Robert Twigger is an author whose work I first read back in 1999, in Coventry, starting with Angry White Pyjamas and moving on from there. I found myself quite liking his mix of real life adventure, to the point but still literary prose, and tendency to find things to think about in even the most mundane events (which is actually an ability to find the right mundane details to illustrate what he’s writing about, when you think about it)
I bought several more of his books, covering such subjects as hunting for giant pythons in South East Asia, navigating Canada’s longest river in a birch bark canoe, and looking for lost oases in the Egyptian desert. Occasionally, I found myself wondering why, because I found a few things about his writing that I just didn’t get on with, from his presentation of sometimes quite odd opinions as straightforward and normal to his tendency to make every book about him rather than what he was writing about. It didn’t help that the version of himself he presented in the books wasn’t one I could easily imagine liking face to face, which sounds like a small thing, but as I’ve said, I feel he’s the centre point of his books much more than many of his subjects.
So you can imagine that I picked up Being a Man (in a Lousy Modern World) with some trepidation. It’s one of his shorter books, and like his other shorter offering The Extinction Club, it’s less in the Do-Something-Stupid-And-Write-About-It school than the exploration of a core worldview (often through the medium of doing brave/foolhardy/stupid things and then writing about them). In theory, I should have hated it.
There are indeed points that I don’t like. I think his approach to the notion of masculinity is quite limited in its usefulness, while his thinking on rites of passage wears thin after a bit, and he still doesn’t come across that well. Yet it works. It definitely works. There’s the sharp edged prose (and perhaps the lack of niceness coupled with the endless self-examination helps to make it what it is). There’s a collection of adventures that is undoubtedly impressive, and there are a couple of other things.
The first is the useful device of interweaving all these ideas with an account of the day his wife gives birth, which both grounds the work and in some way makes sense of it. I had the sense of him trying to be ‘enough of a man’ to be somehow worthy of that moment, while at the same time, there’s the sense of the birth being the most important transformational experience of all.
The second is that Twigger is quite open and honest about his failings. He picks apart assorted shortcomings, such as the constant need for more rites of passage to somehow be enough, and the need for more and more proving experiences. So at the same time as these big adventures, there’s a sense of how strange and perhaps lacking it is to be going around having adventures. Those things help elevate this to something really worth reading.