Bernardine Evaristo’s short story ‘The White Man’s Liberation Front‘ is her answer to Noughts and Crosses, a snapshot of a society where entrenched privilege is reversed and middle-class white men are among the most put-upon members of the community. The protagonist, Brian, is a sad sack of a man – an aggrieved white male online activist, trying to imagine a world where people like him can be accepted and recognised for their own selves. It’s a dark parody, simultaneously critiquing both societal racism and white male privilege.
Brian has it hard. He and his wife Pamela are both academics; she’s an over-promoted Professor based on a slew of articles, while he languishes at lecturer level despite working on his magnum opus which he expects to be field-defining. He teaches large seminars and holds down the laboursome Admissions Tutor role while she swans around with tutorials, and commandeers the large spare room as her study because of all her books. Since moving to a house and area that suits her, ‘he has simmered with resentment ever since’. And so begins a drunken lashing out against a world that is simply unfair.
As bottles of wine pile up, Brian engages in his online activism. Under a false name (presenting himself as a much younger man, in a telling bit of projection) he rails against the world – criticising societal structures that keep men down, ads that reinforce stereotypes, and cultures of #everydaymisandry. He gets obsessed with statistics, even timing the amount of time his dad tries to speak for before his mum cuts him off. At the same time, he reflects bitterly on his own lack of self-worth – he used to show off his legs as Pamela is a ‘legs woman’ who liked him wearing shorts around the house, but the body positivity movement came too late for him as he aged; he also reflects on being trapped in a marriage without options for leaving, albeit he allows himself to lust after his younger undergraduates.
The problem of Evaristo’s story is the same problem that haunts much literature that tries to comment on a contemporary problem through reversing the situations – it risks diluting its own message by trying to argue two things simultaneously. On the one hand, there’s a valuable dissonance in imagining an alternative universe where straight white men really are treated disadvantageously, the uncanny reversal of roles drawing attention to serious, real problems in today’s world. On the other hand, Evaristo’s tone perfectly skewers the pathetic whining of white dudes who feel that the world is turning against them and disadvantaging them in favour of women and people of colour. But putting the two together, Evaristo runs the risk of making it sound like people who rail against social injustice are the pathetic figures.
Of course, a more flexible reading allows the reader to navigate between the two positions to take what is intended – that this is predominantly a criticism of men’s rights movements that also acts as a rema inder of all of the privilege that men continue to enjoy in everyday life. And more comically, it’s a scathing imagining of how poorly white dudes would be able to handle it if they were to be at the receiving end of societal injustice. As Brian gets wasted and ends up throwing up all over his house and sobbing pathetically about his awful life, even as Pamela returns home having fucked her sporty toyboy three times in two hours, the story is unsparing as it revels in this sad, angry little man self-destructing. He’s awful – in one moment of reflection, we hear how he deliberately tripped up and injured his 8-year-old niece when she was boasting about wanting to be prime minister – and remorseless, using the real and perceived slights against him as justification for vindictive bitterness.
Ultimately, the book’s success and weakness hinges on it capturing the rhetoric and self-pity of men’s rights movements so well that it becomes unclear quite how much these issues are in Brian’s head, and how far they are borne out in real life. As an indictment of this kind of mindset, it works fantastically, skewering the ways in which men attempt to explain their own failures. But with an eye on the broader world-building which seems to suggest that there are grievances, it risks gaslighting in its suggestion that those who feel oppressed by structural racism are their own worst enemies. As such, the story’s success is qualified, but it’s a vicious, entertaining read.