I don’t always get into books that are at least ostensibly about the transition to parenthood. After all, I don’t have any kids and don’t plan on having any. My wife says she doesn’t want to have kids either. As long as she is being truthful about that, and as long as her view doesn’t change, I’m not likely to have to change my thoughts on the matter. I’m not against kids or anything, but I just don’t feel the need to have them. Since I haven’t reached that stage of adulthood (and may never), I don’t necessarily feel called to stories about the experience.
However, I had a different reaction to You Can Make Him Like You by Ben Tanzer. Instead of having to work to understand an experience that a character is going through which I haven’t encountered, I just immediately connected to his confusion. Keith’s world may not be my world, but I was there with him anyway.
For me, part of how the book got me into the character so quickly was how Keith is strangely both emotionally self-stifled and internally neurotic. By way of example, when his wife brings up the ‘baby question,’ Keith thinks to himself:
Still, even being who I am, I know that it is here, right here, right now, where I ought to be the kind of guy Liz needs me to be. The guy who says look, I’m scared, and no I don’t know what that means, or whether that is a smokescreen of some kind, but the baby thing just freaks me out, and it’s real. So I can’t be excited about it, even if I know on some level I probably want to have a baby with you. I know Liz would not be happy to hear this, but I also know that she would like me to be able to say it, to be honest and transparent. But I’m not that guy. I would rather avoid this for as long as I can.
However, though he is not “that guy,” he is still the guy who lies awake at night obsessively thinking:
What should I wear tomorrow, jeans, fine, t-shirt, sure, what color, does it matter, not sure, did we pay the mortgage, yes, maybe, okay, what about the electric bill, not sure, phone bill, yes, definitely, but why is the texting portion so high, is there an unlimited plan, and why do I need to text anyone, couldn’t I call, or e-mail, yes, I could even Twitter, though what is that really, and why would someone do it, does anyone besides Liz care what I’m up to all the time, every second of the day, why is that fun, maybe I am too old to get it, Monica, man she’s smoking, and the locks on the door, did we lock the door, last night, yes, tonight, maybe, but both locks, can’t say, should I check, no, yes, no, no, probably, maybe, is that moaning, yes it is, weird, and shit, is the alarm set, yes, yes, check, checked, check again, cool, and the door, just ignore it, nothing is going to happen anyway.
In short, for a guy who isn’t really able to talk about what he’s thinking and feeling, he relates a hell of a lot of what he is thinking and feeling to the reader. Laconic he ain’t. Mind you, that isn’t the only interesting aspect to the character:
I am on top of the intern. She is wearing her panties and nothing else. Her skin is fresh and smooth, and the little baby hairs on her thighs undulate to and fro with my every exhale.
No, what is distracting me is actually more of a housekeeping question. How did I get here? I mean literally, how did I get the intern to come home with me and by what means did we actually get home?
What happened then and when? How much more did I drink? Did the intern get less creeped-out by me? Or, did she just get more hammered? What? I need to re-trace my steps. Did we take the train? Could we have walked? And why am I focusing on this stuff?
I look down. I am not on top of the intern. It’s Liz. I’m having sex with my wife. That’s interesting.
Frankly, Keith is pretty unsettled about a lot of things, at least partially because he doesn’t understand how unsettled he is. He may not grasp it, but the reader quickly becomes aware through the neurotic cast of his thoughts.
I can’t say for sure that these aspects of Keith are what made me feel his confusion so tangibly, but something in You Can Make Him Like You sure did. It was absolutely palpable. That feature by itself made the book enjoyable without even having to get into well-written lines, engaging story, or any of that.
Really, whether or not we have personally struggled with becoming parents, we’ve all felt confused. We’ve all felt vulnerable. We can connect to those things on a pre-rational level, and therefore as readers we can connect to You Can Make Him Like You. At least, that’s how I felt about it. We’ll see whether or not you can connect with my emotions on the matter.