I was listening to WNYC, a National Public Radio affiliate in New York City. The station is so left it’s a safe assumption that the break room includes a shrine to Joseph Stalin. A host read the opening sentences of a novel that is inspiring swoons of joy from elites. The men were outside my building: four of them, ruddy, dressed in camouflage shorts. Hooded sweatshirts bulging over their bellies. They were hairy and amphibian-eyed, their skin Styrofoam white, banana-thick fingers waving homemade signs. Wow, I thought. That is hate and that is stereotyping. It goes without saying that WNYC would never so breathlessly celebrate, embrace, and advance a book peddling hate against black men or Asian women or fat people. No. Woke loves its hate, as long as that hate is for the party-approved victim.
The book under discussion was The Atmospherians, by Alex McElroy, a.k.a. Isle McElroy. McElroy identifies as nonbinary. Online, the words they/them immediately follow initial mention of his name. This new convention is a totalitarian attempt to dictate participation in a denial of objective reality. In YouTube videos, (here and here), though he wears a dress, long hair, eye makeup, and lipstick, McElroy exhibits the deep voice and large hands of a movie-star-handsome literary golden boy. He also gives every sign of being just one person; thus, his insistence on they denies objective reality.
The Atmospherians, a May, 2021 release by Atria Books, a subdivision of Simon and Schuster, has been praised by The New York Times, the Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Vanity Fair, Oprah, Esquire, and many bestselling authors. Raves include: the novel of our age, darkly perceptive, breathtaking, rich prose and haunting images, edgy, addictive, gruesome, and smart, trenchant commentary, uncanny, a book to be devoured, darkly funny and glitteringly satirical, and every page contains a new wonder, another breathtaking surprise. This novel satisfies a hunger you might have never even realized was there. McElroy himself has received several foundation awards to support his writing. His previous book was entitled Daddy Issues.
The Atmospherians cultivates hatred of white, Christian, heterosexual, American men. White men are not quite human: they are amphibian eyed with fingers like bananas. The whiteness of their skin is comparable to Styrofoam, the world’s most hated plastic. Conservative author Andrew Klavan has remarked that, If you win the White House, if you win the Congress, if you win the Supreme Court, and you lose the culture, you will lose the country … The poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. If you let them drip this poison into the consciousness of America, they will win. We need to pay attention to novels like The Atmospherians.
Spoiler warning: This review will reveal the ending of The Atmospherians. The plot: a woman named Sasha Marcus is an online social influencer. Lucas Devry, a white, Christian pastor and father from a small, rural town, kills himself and blames Sasha. Devry is characterized as a villain exactly because he is white, he is male, he is a father, he is from a small, rural town, and he is a Christian. Other white men hate Sasha and harass her by texting her photos of American-flag painted Uzis and half-erect cocks and fully-erect cocks and my body teetering from the loop of a noose made from an American flag.
Sasha’s childhood friend, Dyson Layne, recruits Sasha to help him form a cult called The Atmospherians. The goal of the cult is to rid men of their toxic masculinity. Men must cede power, the spotlight, to let others speak … if any social group deserved forced isolation, ever needed their worldview shaped by trusted leaders, for the greater good, it’s men, white men especially … there’s something deeply wrong in the souls of men. The cult’s mission statement: For thousands of years … [men’s] chase for power, attention, and wealth resulted in massive global disasters. Men are guilty of envy, hostility, philandering, cat calling, inconsiderateness, alcoholism, sexual misconduct, sexual inadequacy, paranoia, misogyny. The cult is where men become human. The cult will underfeed men, to starve the men woke. They will be sent to a Victoria’s Secret store to really repress their most flagrant desires. Those men who complete the program will be found knitting sweaters, drinking tea, petting cats.
Layne lures twelve middle-aged white men to his family’s property in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. These men are estranged from their children, emotionally stunted, and incomprehensibly angry. The recruits represent twelve types of problematic … horrible men who need rehabilitation in order to better help society. They are Stubborn, Righteous, Accommodating, Military, Workaholic, Sports, Negligent, Yoga, College, Addict, Professor, and Cheater Man.
Dyson feeds these men American-picnic-type food, and then forces the men to, communally, repeatedly, and on command, vomit. This is meant to cleanse them of toxic masculinity. Things go south, and Dyson dies by drowning. Sasha, though, takes the Atmospherian cult to a shopping mall. There the forced communal vomiting is performed while kneeling on the cushioned boards typically used by Catholics when receiving the Eucharist. A man crosses himself before vomiting.
