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From Dinophobia to Gynephobia : Michael Crichton's latest novel takes a new angle on gender equality in the workplace. : HE SAID . . .

January 16, 1994|John Schulian | John Schulian is a television writer and producer who is currently working on projects for ABC and HBO

The decline of American manhood can be traced from a daffy heavyweight champion named Leon Spinks, who snuggled up with a lady of the night and awoke the next morning to discover that she had stolen his false teeth. Since then, of course, things far dearer to men than dentures have become targets in the war between the sexes. (Take a bow, John Wayne Bobbitt.) But not until the publication of Michael Crichton's "Disclosure" has it been so obvious that the women's movement possesses the power to turn an admirable male mind to guacamole.

Because Crichton has apparently convinced himself that testosterone is out of fashion, his latest bid for the bestseller list is filled to overflowing with men who are whining, conniving, backpedaling paranoids. Even his hero is a coward and a hypocrite, a self-deluded lunkhead who thinks he is standing on principle when he is really just protecting an investment. So forget the propaganda about "Disclosure" being the big-issue novel that proves sexual harassment cuts both ways. In truth, it is nothing more than Crichton's unwitting confession that the modern woman plays too rough for him.

You get the message as soon as you meet Tom Sanders, the empty vessel in whom Crichton places his fear and anxiety. Tom's wife has the day off from her law practice, but she still wants him to feed their two children breakfast even though he's running late. She pouts, she flashes a little skin, she gets her way. Their 4-year-old daughter is just as willfully bitchy, goosing poor dad when he should be headed for the Seattle-based computer company where he's counting on being named a vice president.

And there is no relief for Tom when he finally escapes the harpies at home for the relative calm of takeovers and corporate treachery. From his company's plant in Texas comes a report that the women on the clean-up crew are demanding that the pin-ups in the men's locker room to be taken down. But that is nothing compared to the news from the plant in Malaysia, where the line foreman has gone into hiding because his cousin's sister put a curse on him.

Once Crichton has established women as the root of all evil--no subtlety for him--he drops the big one: The ever-suffering Tom gets passed over for the vice presidency in favor of Meredith Johnson, a scheming blond vixen who was his girl friend a decade ago. Meredith inspires the only good line in a book written with all the style and grace of a how-to manual. "I mean face it," the company's head of programming says, "she's got an outstanding molded case, with superior fit and finish."

Bless her hard heart, Meredith also has a libido in overdrive, albeit one she is using to advance her own devious cause. But Tom doesn't realize that until after she tries to rape him in a scene that would be howlingly funny if it didn't trivialize the ugliest crime there is short of murder. Meredith remembers Tom's preference for cold Chardonnay, she admires his "nice hard tush," she hints at hanky-panky on business trips, and she works them both into a sexual lather--all before finishing her first day on the job. But Tom backs off because she coughs, and in his book, a cough in the heat of passion suggests a lack of sincerity. Fussy, fussy.

After Tom has gone from hot and bothered to cold and bewildered, he cries sexual harassment. He still finds himself in the company of strange females, though. The kindest adjective applied to his attorney is brisk, the mediator for his harassment case is an old bat in the making, one of his supporters at work is an intense geek and the other is a withdrawn geek. Damn, what kind of women has Michael Crichton been hanging around?

Whoever they are, they convinced him to check his brains at the door while writing "Disclosure," the brains that got him through Harvard Medical School and made him a big-name author with "The Andromeda Strain" and "Jurassic Park." There isn't a guy worth his hormones who doesn't know the type that must have driven Crichton around the bend. You say gingerbread man and they say it's gingerbread cookie , as if their nit-picking could possibly do anything but move you closer to that nincompoop Rush Limbaugh. Then you meet a woman who appreciates the joke when the eminent country philosopher Kinky Friedman sings "Get Your Biscuits in the Oven (And Your Buns in the Bed)," and your world is back in balance.

Not that anyone should expect balance in a polemic masquerading as a novel, but you do expect Crichton to be smart. He isn't. Case in point: his bemoaning that long gone era when all you had to be to get promoted was good. He never pauses to note that men almost always got the promotions back then because other men were in charge. Even a guy who would think all kinds of politically incorrect thoughts if a woman got a job he wanted can figure that out. What he can't figure out is why so many women, after seeing how the business world can turn men into such prize asses, still want to be just like them.

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