I recently finished reading TinMan by Sara Winman on my way to work, and am feeling ridiculously overwhelmed. It is not just the novel’s evocative prose and conversational style, but also the craft of its characters that makes it a very amenable read. As far away it is from my own reality, Winman’s characters bond over their collective pleasures, as well as their pain, making it worthwhile to go through this story carefully. While it offers us a tempting narrative about grief and loss, centred on a “bisexual” man and a gay man, as well as the layered women who understand their love and give them space to exist, Tin Man simultaneously peels open the toxicity of patriarchal masculinity that affects our day-to-day living.
Earlier in this novel, there’s a point when Ellis Judd, a garage mechanic and a lost artist, recalls a childhood memory. As a young boy he looked on, while his father was busy shaving his beard, stretching his skin oneway or the other. At this moment, Ellis saw his father as an almost monumental entity, impossible to breach, reaffirmed by the sun rays deflecting off his father’s skin. It is hence, not a twisted love triangle, but this inability to reach out to his father, a habituated lack of male communication, that is the central lament of this novel.
At the core of this story is a belief articulated by Ellis’s mother—that men and boys are capable of doing beautiful things—and we may suppose that realizing this wish completes Ellis’s character arc, as much as it completes our reading experience. A good coincidence that I read bell hooks on masculinity recently:
“Until we are willing to question many of the specifics of the male sex role, including most of the seven norms and stereotypes that psychologist Robert Levant names in a listing of its chief constituents—’avoiding femininity, restrictive emotionality, seeking achievement and status, self-reliance, aggression, homophobia, and nonrelational attitudes toward sexuality’—we are going to deny men their full humanity. Feminist masculinity would have as its chief constituents integrity, self-love, emotional awareness, assertiveness, and relational skill, including the capacity to be empathic, autonomous, and connected.” (The Will to Change, bell hooks)
Hooks puts forth the question: What does it mean for men to embrace feminism? What does it mean when we ask for a feminist masculinity? Whether we’re cis-hets, gay, bisexual or asexual—patriarchal masculinity, as this novel points out, plagues all of our existence. So what would it mean to ask men and boys to find a more loving way to be themselves?
I think Ellis answers these questions for us when he remembers his past—a childhood of violence and deep alienation at the hands of his father—and in contrast, lives his present—going over to his father’s house, buying him a cap as a birthday gift and smiling at him, while his father smiles back. Ellis isn’t looking for approval, but is letting go and forgiving the life his father imposed on him, for however brief a moment. As clichéd as it might sound,Ellis has been able to challenge convention, has been able to find love and give love, has been able to cry and laugh in the company of friends he can call his family—and that seems more worthwhile, much easier to cherish, than to nurse resentment, to harbour hurt and leash out unkindness in equal measure.
And what of Michael? Our other protagonist, who might have had the chance to recover from the brunt of a cruel (or absent)parenthood? The one who already cares and gives too much? There is that crudeness to being a misguided man that affects him still. He is unwilling to embrace the goodness of his friends and his lovers, for he has instead learnt to compartmentalize how he feels. He has forced himself to keep the safety of an emotional harbour at bay, while suffering in a self-imposed solitude.Again, as hooks says, it is not until men learn to integrate themselves—to hold together the many different parts of their lives which work, play, care for love and relish in pleasure, that they will be able to embrace change and end a cycle of inflicting violence on themselves and on others.
Hooks writes about the failure of her students to come up with texts that tell us of an emotionally affective masculinity—that tell us of a feminist masculinity. She is looking for texts that don’t require men to cage up their hearts in tough steel or hide away from how they feel in order to be strong and to survive. She asks us instead, to tell men to have faith in loving, and in those they can love to carry them through life. Tin Man is one such story – it shows us what it may mean for men to accept happiness and sadness in equal measure, to know hurt and to know pleasure, to grow by healing themselves through reaching out to friends and family and not to punch away or clamp down on those moments which affect us. Read it, to know acceptance.