KR Reviews

On The Atmospherians by Alex McElroy

New York, NY: Atria Books/Simon & Schuster, 2021. 304 pages. $27.00.

The internet has swallowed the novel! So suggests the cover of The Atmospherians, Alex McElroy’s debut, which is designed after an Instagram post—icons, pastels, a photo of a lake. It’s true that the internet saturates much recent fiction, a fact we love to discuss on the internet: see Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts and Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This. But The Atmospherians is not another Internet Novel. McElroy reproduces a feeling, a vibe, of the internet without making the internet the primary object of attention. The internet is a useful readymade, the smoke machine that produces the novel’s climate, because this climate—a mixing-up of the bizarre, brutal, and banal—fits McElroy’s actual object: white American masculinity.

The Atmospherians is narrated mostly by erstwhile influencer Sasha Marcus. Career kaput, blamed for the suicide of a man who harasses her online, Sasha is recruited by her friend Dyson to start a cult, The Atmosphere, meant to reform men. They lead the men through a farcical self-help regimen; things go surprisingly well before they go very badly. Sasha leaves to become a spokeswoman for DAM, “Defense Against Mistakes,” a startup specializing in “preventative atonement,” which means an app that anticipates reactions to social media posts and preempts cancellation. Soon disillusioned, Sasha returns to The Atmosphere just in time for Dyson’s untimely demise. The novel’s coda exchanges Sasha’s first-person narration for a close third that follows a reporter who tours the corporatized Atmosphere, flourishing under Sasha’s ambivalent leadership.

The novel’s tone is zany, zeitgeisty. It’s there in the details: Sasha meets a boyfriend at a fundraiser for “K.L.I.C.K., an organization that pair[s] underprivileged children with digital cameras.” And it’s there in the novel’s world: the US suffers from an epidemic of “man hordes,” packs of manic men who either complete helpful tasks or commit bloody violence. A man-horde might be whimsical or deadly, a fact that makes the man-horde work synecdochally for masculinity generally, its terrifying grab bag. Man-hordes might weed gardens; they might leap from buildings. A man might contribute to your Kickstarter; he might harass you. Hence the horde of the man-horde, the sense that masculinity is overstuffed, seam-bursting. This isn’t a call to sympathize with psychospiritually overfull men. It’s a warning of their possible detonation.

Overfullness informs the novel’s sense of masculinity as personal economy. In grade school, Sasha teaches Dyson the rituals of bulimia, and Dyson designs The Atmosphere as a caloric regulator: fed little, the men gorge during “Family Dinners,” after which occurs a purgative orgy of heaving and vomiting. The Atmospherians doesn’t resemble state-of-masculinity books like Fight Club or Robert Bly’s Iron John so much as a twisted Walden. Hidden in the woods, Dyson is the anxious Thoreau of the internet age, logging calories the way Thoreau catalogs materials.

But McElroy doesn’t linger on Dyson’s psychology. The Atmospherians is best when it declines to psychologize, to reduce the problems of masculinity to the scale of particular traumas. The novel’s sometimes-wackiness helps resist this psychological reduction, as does its conversion of men into archetypes. Dyson’s first twelve recruits form a masculine zodiac: “Sports Man” and “Addict Man,” for example. These flat characters are flattened further by Sasha’s narrative perspective, which denies them the rich interiority associated with round and vivid characters. The point is that masculinity is excessive: it overruns psychology, character, and narrative tone.

Hence the differences between The Atmospherians and Chris Bachelder’s The Throwback Special, a 2016 National Book Award nominee. His characters are middle-aged men who ritually reenact a famous NFL play. But their masculinity is defanged; the only danger is theatrical. Bachelder’s men are tolerant, liberal subjects; their problems are emotional and spiritual, treated sincerely. But the cultural lag between 2016 and 2021 renders easy sincerity impossible. Masculinity has not been defanged; what sociologist Eric Anderson calls “inclusive masculinity” hasn’t taken hold, at least among the straight, white men who join The Atmosphere. Their masculinity looks more like the grieving neighbor who Kathleen Stewart describes in Ordinary Affects: he “is screaming and smashing walls in the house. Hordes of men move in with him. They hang out on the front porch, drinking beer and heckling women walking by on the street. They get puppies and then neglect them.” There’s pain in every direction. The banal and adorable sit alongside the traumatic: beer and harassment, puppies and neglect. McElroy’s doubled, paradoxical voice captures this indistinguishability of masculinity’s mundanity and its viciousness.

The novel falters when it falls back on easier answers. For instance, when Sasha makes appeals to empathy and humanism: “They were the most human they’d been . . . I saw the children they had been, the innocence at their cores, and I hated seeing this part of them, because if I could see it in them then I could have seen it in anyone . . . I could have allowed myself this empathy, this softness, but it scared me. It is always easier—safer—to look away.” This might be explained as another tonal swerve, if not for Sasha’s sincerity and the fact that this scene precedes a moment of tragedy played dead-straight.

Humanistic empathy dodges real reckoning, which is the mistake made by DAM, the startup that briefly employs Sasha. DAM’s “Preventative Atonement” app is a rebuke without teeth. Users aren’t asked to consider why a social media post might be harmful; they aren’t required to interrogate themselves, their politics. The app insulates them from consequences. The joke is that there’s no atonement required: Preventative Atonement prevents atonement. What McElroy understands is that beginning masculine atonement, at whatever scale, will be painful; it will require that men stake themselves in the project, which will be uneven and complex. The Atmospherians usually lingers in complexity, which is why it succeeds. Sasha cannot untangle her fondness for Dyson, her sense of responsibility for him, and her recognition that those feelings of fondness and responsibility are themselves bound up with gendered expectations of emotional labor.

The novel closes with a tour of The Atmosphere, which now occupies an entire shopping mall—and it works, at least so far. The men seem happier; they’re more decent people. But the tour reiterates that redeeming masculinity is no more straightforward than diagnosing it. The men’s modest growth requires the near-total absence of women and a literal cult of personality around Sasha, the one woman present. Earlier, an influencer misremembers Sasha’s last name as Marist. Like the Virgin Mary, Sasha becomes an object of veneration, an icon. Is this manipulative cultism? Or does masculinity require such a radical reworking that solutions will inevitably lie in extremity, in bizarre structures that flip our thinking and our stomachs? The novel’s last image offers no answers. The men paint over graffiti: “words faded under layers of paint, from blood to brick to antacid pink to the final and wonderful nothing.” This paradoxical writing of a new masculinity washed white as snow is also a whitewashing of the past, a covering-up. Even when men are separated from the outside world for their own good (like endangered creatures) and for the world’s (like hazardous materials), blood and danger remain stubbornly present, just beneath the surface.