The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry

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First of all, I’d like to apologise for the delay in publishing this review. Last week’s political and world events were utterly disconcerting and I needed to empty my fears and views into the virtual void so I could move on. Somehow. Still, better late than never.

The book I am reviewing this week is not a novel, like in the past, but an essay on what it means to be a man nowadays and where it should be, as well as what the male role should become. The author, Grayson Perry, is yet again somebody I wasn’t familiar with.

cover

Grayson Perry is better known for being an artist and a cross-dresser. His form of expression became pottery, where he explores the ability of clay to transmit his ideas about gender and sexuality through explicit motifs and the choice of bright colours on otherwise classic shapes. He also has a female alter-ego, Claire.

No spoiler alert today. Nothing I could say could possibly spoil it.

Knowing some of the author’s background helps put the book in context. A lot of this background is explained throughout the book. Grayson shares a fair bit of his personal story, particularly of his childhood, to link in to his arguments he chains in the text. His relationship with his stepfather and mother is described  a source of distress for his young self, and is almost the starting point of the philosophical journey we take through the four parts of The Descent of Man.

Maybe I am ill-suited to review this book. I am a woman, after all; I haven’t grown with the expectations of fitting into an old-fashioned model of anything. As a woman, I’ve been raised with the idea that I would have to fight some sort of discrimination or, at least, antiquated ideas of the place of my gender in society but with the sense that those ideas could be fought. I don’t know what it is to grow with expectations of being a man moulded to the shapes and forms of the past. As Perry writes, feminism looks forward, while men look backwards.

Grayson Perry as his alter-ego, Claire.

Grayson Perry as his alter-ego, Claire.

This said, regardless of my gender, I enjoyed the succession of ideas. First of all, the prose is quite elegant and the argument is built exceedingly well, making it very easy to follow. I didn’t find the slow pace I was expecting. I suppose because of my own ideas about men and women, I found it interesting to learn about what being on the other side of the gender fence means. From a writer’s perspective, I also believe it will help me build any male characters much better.

The book starts with a description of what Grayson calls the ‘default man’, the average model every other male aspires to, or is expected to be. His basic description includes race, clothing choices, jobs and is followed by a myriad of details about the psychology of this man. How every man seeks to conform to some extent to this model is unconscious, one assumes, but this is not necessarily made explicit in the text, or at least not reinforced throughout.

However, Perry doesn’t only highlight the negative aspects of these ideas of masculinity he is exploring, he also talks about other more subtle characteristics that we take for granted and are not celebrated enough. Finally, he turns his thoughts to what to do next. If this idea of manliness from the past is to be abandoned, which he postulates it most absolutely has to go, then what is the man of the future to be? The possibilities, he says, might be endless.

One thing that I don’t feel Perry touched on enough is the role of women in passing down this model to the new generations. I believe there is more to be explored in this direction. I don’t think the ideas of male roles are only imparted by the male figures in families.

Another negative point for me was that the initial description of the book’s subject implied some comic effect which, sadly, I didn’t find. I’m afraid if there was anything to smile at, it didn’t work on me.

Overall, I really enjoyed this reading. The Descent of Man could be really enlightening to many many a man looking to the future or in a space of self-discovery and, somehow, women. And even writers.

The Descent of Man is now available for purchase.

Via Netgalley.

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