Towards the end of my review of Rising Sun, I said, “Michael Crichton was kind of an asshole, right? I’m not off-base in saying that?”. With his follow-up novel, Disclosure, I can, without reservation, firmly assert that I think Michael Crichton was unquestionably an asshole.
Disclosure, which Crichton alleges is based on a true story, tells the story of Tom Sanders, a department head for Digicom, a tech company on the cusp of a big merger. Sanders’ hopes for a big promotion are foiled by the hiring of Meredith Johnson, an old girlfriend and, now, new boss. On their first day, she sexually harasses him. On her second day, she maneuvers him into being late for a big presentation and accuses him of sexually harassing her. What follows is a convoluted part-time techno-thriller (using the best virtual reality that 1994 tech had to offer) that is equal parts sermonizing condescension and sexist proselytizing about the evils of women in the workplace.
God. Fuck this book.
Part of me wonders if my deep aversion to the entirety of this shitshow is because Crichton decided to flip the expected narrative of man sexually harasses woman. And then I think about how he, at every opportunity, used this device to make the point that when a woman does it, it’s apparently okay because women need a little help getting ahead in society. This entire book is a straw man fallacy. It’s carefully constructed to make a point that Crichton can rip to shreds.
That’s not to say that there are no valid or interesting points raised, here. False accusations are a terrible thing – both for the individual falsely accused, and for the impact they have on real victims who aren’t taken seriously by the public and investigators who are tasked with looking into their accusations. People’s lives have been ruined by the taint of sexual misconduct (of whatever variety), and it’s a very serious charge.
….And it’s a very serious crime. Far too serious to be so negligently mishandled, which is precisely what Crichton does. I don’t care what degrees he has, or how deeply he pleasures himself while talking about fantastical technology, Michael Crichton simply lacked the depth of understanding to delve into the issues he tried to tackle in the latter half of his career.
And this muddled confusion of something worth talking about (which Margaret Atwood expounds on in a far more capable way here) with the distilled putrescence of Crichton’s invective leaves this book a confusing mess. Does Michael Crichton hate women? I would guess not. Does he think they don’t have a place in positions of power? Probably not. Does he think women should be quiet about the abuse and misuse of power by men? Probably not. Does he think men are the real victims in a culture striving for equality? Well….maybe not the “real victim”, but certainly “a victim”?
Add to this that Crichton simply wasn’t a good writer. This book (and Rising Sun and Andromeda Strain before it) simply isn’t well-told. Beneath the deep-dive into management theory, tech manufacturing, and the problems with gender roles, barely hidden by the unnecessarily convoluted plot, there is a book that relies on trite and clunky coincidences and formulaic characters. Hell, there’s even a Yoda-esque wise mentor who speaks in riddles. At the end of this torturous diatribe, what we’re left with isn’t an examination of sexual harassment (let alone a nuanced portrait of gender roles and power). This book, fundamentally, is about a scheming woman who incompetently tries to steal a job from an unassailable white man by distracting him with sex. This book isn’t about the power dynamics in a changing world, it’s about CD-ROM drives and corporate ethics. But, ultimately, who gives a shit when Michael Crichton is attempting to be so goddamned provocative?
Permeating this entire book, beneath a thin veneer of attempting to subvert expectations and take a look at sexual harassment from a different perspective, there is a poorly enunciated but unmistakable feeling that Crichton was simply angry that women were invading the upper echelons of power and still complaining about sexism in the work place. I can see him watching the news and screaming, “what more do you women want?”. Is that a fair assumption of Michael Crichton? I don’t know, probably not. But there’s a subtext underneath the vacillation between apparent sympathy for sexual harassment and the terror accusations inflict on men, and it’s that there a the steady tattoo of reactionary animosity towards blind acceptance of female victimhood. I don’t know how that can be seen as anything but sexism.