In one of the book’s subplots, The Atmospherians imagines an America where white men spontaneously and unconsciously form groups called man hordes. White men, in a zombified state, perform acts stereotypically associated with white men. In one instance, the man horde mows lawns – without home owners’ permission. In another instance, a man horde throws bricks throw an Asian-American-owned nail salon’s windows. The owners demand that the men be charged with an anti-Asian hate crime. But the police don’t charge them – no doubt because of white privilege.
The above-mentioned WNYC broadcast expressly associated the man hordes with January 6. McElroy said that man hordes are a symbol for white men’s ability to get away with anything thanks to a boys will be boys excuse. White men may engage in activities that appear benign – mowing lawns – but because they act without anyone else’s permission, white men are a menace, and there is no way to control them. At least that’s what fiction tells us. In real life, Asian-Americans, as well as Hasidic Jews, have been suffering violent street attacks for years, attacks that go underreported in the press. The assailants are disproportionately black males. If McElroy wrote a novel satirizing that reality, he would not be a literary darling.
I never experienced willing suspension of disbelief while reading The Atmospherians. I was aware, word by word, sentence by sentence, page by page, that I was reading a book crafted by an author commissioned by himself, his agent, publisher, and milieu to denigrate white, heterosexual, Christian, American men. That awareness, that sense of watching the agenda of the author play out on the page, through his heavy-handed grinding of Woke gears, turned reading this book into a forced march. There’s not much of a plot, so nothing drove my turning the pages.
All of the characters are both despicable and unbelievable. When Dyson, a main character, dies, I felt nothing. Sasha, the central character, behaves consistent with a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. Sasha’s relationships are a series of manipulations. She doesn’t like or feel for or respect anyone. She merely uses people, and people use her, including sexually, for personal or financial advancement, or merely to feel more powerful than another human being. Sasha, the first-person narrator, uses the f-word to describe her every sex act, and she has sex with a vulnerable man, for no other reason than to feel superior to him. He eventually dies, at least partly because of her lies and manipulations. Many of the people with whom Sasha interacts end up dead or severely handicapped in some way by their proximity to her. She is a compulsive liar without empathy.
I couldn’t tell if McElroy realized that he was creating a personality-disordered character, or if McElroy himself experiences his own or others’ humanity in this pathological way. In other words, it occurred to me that McElroy himself may exist as Sasha does, in a world of robotic, soulless exchanges for money, power, or sex, unaware that some people have feelings, feel respect, and engage in self-sacrifice for those they love. Because I could not tell where McElroy was coming from, and because there is no contrast in the book – everyone is shallow and there are no fully human characters – I could not read McElroy’s book as a critique of shallowness. Rather, it seemed more a reflection and function of a shallow person, a shallow writing technique, a shallow market and a shallow media machine that would pimp the book and its paint-by-numbers Woke hate. I suspect that McElroy has the capacity for deep thought, feeling, and writing. I suspect, though, that he rejects depth, because depth would undermine his and his milieu’s agenda, that is, seeing white, heterosexual, American men, not in their full humanity, but as nothing but Woke stereotypes.
Sasha’s shallowness is reflected in an aspect of the plotting. The book is choppy. Whenever an interaction appears as if it might blossom into something more complex or deep than a quick Twitter exchange, McElroy hops to another subplot. Again, I asked myself, is McElroy using shallow characters and a choppy plot to comment on the attention-deficit aspect of the internet? One day social media users are all worked up over this scandal; the next day a new one rolls down the chute, and everyone is posting about that new scandal, until a new scandal appears.
Or, maybe McElroy isn’t parodying shallow human interaction. Maybe McElroy is himself a product of the internet, and he’s never had a deep human interaction that went much beyond a rapid-fire, quickly heating up and equally quickly abandoned social media exchange. Maybe McElroy has never devoted the time to getting to know another human being in depth. If that second interpretation is accurate, it is very unfortunate for McElroy, but it would make his hatred for white men easier to understand. If you refuse to do the work to gain insight into your fellow humans, it is much easier to hate them. Indeed, all the male characters McElroy encourages his readers to regard with contempt are shallow stereotypes. Even character names suggest that they are mere stereotypes or in-jokes. Dyson’s father didn’t like him; his name can be read as Die, son. He’s an overeater; his name can be read as a Dyson vacuum cleaner. One character is named Mapplethorpe, after a gay photographer famous for his S&M porn shots. Another is named for Art Fleming, longtime host of the TV game show Jeopardy.
