A SCREED IN THRILLER'S CLOTHING
By Michael Crichton
Knopf x 400pp x $24
Tom Sanders, the hero of Michael Crichton's Disclosure, is running late. He has 10 minutes to shave, dress, and leave the house to make the ferry to his high-tech job in Seattle. And this is no ordinary workday: A key meeting is scheduled, and Tom expects his big promotion to be announced. But his wife, a lawyer, just can't seem to deal with the kids, so Tom unhappily gives them breakfast. He misses the ferry and gets to work embarrassingly late.
That night, after a fight during which Tom barks that his wife is "about as oppressed as Leona Helmsley," he stands forlornly before the fridge, eyeing the meager pickings. "He was startled by his own reflection in the glass of the oven. 'Another privileged member of the patriarchy, lording it over the manor.' Christ, he thought, where did women come up with this crap?"
O.K., Tom is upset. And with good reason. Before leaving work that evening he has been sexually harassed, to put it mildly, by the woman who got the promotion he thought was his--an old lover, no less. The next morning, the woman, whose advances Tom spurned, will accuse him of harassing her. This incident is the fulcrum of a lone-man-against-the-world plot involving a hush-hush merger, corporate skulduggery, the cyberspace frontier, and good old-fashioned sleuthing.
Crichton's usual strengths are in evidence. The high-tech high jinks are impressive, and if the book's best scene--people spying on one another as they skulk through a dreamlike virtual-reality data base--seems a bit implausible, well, so what? The chapters are bite-size, the plot cooks, the suspense works. If my son hadn't awakened and interrupted me at 3 a.m., I probably would have read till dawn.
But the book's strengths are poisoned by its weaknesses--and Crichton's leaden prose and cartoon characters are the least of them. Like his previous book, Rising Sun, a jeremiad against the devious doings of Japanese business, Disclosure is a screed in thriller's clothing. This time, the target is the evil wrought by the women's movement and other nefarious forces of political correctness.
The most vivid character--our hero being rather pallid--is Meredith Johnson, a siren plucked from the fever-dreams of anxious men. This is a female with "male" attributes: She is aggressive, sexually voracious, and above all, power-hungry. She is also so flagrantly unscrupulous that her ascent to a high post is another of the book's improbabilities. Her greatest weapon is, natch, her body, the sundry perfections of which Crichton never tires of citing.
Here we have one great male fear: that women will use their intoxicating wiles to climb the professional ladder and, once perched on a lofty rung, prove even more abusive than male bosses. The fun, of course, is rooting for monstrous Meredith to get her comeuppance. When Tom finally decides he's going to fight, and fight dirty, you feel the age-old pleasure of watching the guy who's being pushed around stand up and declare that he's not gonna take it anymore. Even his wife is impressed: "She stared at him, as if she were seeing a stranger."
But Tom is not simply fighting Meredith; he's fighting a social upheaval that Crichton seems to believe is turning men into wimps. The head of Tom's company is pathetically blind to Meredith's schemes. The spineless corporate lawyer is obsessed with making the company look good by hiring women and minorities regardless of their abilities. Throughout the book, Crichton has characters spout lectures attacking affirmative action and the general notion that women have anything to complain about. He even throws in a scarifying few pages on false accusations of child abuse. His bid to add balance by means of sympathetic female characters--Tom's lawyer is an icily efficient straight-shooter--does little to dilute the underlying alarms about feminism run amok.
Crichton has said he was astonished by the storm over Rising Sun, which was widely criticized as racist, but this time around he is clearly courting controversy. (And with 900,000 copies of Disclosure in print before the publication date, who can argue with his strategy?) In an afterword, he claims the book is "based on a true story," which means nothing, since one has no way of knowing how much he has fictionalized. He also grants that only 5% of sexual-harassment cases involve women harassing men, but argues that as more women attain the corridors of power, that percentage will rise. "Power," he intones, quoting Katharine Graham, "is neither male nor female."
No doubt that is true. No doubt, also, that feminism, like every other social movement, produces crazed, vindictive, and opportunistic adherents of the sort Crichton takes such joy in skewering. No doubt, even, that a novelist taking on the subject of sexual harassment has no obligation to describe a "typical" incident. But it is nevertheless revealing that he chooses this one at a time when women are still egregiously underrepresented at top corporate levels--and when sexual harassment plays a part in blocking their advance. In his afterword, Crichton urges readers to approach the book as a Rorschach test for "what it tells us about ourselves." What this Rorschach suggests is an author frightened and horrified by the shifting balance of power between the sexes.HARRY MAURER