Sandra Newman’s characters tend to be dreamers. So, too, is Newman; she’d have to be, to an extent, to stick with her craft. Having published her first novel almost 20 years ago, Newman hasn’t really tasted commercial success until recently, with her time-traveling 2019 novel, The Heavens, in which a woman’s dreams begin to change the course of history.
Like The Heavens, which is set in New York City circa 2000, Newman’s latest, The Men (Grove, June), is a dystopian novel with an eccentric woman at its center. Jane Pearson has imagined life as an independent woman without a husband and young son, but not in the way that’s coming. Suddenly they, along with all the other people in the world born with a Y chromosome, disappear.
Planes crash to the ground. Freeways are clogged with empty mangled vehicles. Those left behind desperately search for their loved ones. Then, before long, there’s a feeling of celebration in the air, with people sunbathing in their underwear and developing a makeshift sharing economy. Still, the promise of utopia is marred by a divisive online video series, a power vacuum that seems ripe for exploitation by a radical political party, and grief over lost loved ones.
“I keep trying to write about utopia and 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 City apartment, maintaining a thoughtful expression as she considers the role of politics in fiction. “I mean, I suppose this is something that most political dreamers do: they attempt utopia and find all the problems in it. But I still stubbornly feel optimistic about human society and human capacity.”
Perhaps this optimism was what accounted for the sunnier tone of The Heavens. In that novel, the time-traveling protagonist becomes something of a Cassandra figure, believing she can reverse the world’s impending doom after returning to her present-day life from Elizabethan England and being outraged to find people still relying on fossil fuels.
Newman has tried to be politically active, but has decided her energy is best put into art. “Most people, when they make art, they end up producing the same kind of propaganda they’ve consumed,” Newman says. “I’m not saying I’m in control, but I try very hard to make it so that readers think constructively about a problem, rather than send them on the wrong path.”
Newman grew up in suburban Massachusetts in the mid-1960s. She went to London for college and graduate studies, then moved to New York City in the early aughts. When setting out to write The Heavens, she thought a lot about how the city was in flux after 9/11. She cites the rapid gentrification that occurred, and says she felt the place was becoming “less magical and spontaneous.”
The first page of The Heavens belies a desire to restore some of that magic. It begins with a scene in which more than a hundred people crash a dinner party, prompting the host to call a Chinese restaurant and buy up all its dumplings: “It was August and you had to let things happen the way they wanted to happen.”
Like The Heavens, The Men is at once accessible and surprisingly complex. Newman, who finds science fiction more provocative and structurally experimental than literary fiction, says The Men was partly inspired by a handful of feminist science fiction novels from the 1970s that continue to impress her, even if they haven’t aged so well politically. “The experiments aren’t always that pretty,” she says, noting the “hair-raising and nasty” treatment of trans women in passages of Joanna Russ’s The Female Man.
Though The Men veers from the narrative threads of these books—trans characters do feature in it, with trans men celebrating alongside cisgender women at various points, and there’s a harrowing scene involving a mob that attacks a trans man—it hasn’t escaped criticism. The premise of the novel has drawn blowback on social media, with some claiming the setup is inherently transphobic, in so far as it asserts that chromosomes determine gender.
Critics of the critics—including author Lauren Hough, who wound up having her Lambda nomination for her 2021 essay collection Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing withdrawn after vigorously defending Newman and the novel on Twitter—claimed the detractors were being unfair to a book they hadn’t read.
For her part, Newman says she was acutely aware of the way the plot might be interpreted—specifically the way it “implies binary gender.” To combat that, she says she tried to interrogate the idea of binary gender. “I wanted to lead readers to ask whether we believe in gender, or if the premise is just a kind of apocalyptic assault,” she says.
Peter Blackstock, Newman’s editor at Grove, echoes the care that went into handling the material, adding that he “hopes people will read the book and decide for themselves.”
Blackstock, whose first project with Newman was The Heavens, was initially drawn in by that book’s plot. Hearing about it from Newman’s editor at Granta, he says he was sold immediately by the “imaginative, high-concept premise,” then impressed by how Newman executed the ideas in unexpected ways.
After her three previous novels—her 2003 debut The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done, 2008’s Cake (published exclusively in the U.K.), and 2015’s The Country of Ice Cream Star—The Heavens proved a step up commercially. While not a blockbuster, it had respectable sales and received a New York Times Notable mention. Its sales were stronger in the U.K., and Blackstock thinks it could have performed even better here. “Sandra’s a brainy, challenging author,” he says. “She’s not for everyone, but she deserves more readers and attention.” And The Men, with its infectious blend of “real characters and uncanny world” and its “gripping, engaging” story, is something that Blackstock feels could be the book that finally breaks Newman out to the wider audience she deserves.
Up until now, Newman’s career has been, well, winding. The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done took the form of a series of reports, and is attributable, Newman says, to her “backstory” of working as a secretary. “I would be pretending to work and writing my novel,” she says. Cake, a sort of nonlinear experiment involving a hetero couple and another woman that turns horrific, drew some impassioned reviews (some of which survive on Goodreads) but, for Newman, amounted to a “sophomore slump.” The book, she says, “was pretty much ignored,” despite the critical acclaim she had received for her debut.
After taking a detour into nonfiction—she published a memoir, along with three hybrid works of humor and literary criticism—Newman returned to fiction with The Country of Ice Cream Star and found herself back in the same place. “It was well received,” she says, “although it did not sell particularly well.” She attributes the novel’s limited reach to its “invented patois”—a language that evokes Black English vernacular and is spoken by survivors in a postapocalyptic future. Indeed, the prose and the length, at over 600 pages, are a bit forbidding.
Those who pick up The Men will find more than a story of the gender binary, and it has a deeply ambiguous and provocative ending that is sure to get people talking. At its heart, The Men is a critique of America’s 21st-century racial and gender politics. It’s also an invitation to embrace—and perhaps even envision—new ways of looking at the world.