Another aspect of Sasha’s characterization bugged me from the first page to the last. Sasha is meant to be a female character, but she is written as if she were a male character. There’s a great deal of discussion on whether or not a fiction writer can create a convincing character not of his own sex. Some say yes; some no (see here). That Sasha was written as a man but was meant to be a woman was just another barrier to my ability to accept this book on its own terms.
The lifelong friendship between Sasha and Dyson is central to the book, and I never believed that friendship. Women and men do not conduct long, successful platonic friendships the way that Sasha and Dyson do. Like the rest of the book, Sasha and Dyson’s friendship struck me as merely a writer’s gimmick, something that existed so that McElroy could sell his didactic points.
The Atmospherians takes place largely in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, and McElroy’s online bio identifies him as having been born in New Jersey. I never felt that I was reading about New Jersey. Springsteen’s New Jersey works for me, as does Allen Ginsberg’s, William Carlos Williams’, Jean Shepherd’s and Kevin Smith’s. The Pine Barrens present distinctive sights, smells, and textures: the sandy soil that inevitably gathers in your shoes and that takes months to eliminate, no matter how hard you shake them; the scent of the pines, the swoosh of pine needles in wind, the constant vigilance against disease-carrying ticks that suck your blood no matter how careful you are. One character is a swimmer and another character drowns and yet the Pine Barrens’ signature tea-colored, but otherwise clear water is never mentioned. Animals howled, McElroy reports, when Sasha is outside at midnight. What animals howled? Barred, screech, or maybe great horned owls, bullfrogs, coyotes, and possibly a bobcat are the animals making noise at night in the Pines. Any of these little, telling details of real life in the Pines would have enriched my reading. These details’ absence signals a larger problem: a divorce from objective reality. McElroy was not making contact with what is, and relaying that contact back to the reader in memorable prose. McElroy’s New Jersey, divorced as it is from objective reality, reflects, to this reader, a larger rejection of objective reality and an insistence on the primacy of an interior world over what is objectively true.
Many readers wouldn’t care that an author remained insulated from his natural environment. But McElroy’s insulation distances him not only from the Pines, but also from the Pineys. Piney is a word for people living in the Pine Barrens. McElroy concocts a ridiculous confrontation in a print shop. McElroy presents transparently gimmicky and hateful stereotypes of the Mom and Pop shop owners as xenophobic, paranoid, wizened white people armed with Mace. Mom and Pop Piney keep Mace handy because they fear thieves who behead their victims and feed their bodies to carnivorous pigs [or] stuff the bodies in car trunks chopped and zipped into Baggies … and run to places like Cuba and Sudan. Note that Mom and Pop Piney fear, specifically, Cuba, a beloved leftist paradise of Hispanic people, and Sudan, a Muslim country in Africa. McElroy’s depiction of Pineys as xenophobic white people is, again, divorced from objective reality. Statistics show that New Jersey is one of the most diverse states. I belong to a couple of Pine Barrens groups on Facebook; member surnames span the ethnic spectrum. Mom and Pop in the Pine Barrens might very well be Raj Kumar and Sita Choudhary. McElroy’s description is a projection of McElroy’s contempt for old, white, rural people. It’s just another redo of that banjo scene in Deliverance.
Author Sarah Orne Jewett’s physician father offered her writing advice. Don’t try to write about things: write the things themselves just as they are. McElroy is writing about things as he imagines them to be. In his imagination, American white men are despicable. If he had the courage and the patience to attempt to write accurately about real men, his writing would be very different.
McElroy’s book doesn’t lack vivifying description because he, as a writer, lacks the gift for description. Rather, McElroy writes what he sees – with his eyes turned inward. He doesn’t see nature, or people as they are. Rather, what he sees, and what he vividly describes, are the disgustingly large white men who, one must assume, haunt his nightmares, not just about others’ bodies, but about his own male body. McElroy has written of his own bulimia and body dysmorphia. In an article in The Atlantic, McElroy criticizes detailed, accurate depictions of eating disorders. He fears that such realistic descriptions of eating disorders provide instructions that sufferers might follow in their urges to purge their own bodies. Possibly so; that’s one risk of accurate writing. The answer to speech you don’t like is not less speech, but more speech. Rather than suppressing accurate descriptions of bulimia and other punishments of the body, the answer is to provide an alternative approach to the body. More on that, below.