Is there a single strong female in any of his books? There wasn’t in Rising Sun. There isn’t here. Hell, Tom Sanders is married in this book, but you barely hear his wife (apart from her rejecting his invitation for sex at the beginning of the book, and being illogically hostile in a discussion about gender equality). Sanders’ lawyer, whose names has already escaped me, starts off as strong and capable, and ends up being his sidekick as he uncovers, and then solves, the mystery of what is behind Meredith’s accusations against him. She serves literally no purpose after the halfway point in this novel, but features prominently. Also, there’s another female executive who is helping Sanders behind the scenes, but she is redeemable precisely because she is quietly working behind the scenes to help the hero. She is rewarded because she stays quiet and unobtrusive.
The thing that infuriates me is that Michael Crichton knew precisely how the book would be perceived, and knew exactly what the criticisms against him would be; just as he did with Rising Sun. He actually took the time to set up a shrew (word used with all it’s sexist connotations intact) of a journalist, hellbent on burning down the patriarchy regardless of consequence, just so he could then tear her down for being a horribly unfair critique of his myopia.
Constance Walsh, the feminist journalist, writes a hit piece on Sanders, exposing his sexual harassment of Meredith to the public using the pseudonym “Mr. Piggy” to shield herself (unsuccessfully) from a defamation suit by him. This hit piece is another straw man, meant to represent the criticisms of Crichton’s views in such a way that he could easily dismantle them as vengeful and stupid. She writes, “…women simply do not oppress men. Women are powerless in the hands of men. And to claim that a woman committed rape is absurd. But that didn’t stop Mr. Piggy, who is interested only in smearing his new supervisor. He’s even bringing a formal charge of sexual harassment against her! In short, Mr. Piggy has the nasty habits of a typical patriarch.”
His response (because, of course, he literally puts the novel on hold so that he can provide a rebuttal immediately after Walsh’s op-ed)? He tells an anecdote (which I don’t know if it’s factual, but certainly has some real world corollaries) of a man accused of molesting his daughter despite not being able to do so (because he was out of the country or something). The mother and daughter (influenced by a psychologist) assert that their timeline must have been off, but it definitely happened. The backlash against this man is severe and permanent. He loses his job, becomes an alcoholic, never sees his daughter again, and his friends abandoned him. “Because,” Crichton opines. “He could not have prevented it. Not in a contemporary climate where men were assumed to be guilty of anything they were accused of. Among themselves, men sometimes talked of suing women for false accusations. They talked of penalties for damage caused by those accusations. But that was just talk. Meanwhile, they all changed their behavior. There were new rules now, and every man knew them: Don’t smile at a child on the street, unless you’re with your wife. Don’t ever touch a strange child. Don’t ever be alone with someone else’s child, even for a moment. If a child invites you into his or her room, don’t go unless another adult, preferably a woman, is also present. At a party, don’t let a little girl sit on your lap. If she tries, gently push her aside. If you ever have occasion to see a naked boy or girl, look quickly away. Better yet, leave. And it was prudent to be careful around your own children, too, because if your marriage went sour, your wife might accuse you. And then your past conduct would be reviewed in an unfavorable light: ‘Well, he was such an affectionate father-perhaps a little too affectionate.’….This was a world of regulations and penalties entirely unknown to women. If [Sanders’ wife] saw a child crying on the street, she picked the kid up. She did it automatically, without thinking. Sanders would never dare. Not these days. And of course there were new rules for business, as well. Sanders knew men who would not take a business trip with a woman, who would not sit next to a female colleague on an airplane, who would not meet a woman for a drink in a bar unless someone else was also present. Sanders had always thought such caution was extreme, even paranoid. But now, he was not so sure.”
Just because you’re a man doesn’t mean you should be able to go around doing whatever the fuck you want to do, and lamenting the loss of that expected privilege doesn’t make you a sympathetic victim. It makes you an asshole.
I started this book last year, sometime – before the #metoo movement really got off the ground. Before Harvey Weinstein. Also, before Aziz Ansari and the inevitable backlash against some of the impacts that have come about from it. While I’m not really going to get into anything that’s currently going on with the subject, I think Michael Crichton would pretty firmly align himself the people who rolled their eyes at the uproar over sexual harassment that has taken place over the last six months or so. He’d probably be on FOX News asking us all to think of those accused, and what it’s doing to their lives.
My recommendation for Rising Sun was to throw the book away rather than read. My recommendation for Disclosure is to set it on fire. Zero stars.