I just finished reading a new non-fiction book, Self-Made Man, by Norah Vincent. Norah is a respected journalist who has written for the New York Times, the L.A. Times, and the Village Voice, among others. Interestingly, she is generally regarded as a conservative or "right-wing" columnist, and I am generally regarded as a progressive or "liberal" -- but politics, at least the tawdry, Washingtonian kind, aren't at play at all in this book. Full disclosure: Norah's wife Lisa is a friend and frequent commenter here. I've never met Norah (I hope to, but apparently she's going to be spending a lot of time hobnobbing with the likes of Catherine Crier and Stephen Colbert, so she may not have time for small potatoes like me...).
Norah was watching a reality TV show in which contestants dressed in drag and tried to "pass" as the other gender when she had the brilliant idea of exploring what she calls "the deeper sociological implications of passing as the opposite sex." The only way she could do so effectively was to turn into a man. Not permanently, via operation (ouch!) but for an extended period of time, via Ned.
Ned became Norah's male alter ego, for lack of a better phrase. She learned how to dress like a man, how to suppress her obviously female body parts and even more obvious personality traits, how to speak in a more masculine way (both in timbre and in style of speech) and a host of many other things that enabled her to effectively pass as a male, even in intimate settings with other men. Self-Made Man is her thoughtful and entertaining chronicle of what happened next.
It would have been easy for Norah to play this for cheap laughs. But this book ain't a butch version of "Bosom Buddies." Yes, the book is an engrossing read, amusing at times, often laugh-out loud hilarious. Yet Norah repeatedly takes her experiences and applies a powerful intellect, analyzing what her interactions have to say in a larger sense about gender, gender roles and sexuality in turn-of-the-millenium America.
It also would have been easy for Norah to display more of an, well, attitude toward the men and women she encountered during her time as Ned. It is a great credit to her character that she describes the people she met, and often became friends with, in graceful, sensitive and loving terms. She seemed genuinely anguished at having to begin these relationships with deceit and genuinely touched when so many responded to the force and attraction of her personality, no matter what gender it came packaged in.
I had to stop from time to time to reread sentences to admire a particularly well-crafted turn of phrase, or so that I could pause and ponder some of the fascinating points Norah raises. At a few points I even put the book down and let my mind marinate upon it for a longer time -- although I quickly picked the book up again out of selfish eagerness to read more and more.
I'm reminded of a quote from the movie "Tootsie," in which Dustin Hoffman tells Jessica Lange "[I] was a better man with you as a woman, then I ever was with a woman as a man." What is so fascinating about Self-Made Man is that we see how the men Ned interacted with became better men with Ned as a woman, and how Norah became a better woman after spending time as a man.