Fatal Promotion - a flawed thriller

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THRILLER novels that make you sweat over whether the hero gets out alive are common enough. But the tension that holds you during the new Michael Crichton novel, Disclosure, is whether the writer will survive in one piece.

Crichton's last work was Jurassic Park, an American export that was both the most popular book and the most popular movie in Britain and most other countries last year. So there would have been strong precedent, and commercial pressure, for the author simply to put the clone programme in his word processor for a genetic engineering sequel. Instead, he has risked classification as an ideological dinosaur, and the alienation of half his vast audience.

Disclosure, published in Britain by Hutchinson this week, is the latest round in the literary gender wars. These began in the late Sixties, with the rise of feminist writing: Freidan, Steinem, Greer, Dworkin and their literary sisters. The counter-attack, mounted in the late Eighties, was the spate of American 'masculinist' books. These works, of which the pack leader was Robert Bly's Iron John, posited male solidarity and sensitivity, frequently involving campfires, hugs and drumming. This publishing campfire still blazes: 10 post-Bly books were reviewed in last week's New York Times Book Review.

Such writers always denied that they intended a rebuke to the women's movement, but, coincidentally or not, the next step has been more or less explicitly anti-feminist texts. Confusingly, some have been written by women - such as the recent Fire With Fire by Naomi Wolf and The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism by Katie Roiphe - but the biggest practitioners have been male fiction writers. With Oleanna - in which a uptight student wrecks the career of her innocent professor - David Mamet became head boy of this scandalous school. Even that nice Garrison Keillor, formerly Middle America's perfect Christmas present, has made a rather uncomfortable lunge at the testosterone-obstreperous market with The Book Of Guys.

It is, though, Michael Crichton in Disclosure, who really pulls out the big one. Keillor merely essayed vague hurt-by-the-skirt complaints. Mamet only dealt with false accusations of sexual harassment by women against men. But Crichton's theme is the sexual harassment of men by women. This is not a common angle on the subject. And the initial American print run of his novel is around one million copies, so we are not talking about some wacky pamphlet.

Some would say that Crichton's plot is more commercial cunning than ideological conviction: an attempt to up the pre-publicity after Oleanna's work on the same turf. But this explanation ignores Crichton's history. If the genre in which he works previously sub-divided in to the spy thriller (John Le Carre, Len Deighton) and the techno-thriller (Tom Clancy), Michael Crichton has pioneered what might be called the ideo-thriller. He employs the mass-audience story for social commentary. Jurassic Park debated genetic engineering, Rising Sun polemicised against Japanese economic colonialisation of America. Probably the most pedagogic popular novelist since HG Wells, Crichton may be assumed to want the ideas in Disclosure to be taken seriously.

The action is framed in a Seattle computer corporation. Tom Sanders, denied promotion, sees the job he sought awarded to Meredith Johnson, a smart and pushy woman who was once his lover. Over a bottle of wine in her office, Johnson forcibly initiates old-times'-sake foreplay. Initially responding, the married Sanders retreats just short of intercourse. Wild at being denied, Johnson files a complaint of sexual harassment against Sanders. She is believed - as, Crichton suggests, is inevitable in the current social mind-set - but the man counter-files with an identical charge.

It is often necessary to make a separation between technical brilliance and moral dodginess when discussing certain art forms. British tabloid newspapers are one example, Disclosure is another. Living up to its genre, it is a thrilling read, with well distributed twists and a narrative that neatly combines the harassment plot with corporate takeover intrigue and hi-tech knowhow. But the skilful execution covers a sly and nasty subtext. Men are consistently presented as a beleaguered and inferior sex. 'This is the kind of sneaky shit that a woman can pull but a man can't]', Sanders moans at one point. Elsewhere, Johnson explains that, when she said 'No]' just before Sanders terminated their encounter, she had really meant: 'No, don't stop]' I can see that this is Crichton's little flipside joke, but you wonder if sharing it with millions of people might not jeopardise some of the education of males painfully achieved in the last few decades.

And, as in Oleanna, the scales of authorial justice are shamelessly weighted in favour of the male. The book pulsates with unease about female power, sexuality and feminism. A character refers to woman bosses as 'female chauvinist sows'. After McCarthyism comes Ms Carthyism. Meredith Johnson is a hot-loined monster and killer witch threatening the careers and marriages of the men in her charge. She so resembles a more professionally successful version of the Glenn Close character in Fatal Attraction that Crichton's book might well be titled Fatal Promotion.

Sanders, by contrast, is a male saint. He is the more efficient partner, and more attentive parent, in his marriage, shown in an early scene to be made late for work by his partner's domestic dippiness. With a wife and boss representing womanly irrationality and satanic female sexuality respectively, Sanders is also pursued by a feminist journalist who is reported to have 'grey hair and a sour expression.'

Yet, while such external detail applied to Sanders' enemies, Crichton denies the reader vital internal evidence about his hero. Crucial to the businessman's legal defence are a female attorney and a friendly woman colleague. Given the book's theme, you might reasonably wonder whether there is a sexual subtext to either of these alliances. Crichton never tells us. By presenting the relationships as wholly practical, he is able to contrast the asexual chivalry of Sanders in the office with the physical opportunism of Meredith.

In this character imbalance and special pleading, Disclosure is a typical work from phase three of the literary gender wars: the anti-feminist backlash. It is an ingenious but disingenuous book. Crichton says in an afterword that he is not suggesting that the situation ('based on a true story') is typical of sexual harassment, but that such things do happen.

The difficulty is that - as in the two British rape trials last year where the man was cleared amid suggestions of frivolous and vindictive behaviour by women - there is a risk of the rare event being used to deny the existence of the frequent one. Given that men were in the ascendancy for thousands of years and feminism has been current for barely 20, there is a case for arguing that the collective backlash has begun a little soon. Reading these phase three texts, it often seems as if we have gone from male domination to male victimisation without an intervening period of civilisation. And, in Disclosure, Crichton has tried, for the second time in his career, to bring back the dinosaurs.