Review of Andrea Ochsner, Lad Trouble: Masculinity and Identity in the British Male Confessional Novel of the 1990s

Article excerpt

Review of Andrea Ochsner, Lad Trouble: Masculinity and Identity in the British Male Confessional Novel of the 1990s (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2009) 397 pp.

The 1990s in Britain were an era in which role models for both men and women seemed to have been in crisis for so long that no one really knew what was going on anymore. The sensitive New Man of the 1980s, who was in touch with his feelings and supported feminism, was replaced--or rather complemented--by the New Lad, a young urban male who behaved badly, was interested in girls, fast cars and sports and who was often associated with a reactionary or even antifeminist attitude. This seemed to imply a need for a new and assertive masculinity that finally returned to "real men" and their images of "real women." However, the emergence of the New Lad did not stop gender confusion. It rather added yet another model for male behavior to the multiplicity of choices already offered.

Andrea Ochsner's study, which is based on her dissertation, addresses this crisis and multiplication of masculinities in the 1990s in the context of eight popular male confessional novels. She argues that the 1990s were marked by a change in the quantity and quality of uncertainty about gender roles at the end of a century that "probably had seen more changes than any preceding one in terms of technology, entertainment and lifestyle proliferation" (p. 43). Ochsner assesses masculinity and its former powerful invisibility, and her book can be placed among the fast-growing body of texts about the social construction and function of male identities and their literary representation.

The main thesis of the book is that the crisis of masculinity and the emergence of the New Lad in British literature and culture should be interpreted in terms of a crisis of identity that is not only connected to gendered identities but to processes of identification and self-formation in general. Masculinity is thus defined as "an unstable and ongoing identity project" (p. 24). In this context of increasingly fluid identities, the New Lad is neither seen as the radical antithesis to the New Man, nor is the phenomenon entirely interpreted as an antifeminist backlash. Ochsner rather evaluates the New Lad as yet another symptom of a deep insecurity at the heart of contemporary gender discourses that touch upon questions of social privilege and power. The eight male confessional novels are accordingly interpreted as an oscillation between the model of the sensitive New Man and the cynical New Lad.

After an introduction entitled "The Structure of Feeling in the 1990s" the study comprises two major parts. Part one introduces theory and contexts and is divided into three subchapters. The first is concerned with the socio-historic background of British culture and literature of the 1990s and shortly introduces the concepts of masculinity and identity crisis underlying the study. The second is concerned with questions of genre. It defines the male confessional novel and connects genre criticism with questions of gender. The third subchapter is then concerned with aspects of popular culture and its relevance and status for the cultural studies. Here, Ochsner claims that we need to subvert the dichotomy of high culture vs. low culture and accordingly introduces the term "middlebrow" (p. 143). Part two then uses the eight novels to substantiate the three main claims derived from the theories and assumptions presented in part one: firstly that the increase in choices and options available at the end of the 20th century is seen as liberation, potential change and insecurity at the same time; secondly that the novels are representative examples of the crisis and renegotiation of masculinity in the 1990s as a symptom of a larger crisis of identity; and thirdly that the novels are representative of real life experiences of young men and women in the 1990s and of the way literature is used to create meaning and deal with the ambiguities of contemporary society. …