their prose ambitions or as attempts to describe social reality, but as prospective intellectual property (IP). Since the beginning of the pandemic, American subscriptions to streaming video platforms like Netflix and Hulu have risen more than 30% as Americans and their Western counterparts developed an insatiable appetite for streaming content. Amazon spent a combined $11 billion developing new video and audio content for its 200 million members in 2020, while Apple, which serves 40 million homes on its new platform, recently announced they’re doubling their slate of fresh video content in 2022. To satisfy the habit of Netflix’s 204 million users, the largest subscriber base worldwide, the platform spent $19 billion last year to add new content, an investment that helped the launch last month of new episodes for 70 original series and nearly three dozen original films; all of which helps bulk up the Netflix content library that, for U.S. viewers at least, would take more than four years straight to watch in its entirety.
No longer in the business of selling an art event with a discrete beginning at the ticket counter and a definitive end when viewers walk out of the dark during the credits, the streaming platforms cultivate instead an audience with a dependency, one that they promise to service by congealing all new and old television programs and films into a single endless loop. The race to grow streaming service membership has pressured the streaming platforms to find a constant source of the raw narrative material of story and character, either by commissioning projects in-house or by buying up well-known catalogs, as Netflix has just done dropping $700 million for the rights to the collection of Roald Dahl, the rabidly antisemitic author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory whose children’s book titles have sold more than 300 million copies. But by and large, the streamers are looking at the latest books and magazines that have already proven themselves adept at speaking to particular segments of a contemporary audience. Writing of the commodification of magazine journalism into IP fodder, James Pogue observed in The Baffler that the most savvy authors of this kind of nonfiction remove anything controversial or revelatory in favor of writing that “foreground[s] story as an ultimate good, ahead of deep personal insight, literary style, investigative reporting, or almost any other consideration that goes into the shaping of written work.”
As an inversion of the audience-tested plot of The Stepford Wives, The Husbands features a community of married couples and families living in a suburban development in Texas called Dynasty Ranch, where the husbands fill the role of seemingly robotic servants who pay deference to successful wives with careers as doctors, psychologists, and writers. The novel tells the story of a lawyer who’s expecting her second child but wants more space than she has in her Austin condo for her growing family. She’s drawn to purchase one of the large, perfectly manicured homes in the Dynasty Ranch development outside the city. The women here, the narrator explains, “… are fun. They are smart. They get to have nice things. They’re naughty.”
Drawn to these powerful women, the protagonist, Nora, wants what they have, both the type of husbands they’ve all married as well as the beautiful homes that she sees as her salvation from the problems that plague her in her cramped city condo. ”With each year of [her daughter’s] life, their ‘cute’ two-story house shrinks. And in six months a fourth family member will join, and it’s like the Spangler family is part of Alice in Wonderland and can’t stop eating the damn cake,” Nora thinks as she tours the Dynasty house that she hopes to buy. “Nora peeks into the walk-in pantry and recalls what it’s like to fall in love.”
Soon hired by the residents of the development to represent one of their neighbors whose husband died in a seemingly accidental house fire, the lawyer gets a close look at these women living an idealized version of the life she wishes she could have, with a husband who does his fair share and no burdensome workplace men holding her back from success—women like her boss at the law firm, who takes up her work time she could spend on legal briefs by calling her on the weekend with menial questions about how to use the computer. But soon she learns more about how and why the husbands in Dynasty Ranch are so docile and realizes that not everything is as it appears. Just as a dark side plagues the idyllic American dream Nora covets, here in Dynasty Ranch trouble lurks below the surface.
For Nora, who does too much of the child care and domestic tasks while trying to succeed at her law firm, her husband is perhaps her greatest barrier to the life she wishes she could have. “He will take out the trash later. Do the dishes later. Clear the table later. She waits, she bides time, she goes with the flow, and her world goes kablooey.” Throughout the book, Nora and her narrator are written in a loose and conversational tone, of the kind that has the appearance of one woman confessing to another about the profound discovery that the existential threat to her personal happiness is the men in her life.
Nora sees her inept, bumbling husband not just as a burden but as the impediment to realizing her fundamental rights to pursue a life of her own making. “Men fought wars for the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Rights so fundamental that men agreed it would be better to die rather than have those rights taken away. But Nora isn’t at liberty to ditch her responsibilities. At home. At work. Anywhere on Planet Earth,” the narrator explains of Nora’s plight. Without a better husband she becomes “the safety net. She is the government bailout. She’s the default setting. And so how can she pursue happiness when there are full Diaper Genies to empty, school loans to help pay down, and seven preschool teacher planning days a year?”
That some husbands are good partners and others are bad would undermine the novel’s central tension and pose a risk to the intended target audience that Baker is attempting to cultivate—an audience which rightly feels put-upon, but whose appetite for victimhood is commensurately endless. “Until schools call fathers about sick kids as often as they call mothers, until sons are given not just the same number of chores but the same types as daughters, until the helpless sitcom dad with a tool belt isn’t quite so loveable, I’m skeptical of how much ground we’re really gaining,” Baker writes in her book’s acknowledgment, which could have been placed anywhere in the text proper without looking out of place.
So then what’s the point of this upper-class gender war nostalgia trip? Emotionally, it affords an escape for ambitious and aspiring career mothers who want the cultural conversation of the day to revert back to the class wars of the early 2010s—long before upper-middle-class women became complicit operators in a white patriarchal world that, while perhaps throttling their full potential, nonetheless allowed them the “nice things” and status symbols unavailable to those victimized by the same white corporate America that afforded predominantly white wives and mothers the careers they feel ambivalent about.
