Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Self-Made Man by Norah Vincent

For eighteen months, the writer Norah Vincent transformed herself from a butch dyke -- I believe that is her preferred term -- into a slightly effeminate man. The transition was a lot harder than she thought.

During those eighteen months, she joined a men's bowling league, prowled sex bars, joined a dating service (some of the funniest passages in the book are about her dates; she didn't like most of the women), retreated to a monastery, joined an Iron Man chapter and worked as a salesman in a "Red Bull" company. (I had to guess what Red Bull is, but the characteristics required were all too clear.)

Self-Made Man is not a jokey, let's spy on the boys (giggle) book. The effort of becoming a man and her search for what makes men different from women was a grueling, emotional, fascinating journey into someone else's skin. It is a magnificent piece of research as well as a page-turner.

Her conclusion is that men are emotional cripples; they know it and hate it and can't break out of it. Because of what they are raised to be, they encourage the same repression in other men and pass it on to their sons.

What she didn't count on was the effect "passing" on her own psyche. Trying to return from Ned to Norah left her in fragile psychological state that took months to heal. The entire experience convinced her that she much prefers to be a woman.

I caught an error in Vincent's perception early on that made me wonder about the value of her other observations, but everything rang so true, I had no other quibbles. The error rang true, too, unless you'd duplicated the experience, so maybe there were others. In the end, it doesn't matter. This is probably the closest women will ever get to peer into a man's world.

The error? She bowled for a whole season in the men's league. It was quite an introduction: the first attempt at becoming a man; the first attempt at bowling (she never was any good). One evening the alleys got quieter and quieter as someone on another lane was in the process of a perfect game. Vincent takes the hush and attention to be men's homage to man. Wrong. Any league will come to a halt to watch and pray for that perfect 300.

You'd think her wife (to whom the book is dedicated), the "self-confessed trailer-trash girlfriend," would have noticed the error. It was she who warned, "Just remember that the difference between your people and my people is that my people bowl without irony."

(I wasn't too bad, since you ask.)