The best thing about Stephen Marche’s new book on gender politics is his wife. The second best thing is that he knows it.
The Unmade Bed is Marche’s version of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Unfinished Business — a memoiristic treatise on gender relations informed by the author’s experience with marriage and child-rearing in a two-career nuclear family. I tend to regard this genre the same way I regard Nancy Meyers movies: nice, but pertaining to a world too bourgeois for me to get worked up about. (Am I the only one who uses the phrase “having it all” for pizza toppings, and nothing else?) But two lines on the cover of Marche’s book reveal a structural ingenuity that changes the game. By Stephen Marche, the cover reads, “with commentary by his wife, editor Sarah Fulford.”
With commentary by his wife. The mind reels. What other literary works could be improved with commentary from the writer’s family? John Cheever’s domestic angst comes to mind. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s family. Cormac McCarthy’s three wives. (Especially this one.) Sigmund Freud’s mother would be a good candidate, or the women from Woody Allen’s life, who might turn his romantic movies into twisted horrors. As Marche explains in his prologue, “Whenever I read books in which a wife or a husband describes a marriage, I feel I’m being lied to. Maybe not intentionally, but inevitably. Marriages are mysteries even to the people within them. One side will no longer do. The other side is always the revealing side anyway, the side that messes up whatever we may have thought we knew. Somewhere in that mess may be the real thing.” It’s the Rap Genius approach to memoir, a book that incorporates a running stream of meta-commentary and gossip. Now that I know this is possible, I don’t know how I’ll go back to non-annotated memoirs.
If Marche’s meta-approach feels internet-y, that could be because the hothouse of internet commentary both fed and informed Marche’s move into gender polemics. (He spends one chapter arguing “Against Outrage,” a topic perhaps informed by the time he lamented the downfall of female hotness in America, then rattled off a list of female celebrities he finds unattractive. Outrage followed. And outrage forgiveness.) The book’s central image — an unmade bed shared, presumably, by a man and a woman — comes from a chapter based on Marche’s lightning-rod 2013 essay, “The Case for Filth,” arguing that, instead of demanding men clean the house more often, hetero couples could achieve gender equality in housework by lowering the standard of cleanliness in general. That essay appeared in the New York Times and was debated across the internet. (Twice, even, on this website.) The new version is more detailed, more personal, and contains lengthy commentary from Fulford, whose harrowing descriptions of domestic squalor include swarms of fruit flies, piles of dirty dishes, and Legos strewn across the floor:
When I see him on the couch, working or relaxing, in a house with a floor that needs to be swept, beds that need to be made, and dying flowers in the vase that need to be tossed out, I feel two things: anger and envy. Anger because, holy shit, get off your ass and clean up, and envy because it’s actually pretty healthy to be able to focus on one thing instead of constantly puttering about doing triage on an endlessly demanding domestic space. It would be so nice to just plunk myself down and have that kind of focus, to be present in the moment. I honestly don’t know if there’s something wrong with me because I can’t do it, or something wrong with him because he can.
Like many a woman before her, Fulford makes her husband more likable. Marche’s quest to rethink gender began when the pair moved to a new city for Fulford’s career, turning Marche into a stay-at-home dad. Lurking in the footnotes, Fulford affirms Marche’s sacrifice. (He’s the “domestic first responder,” driving the kids around and nursing them when they’re ill.) And when he gets dramatic or martyring, she is quick with a reality check. (When Marche asks, “Would I have destroyed my career for my husband if I had been a woman? If Sarah had a tenure-track job in New York, would she have given it up?” Fulford snaps back: “Some context here. The truth is, Steve was always ambivalent about academic work.”) As I flipped ahead to find the next passage of Fulford tearing her husband apart — and then thoughtfully rehabilitating him — I realized that Fulford’s annotations function like the Real World’s video confessionals: a private aside from a secondary figure, provided with minimal mediation. I make this comparison not to impugn the intellectual work of this book. Just that, there is an unspoken moment in every gender debate when everyone in the room is thinking, Does his wife agree with that assessment? What’s his relationship with his mother like, anyway? And it is so satisfying to finally get the answers.
We live in a time when extra answers, and additional information, can be added to any reading or media experience — I can’t remember the last time I read a memoir and didn’t stop at some point to Google a few names or places. There is a special pleasure to the acquisition of those extra flourishes of information, and to the jumps in knowledge that we make when toggling between, say, Knausgaard’s memoir and his ex-wife’s critique of it; a serialized drama and Reddit fan theories about it; or a thriller novel and spoilers on how it ends. (I can’t help it! I like things better when I know how they end.) When a memoir is popular enough, its subjects often “speak out” in one form or another — after Unfinished Business, Anne-Marie Slaughter’s husband wrote an essay about prioritizing her career over his. The Unmade Bed doesn’t just speed that meta-informative process up; it allows each text to actively enhance the other. It’s messy, sure, but also illuminating. And, frankly, more entertaining for everyone. Because even if I’m not the right audience for a middle-aged father’s lament about the rise of internet pornography, how can I resist the moment when that father tries to estimate how many vaginas he’s seen in his life and arrives at “several thousand,” prompting his wife to exclaim, “Holy crap! Seriously?” And then, after thinking through the art galleries and avant-garde movies she’s visited in her life, arrive at a sum of “about a hundred” vaginas for herself.
And yet, as entertaining as Fulford’s presence may be, it’s hard to read this book and not feel confused by the politics of this approach. As Marche points out, the central tension in every marriage is fairness. Is the distribution of work between the partners fair? Are their efforts fairly acknowledged? Do they feel satisfied? And now here I am, witnessing the marginalization of Sarah Fulford — literally, her writing appears in the literal margins of her husband’s book — and I find myself with a new crop of questions about this couple. Did she really want to do this? How much effort did it take? Did he at least make the bed once or twice, to thank her? But this, at least, is a mess I signed up for.