What Baker is offering, then, is a kind of nostalgic thriller for affluent women who would rather the major topic of the day be gender bias—where the great menace to the American dream are insensitive white urban professional men who are ignorant of the difficulties they cause for their long-suffering white female urban professional partners by falling short both in the kitchen and the (baby’s) bedroom. Having lost their place atop the victimhood hierarchy, this particular audience can instead look for solace in the streaming platforms, where they eagerly await the buzz and ensuing media coverage of the new Kristen Wiig vehicle.
Where The Husbands transports its audience back to a version of America that hasn’t yet politicized itself into a class war on identity politics, the new novel from author Alexandra Kleeman, Something New Under the Sun, offers its audience a different kind of escape, luxuriating in the worldview that our capitalistic materialism has set us on a path of inevitable destruction in the form of catastrophic climate change. Like Baker, Kleeman’s novel positions itself as a satire, but lacks the sense of humor or wit to pull it off. The books also share in their narrative design a landscape spoiled by one true villain—for Baker, systemic gender bias, for Kleeman it’s capitalism—but rather than tangle with the politics or social history that engendered these issues, or the politics that would be needed to fix them, the novel is a three-act journey prefabricated for the screen, and one that ends exactly where it begins, with the inconvenient fact that the bad thing (patriarchy; capitalism) is as bad as you think it is.
Following a New York writer who goes to Hollywood to work on the film adaptation of his own novel, the story splits its time with the writer’s wife and daughter, who have gone to upstate New York to join an eco-activist commune, while he, Patrick Hamlin, has the improbable assignment of becoming a production assistant on the film set, relegated to the lowest tier as a gopher running errands and driving the star of the film, Cassidy Carter, back and forth from her Los Angeles mansion. All around California, great wildfires burn, and for the sci-fi twist, the residents here endure a lack of water by buying up a corporation’s waterlike liquid called WAT-R, a fluid that resembles actual water but, just like capitalism, eventually does more harm than good to those who rely upon it for survival.
As a former child star who got rich playing the same character over and over again in major films and television shows, with a nose so memorable she licensed it to plastic surgeons who sell the nose as an option to girls who want to look like her, Cassidy is a savvy social climber who sees Hollywood as a mirror of our fallible world, where everyone is selfishly out for themselves. In turn, for Cassidy, the only reasonable thing to do is use drugs to numb the pain away. “I get fucked up because then I don’t have to ask myself how things are. I know how they are. They’re fucked up,” Cassidy tells Patrick.
The world is so doomed that for Patrick’s wife the only retreat is to take her daughter and flee upstate, to a commune where the residents live off the land and begin each morning with a remembrance of another species or coral reef that has recently died because of the ramifications of our failed economic system. Patrick’s wife is resistant to him coming to visit as she suspects that the commune wouldn’t welcome her husband, “a man like this, a fool still begging to buy capitalism’s plummeting stock.”
Back in Hollywood, Patrick discovers that the producers of the film do not have the best intentions, and the narrative soon becomes a buddy adventure story with him and Cassidy driving through a burning Los Angeles trying to determine what connects the shady producers with the shady WAT-R company, a business relationship that exemplifies the worst traits of capitalism. No one is presented as a particularly likable character; even Patrick’s wife, up on the commune, is looked down upon by the omniscient narrator, a hysterical woman who chose to run away rather than confront her inability to see anything to hope for in her real life. How the wife would have actually dealt with these problems is never really explored, but in the rules of the novel this makes sense as she’s meant to only represent the fight-or-flight mechanism that everyone must feel, the novel argues, after so many years of daily news about the coming climate change apocalypse.
What’s interesting about this novel is the way in which it embodies the current habit of affluent middle-class Americans who wish to address the problems of the day with performative self-flagellation, while keeping their status, power, and money. Like politicians who take a knee wearing prayer shawls rather than devise policies that alleviate the depravity of our widening income inequality, the novel makes a grand point about how it’s not any individual’s fault that we now stand at the precipice of our own demise—that blame should only be reserved for mega-corporations and industries like “Big Soda,” faceless, nameless emblems of the capitalism that’s burning the world alive.
If there’s any solution the book wants to foreground, it’s friendship, of the kind you might see in a movie about two characters who seem like a really bad fit but by the end of their journey together, enduring the trials and tribulations of our hostile commons, they realize that all they really have is the kindness they can show one another.
“I don’t know why I did it. I guess I just wanted to feel like a regular guy again,” Patrick says to Cassidy after he takes a swig of the artificial water that turns out to be dangerous to drink.
“Listen, don’t beat yourself up,” Cassidy says with the lines that will adapt easily to a screenplay when the novel is inevitably optioned. “I’m just telling you as a friend, I’m not trying to make you feel bad. We want you to make it all the way out of this, all the way back home, to where you belong.”
Toward the end of the book, the narrator asks rhetorically, “How do things that have lasted for years, a lifetime even, suddenly come to an end?”
The answer of course is of the type we’d find in any stale buddy movie: Home is made up of the people you surround yourself with, a place where friends like Cassidy are looking out for your best interests, because that’s all anyone can do with the specter of an uncertain future hanging over our heads. Lucky for us, we’ll still have the streamers.
Sean P. Cooper is a staff writer at Tablet and co-editor of The Scroll, the magazine’s afternoon newsletter. For alerts about his work, sign up for his newsletter here.