The Atmospherians is packed with revulsion at large-sized male bodies. Men are pouchy. A man named Kevin has soda can thumbs and a forehead the size of a billboard. A bus driver is bulbous and gruff with eyebrows thick as pelts. A child is afflicted by the fun house mirror of fatness. Some boys ate too much to be smart. Their stomachs consistently jiggled. Fat boys punctured conversations with thunderous farts. Their asses got stuck in their chairs. A man is dense, built like a tombstone. Men are bulky. A man is firm-fleshed and grim. Unhinged and resentful men have restraining orders and big, bellyish laughs. Furry fingers knuckle the sleep from their eyes. Men emit eggy air so foul I had to cover my mouth. A milky, heavyset man wearing sweatpants has thick, dark hair shiny with grease. Another man has deep, meaty breath. A man’s jaw is boxy. Men have paunchy and meatish faces. They resemble a row of plucked chickens left to rot in the sun They let out meek, childish burps; farts escaped. Sleeping men are boxes of noise producing snoring and coughing and grunts. Men are jelly-brained lunks. Problem men believe that There used to be a time when it was okay to be manly. Men have sex because they want ownership, control. Even a compliment is curse. Someone had once called him handsome … the praise clung to him like a too strong cologne.
White women, too, are repellant because of their white skin and their exaggerated size. A tall snowy woman is pale and rounded with a pitted face. Children are unconscionably ugly. Sasha attempts to hide from the skin flakes and mites in her bedsheets. There is exhaustive focus on superficial appearances. Two characters squeeze pimples. Committed relationships between men and women are a joke: an audience of women and attachable husbands.
I started a list of all the things men needed to know to become better men, Sasha writes. Men must not to make bodily noises like throat clearing, burping, or farting. Hunting is bad. There are no reasons for guns to exist. Your jokes have never been funny. Walls are not for punching. Top Gun is a terrible movie. The Godfather is boring. You’re only trying to make people fear you because you are scared of yourself. No one cares about your beer opinions. Your father’s generation was not great. If there is a secret to grilling, you do not know it.
I’m a lifelong feminist. I’ve read, and met, Andrea Dworkin. I’ve never read a book that hates white, male bodies as much as The Atmospherians. Admittedly, I have not read Valerie Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto. Some conservatives blame the hate-white-men trend on feminism. The most fervent man-haters I know personally are well-to-do, leftist, white men. Their competitive streak manifests in bigger and better self-flagellation.
When I read McElroy’s disgusted comments about the sounds male bodies emit, I returned, in reverie, to my tiny childhood home, where five males and three females shared one bathroom. My father’s snoring was a modernist symphony of rumbles, gasps, whistles, rattles and glossolalia that shook the foundation of our house; it was a veritable movie soundtrack orchestrating an epic historic saga, complete with immigration, coal mines, and combat in the Pacific. I remember the sound of my brothers’ returning home, turning the glass doorknob in the wee, small hours, stepping into the bathroom, and urinating. I noted that men’s bathroom sounds are longer and louder than women’s. I always associated that sound with a feeling of reassurance, because my brothers were wild things, and their arrival was an all clear signal that they survived another night of hellraising. One night those reassuring sounds were replaced with the dreaded three a.m. phone call from police. My beloved brother Phil would never come home again, and I’d never again waken in the night, hear Phil in the bathroom, and fall back to sleep, comforted by his very audible presence.
Some will protest that, after all, The Atmospherians is a satire. I wish I could report that I laughed. Remember that many of the pages of Der Sturmer included cartoons, cartoons selling hate. In any case, men have always produced satires of manliness. These satires critiqued, but did not hate, masculinity. Rewatch the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup. It’s almost a hundred years old. Read The Good Soldier Svejk, which actually is a hundred years old. Read Don Quixote, 400 years old. Read what the Greeks, over 2000 years ago, had to say about the tragic hubris of masculine heroes. For example, read Aesop’s fable about the mouse and the lion. Watch more recent works like the Naked Gun movies or The Other Guys, which makes me laugh no matter how many times I rewatch the Tuna v lion verbal duel or the scene where two hypermasculine heroes convince themselves that they can survive a jump off of a building. All of these works manage to critique masculinity without hating men. And they’re actually funny.
Nor is human disgust with the human body and its needs, its cravings, and its plumbing anything new. I am a worm, mourns Psalm 22. Oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt, bemoans Hamlet. I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas, keens J. Alfred Prufrock. In Robert Eggers’ fabulous new film The Northman, there are gripping depictions of the Pagan urge to turn the body into an animal that can do what the human body cannot. A Viking shaman is crowned, as cave-painting shamans are, with what looks like the horns of an aurochs. The aurochs is big and strong; by wearing his horns, the shaman becomes strong like bull. Amleth dons a wolf pelt and howls. This metamorphosis of man into a bloodthirsty, amoral predator facilitates Amleth’s ability to raid a Slavic village and commit face-to-face murder and the enslavement of innocent people.
