Sandra Newman’s characters tend to be dreamers. The same goes for Newman; she should be, to some extent, to stick to her craft. After publishing his first novel nearly 20 years ago, Newman didn’t really taste commercial success until recently, with his 2019 time travel novel, Heavenin which one woman’s dreams begin to change the course of history.
To like Heavenset in New York circa 2000, Newman’s last, Men (Grove, June), is a dystopian novel with an eccentric woman at its center. Jane Pearson imagined the life of an independent woman with no husband and no young son, but not in the way that is coming. Suddenly they disappear, along with everyone else in the world born with a Y chromosome.
Planes crash into the ground. The highways are clogged with empty and mutilated vehicles. Those who remain desperately seek their loved ones. Then, soon after, there’s a party feeling in the air, with people sunning themselves in their underwear and developing an improvised sharing economy. Yet the promise of utopia is marred by a series of divisive online videos, a power vacuum that seems ripe for exploitation by a radical political party, and grief over the loss of loved ones.
“I keep trying to write about utopia and I end up writing about dystopia,” Newman says via Zoom. She wears a heather gray fleece and sits in a high-backed chair in her New York apartment, maintaining a thoughtful expression as she considers the role of politics in fiction. “I mean, I guess that’s something most political dreamers do: they try utopia and find all the problems there. But I still feel stubbornly optimistic about human society and human capability.
It is perhaps this optimism that explains the sunnier tone of Heaven. In this novel, the time-traveling protagonist becomes a kind of Cassandra character, believing she can reverse the world’s impending doom after returning to her present life from Elizabethan England and being outraged to find people who still depend on fossil fuels.
Newman tried to be politically active, but decided her energy was better invested in art. “Most people, when they make art, end up producing the same kind of propaganda that they consumed,” Newman says. “I’m not saying I’m in control, but I try very hard to get readers to think constructively about an issue, rather than sending them down the wrong path.”
Newman grew up in suburban Massachusetts in the mid-1960s. She went to London for college and higher education, then moved to New York in the early 1960s. At the time of writing Heaven, she thought a lot about how the city was changing after 9/11. She cites the rapid gentrification that has occurred and says she felt the place was becoming “less magical and spontaneous”.
The first page of Heaven belies a desire to restore some of that magic. It begins with a scene in which more than a hundred people host a dinner party, prompting the host to call a Chinese restaurant and buy all their dumplings: “It was August and you had to let things go as they were. wanted. ”
To like Heaven, Men is both accessible and surprisingly complex. Newman, who finds science fiction more provocative and structurally experimental than literary fiction, says Men was partly inspired by a handful of 1970s feminist science fiction novels that continue to impress her, even if they haven’t aged so well politically. “Experiences aren’t always so pretty,” she says, noting the “hair-raising and nasty” treatment of trans women in passages by Joanna Russ. The feminine man.
But Men strays from the narrative thread of those books – trans characters feature, with trans men celebrating alongside cisgender women at various times, and there’s a heartbreaking scene involving a mob attacking a trans man – it didn’t not escape criticism. The novel’s premise has drawn attention on social media, with some claiming that the configuration is inherently transphobic, in that it asserts that chromosomes determine sex.
Reviews from critics, including author Lauren Hough, who ended up having her Lambda nomination for her 2021 collection of essays Leaving is not the hardest thing withdrawn after vigorously defending Newman and the novel on Twitter – claimed critics were unfair to a book they had not read.
For her part, Newman says she was acutely aware of how the plot could be interpreted, particularly how it “involves a gender binary.” To combat this, she says she tried to interrogate the idea of binary gender. “I wanted to make readers wonder if we believe in the genre or if the premise is just some kind of apocalyptic assault,” she says.
Peter Blackstock, Newman’s editor at Grove, echoes the care taken in handling the material, adding that he “hopes people will read the book and decide for themselves.”
Blackstock, whose first project with Newman was Heaven, was originally drawn to the plot of this book. Hearing about Newman’s editor at Granta, he says he was immediately sold by “the imaginative and conceptual premise” and then impressed with the way Newman executed the ideas in unexpected ways.
After her three previous novels, her debut in 2003 The only good thing anyone ever did2008 Cake (released exclusively in the UK) and 2015 The Land of Ice Star—Heaven proved to be a step forward commercially. Although not a blockbuster, it achieved respectable sales and received a New York Times Notable mention. Its sales were stronger in the UK and Blackstock thinks it could have done even better here. “Sandra is an intelligent and thought-provoking writer,” he says. “She’s not for everyone, but she deserves more readers and attention.” And Menwith its infectious blend of “real people and a strange world” and “captivating and engaging” story, is something that Blackstock says could be the book that finally unveils Newman to the wider audience it deserves.
Newman’s career so far has been, well, winding. The only good thing anyone ever did took the form of a series of reports and is attributable, according to Newman, to his “history” of work as a secretary. “I would pretend to work and write my novel,” she says. Cake, a sort of non-linear experiment involving a straight couple and another horror-turning woman, drew rave reviews (some of which survive on Goodreads) but, for Newman, amounted to a “sophomore meltdown.” The book, she says, “was virtually ignored”, despite the critical acclaim it received for its debut.
After taking a detour into non-fiction – she published a memoir, as well as three hybrid works of humor and literary criticism – Newman returned to fiction with The Land of Ice Star and end up in the same place. “It was well received,” she says, “even though it didn’t sell particularly well.” She attributes the novel’s limited scope to its “invented patois,” a language reminiscent of black vernacular English that is spoken by survivors in a post-apocalyptic future. Indeed, the prose and the length, at more than 600 pages, are a bit off-putting.
Those who collect Men will find more than just a story in the binary genre, and it has a deeply ambiguous and provocative ending that’s sure to get people talking. In his heart, Men is a critique of the racial and gender politics of 21st century America. It is also an invitation to adopt – and perhaps even consider – new ways of seeing the world.
A version of this article originally appeared in the 04/18/2022 issue of Weekly editors under the title: Another world