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A Question of Masculinity
by Steven W. Beattie

Contemporary masculinity is a complicated and treacherous subject¨complicated because it covers such a vast terrain; treacherous because the terrain is filled with landmines. The Iron John figure of Robert Bly's conception¨the hairy-chested Wild Man, the hard man who runs naked through the woods with a cabal of cohorts, and returns home to be ministered by the Wild Woman¨is something of a throwback. Almost a caricature, this figure finds its apogee in the no-necked football hooligans and erstwhile frat boys that can usually be found huddled around jugs of Bud (or, if they're patriotic frat boys, Labatt Blue) in any downtown sports bar.
Perhaps as a result of the so-called Men's Movement (as ridiculous an expression as I've ever encountered), a sea change has occurred in the popular perception of masculinity, or at least in the way that perception has been constructed by the pop culture mavens. Over the last two decades or so, the tough-guy man of action usually portrayed in film by John Wayne or Arnold Schwarzenegger, started to give way to more sensitive, emotionally vulnerable males.
Far from the taciturn acceptance of life and its manifold struggles that seemed de rigueur of the prototypical "man's man" in the first half of the twentieth century, men are now free to display a whole range of uncertainties and frailties, before grabbing their Uzis and blowing the bad guys to kingdom come.
Men, it would appear, have grown up. Or have we?
Karel van Loon's novel, A Father's Affair, poses a provocative question: How does the widowed father of a thirteen-year-old boy react when he's told that he has been infertile his entire life? The protagonist of van Loon's novel is Armin, who works as a copy editor for a scientific publishing house, correcting articles with subjects such as "purification of an 86-kDa nuclear DNA-associated protein complex." His partner, Monika, has been dead for ten years and he now lives with Monika's best friend, Ellen, and Bo, the child he thought was his biological offspring. Ellen wants to have a child of her own, but she and Armin have been unsuccessful in their attempts to conceive. They visit a doctor, who tells them that Armin suffers from Klinefelter's syndrome, a genetic defect of the sex chromosomes, which renders him sterile. Thus begins a protracted search for Bo's real father.
Armin's entire self-definition is caught up in his false belief surrounding Bo's paternity. Armin was a virgin when he first slept with Monika, a fact that weighed heavily on him in the initial stages of their relationship, particularly given that Monika lost her virginity at age thirteen. His confidence about his own virility is one of the key components of his masculine self:
It took me six months to work up the courage to tell her that she was the first Ó But my inexperience, when I finally dared to confess it, had a remarkable effect on Monika.
"Really?" she asked.
"Really," I said.
She looked at me questioningly for a while. Then she smiled (that smile, that smile!) and said, "Then you're a natural."

His sexual prowess, along with his perceived ability to sire a child, underpin all of Armin's notions about his male identity; the revelation that Bo is the son of another man throws this identity into a tailspin.
Armin's work offers him ample opportunity to read up on what he comes to think of as a genetic predisposition toward adultery on the part of humans. He begins to devour facts, figures, and statistics about the number of sperm in a typical ejaculate. Spermatozoids, Armin concludes, are warriors engaged in a battle to fertilize a woman's egg: "If the statisticians of modern sexological research are right, the spermatic army of Bo's biological father Ó achieved the easiest victory in the history of warfare Ó Monika's battlefield had the air of enemy presence; there were even trucks that should have brought in the troops, but there were no soldiers. Not one."
Armin suffers from a very literal case of penis envy. It is this aspect of Armin's character, so prevalent in much of the typical male psyche, that blinds him to his essential hypocrisy: He becomes distraught by the discovery of Monika's unfaithfulness, while blithely dismissing the fact that he also cheated on her with Ellen while Monika was still alive. It is to van Loon's credit that he doesn't attempt to smooth down Armin's rough edges; rather, he allows his character to exist in all his imperfection and immaturity. The novel's first person narration allows an ironic distance between the reader and the narrator: We can empathize with Armin, while not always liking him that much.
A Father's Affair is not a perfect novel, far from it. Van Loon displays an annoying predilection for the pithy aphorism: "Life is an endless string of remodelings," or, "Man is incapable of learning," or, my favourite, "Post-mortem sex is a complicated form of sadomasochism." The novel is too brief to allow us to enter fully into the lives or psyches of any character other than the narrator's. And the "shocking revelation" of Bo's father's real identity won't come as a surprise to anyone who goes to the movies much.
But it is Armin's voice that keeps us turning the pages. In his central character, van Loon has created a muddled, indignant, grasping, frequently contradictory figure whose struggle to understand the events of his life is ultimately a struggle to understand himself. Philip Roth, who has forged a career out of writing about indignant, contradictory, often risible males, titled one of his early novels My Life as a Man. This could serve as an appropriate subtitle for van Loon's own examination of one corner of contemporary masculinity. ˛

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