Western Civilization, informed by the Judeo-Christian tradition, has nudged humanity away from the urge to harm the body in an attempt to make it something it can never be, or to escape the human condition altogether by adopting an animal persona. Outsiders stereotype Catholics as practicing cinematic mortifications of the flesh, but even the earliest church leaders advised against going to extremes, and against scrupulosity, or becoming obsessive about fasting. Jesus himself recommended washing, grooming, and remaining cheerful when fasting. Saint Francis de Sales, a Doctor of the Church, beautifully expresses the Catholic counsel against extreme mortification of the flesh. A want of moderation in the use of fasting, discipline and austerity has made many a one useless in works of charity during the best years of his life, as happened to Saint Bernard, who repented of his excessive austerity. Those who misuse the body at the outset will have to indulge it overmuch at last. Surely it were wiser to deal sensibly with the body, and treat it according to the work and service required by each man’s state of life.
The roots of Western respect for the body are found in Genesis. God made woman and man in his own image. We are to love, not just each other, but our own bodies, as imperfect as they are. At various times, Jews and/or Christians have forbidden tattoos, cremation, bestiality, and cross dressing as insults to the human body, the Temple of the Holy Spirit. In Israel, Zihuy Korbanot Ason members go to great lengths to show respect for the remains of the dead, including microscopic bits scattered by terrorist bombs. Catholic catechism 2297 states, Except when performed for strictly therapeutic medical reasons mutilations … are against the moral law. Pope John Paul II said, Each human person, in his absolutely unique singularity, is constituted not only by his spirit, but by his body as well. Thus, in the body and through the body, one touches the person himself in his concrete reality. To respect the dignity of man consequently amounts to safeguarding this identity of the man ‘corpore et anima unus’ – one in body and spirit.
As the Judeo-Christian tradition wanes, the body feels the blows. In puppy play, humans chase sexual satisfaction while pretending to be dogs. The number of people describing themselves as transgender explodes. Worldwide, eating disorders, cutting, and other forms of self-harm skyrocket among both men and women. Deaths of Despair by suicide, alcohol, and drug addiction lower life expectancy. Some interpret these punishments of the body as a return to Gnosticism, an idea that the material world, including the physical body, is tainted and unworthy. Indeed, McElroy’s book opens with a quote from the Gospel of Thomas, a possibly Gnostic text. Orthodox Christians see Gnosticism as a heresy, and insist that the body must be cherished. God came to earth in the form of a humble human baby. He ate, he drank, he relieved himself, he aged, he suffered, he died. We must embrace the human condition, one blessed by the Incarnation.
What might, short of a trip on the road to Damascus, bring Alex McElroy around to treating his fictional characters with compassion and respect? This might: quality writing craft. An authentic writer strives to see and to report accurately. McElroy’s main character, Sasha, says that she doesn’t want to see accurately because it might cause her to understand, and understanding might bring her compassion. I needed to feel superior to their pain, Sasha says of the white men she hopes to improve through her cult. Sasha is contemptuous of men’s pain. These men didn’t know desperation. They knew inconvenience, annoyance, frustration. Your pain won’t impress anyone. What you consider pain is likely mere inconvenience. You have never truly been scared, McElroy writes.
McElroy, so resistant to feeling any compassion for the pain of white men, wallows in self-pity when writing of his own trans experience. Transphobia is the air that we breathe, he insists. All I can say is that I prefer, you know, oxygen. J.K. Rowling, McElroy insists, attacks trans people online. In fact this is a false allegation, one that makes J.K. Rowling less safe. Dozens of states have introduced anti-trans discrimination bills, many of them targeting children. Well, no. States are trying to protect student female athletes from losing earned scholarships – not to mention physical safety – because they are forced to compete against male track stars, swimmers, and wrestlers. States are doing what they must to protect children from life-altering, irreversible drugs and surgeries that many come later to regret. Some legislators would like to keep men, especially rapists, out of women’s prisons. Some would like to protect teachers like Peter Vlaming and Nicholas Meriwether from being forced to use incorrect pronouns to refer to their students. McElroy, in short, applies completely different approaches when writing about trans persons like himself, and when writing about heterosexual men. This is one definition of a bigot.
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery