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From Dinophobia to Gynephobia : Michael Crichton's latest novel takes a new angle on gender equality in the workplace. : DISCLOSURE, By Michael Crichton (Alfred A. Knopf: $24; 406 pp.)

January 16, 1994|Patt Morrison | Patt Morrison is a Times staff writer

At last, at last it's been published, a dead-bang bestseller that puts the explosive social issue of sexual harassment between best-selling hardcovers, not in some incoherent government report destined for the recycling bin.

Here is the predatory, omnipotent, salacious boss, and here is the prey, the dependent employee afraid to say no or even yes to the boss's advances, for fear of losing job and family and reputation.

Oh, wait, sorry. I skipped something. There's this asterisk. The gimmick. The switcheroo.

The predatory, omnipotent, salacious boss is Meredith Johnson, a woman with all the usual longs--legs, hair, eyelashes--and a few shorts, like temper and judgment.

And the employee is Tom Sanders, husband, father, corporate good guy at a computer firm, who, for several months many years ago, shared a bed and broke bread with Meredith, or in their case broke a bed and shared bread.

This is "Disclosure," Michael Crichton's gotcha novel, his sucker punch, his dodgem computer game of modern sex roles.

Even with its novel role-reversing, "Disclosure" lays out some classic elements of abuse of power. Realign the gender roles--male boss, female employee--and it's a textbook sexual harassment case. Problem is, no one reads textbooks--they read novels, novels with engaging devices like this one. And no one pays $3.5 million to make a textbook into a movie.

Crichton says his case is based in truth. I have no doubt of it. Yet, as I would tell my journalism students when they were gloating over finding out, say, what make of car a public official drove . . . just because it's true doesn't make it significant.

Sexual harassment is wrong and illegal, women or men. Making the female predator the sexual harassment story--as this one is bound to for a time, because Crichton is a powerhouse storyteller whose books make movies that make money--is to elevate the simply true to the significant, the way the old man-bites-dog story of the journalism trade can obscure the 99% of the time that dogs bite men.

At worst, this book makes Crichton a kind of an emotional profiteer, cutting in a line that women have been waiting in for a very long time. (Think of native Americans' anger at New Agers co-opting their religious rituals, and charging fancy prices for them.)

It put me in mind of "Good Morning, Merry Sunshine," columnist Bob Greene's 1984 diary of new fatherhood, extolling its sentimental wonders. He waxed lyrical over his child's tiny garments even as he disdained the chores of diapers and spit-up that he marvels that women have performed for eons--and without the rewards of a bestseller congratulating themselves on it, his critics noted acidly.

Crichton bulletproofs himself against that. He opens "Disclosure" quoting the Civil Rights Act and publisher Katharine Graham--"Power is neither male nor female"--and ends with a disclaimer that "Disclosure" is "not intended to deny the fact that the great majority of harassment claims are brought by women against men . . . the advantage of a role-reversal story is that it may enable us to examine aspects concealed by traditional responses and conventional rhetoric."

In other words, he has his beefcake/cheesecake and eats it too.

That doesn't immunize him from preposterous devices. My favorite was when Meredith comes to work in high heels and suit but no stockings, because, she explains to Tom, it's "so much cooler on a hot day." In Seattle? I've read nothing so silly since a scene in a screenplay described a woman frying bacon naked.

"Disclosure" is populated with a large cast of cartoons: Tom's wife, the lawyer with a housekeeper who complains until Tom says she is "about as oppressed as Leona Helmsley," and she, cartoonishly, responds, "This is because a woman got your job, isn't it?" Everyone will enjoy loathing the hellbent-for-Pulitzer femi-columnist and the smarmy PC male lawyer whose finger is "chapped from wetting it and holding it to the wind."

Crichton is no slouch himself when it comes to reading the breezes. In "Rising Sun," he jacked up a murder novel into a debate on the flaws of American business and the venal triumphs of the Japanese. "Disclosure" takes a high-tech computer company merger-massacre and ornaments it like a Christmas tree with hot-button sexual politics.

The cheat is that yes, Meredith is a nympho-braniac and a serial harasser, but her semi-rape of Tom is also a calculated squeeze play to cut him from the DigiCom herd and out of a multimillion-dollar windfall. No one has such grand designs in mind when he feels up a $7-an-hour typist.

The "men are people too" stuff is laid on a tad thick. Tom orders the foreman at one plant to get the girlie pinups out of the men's locker room, even if the women have photo hunks in their locker room. And, after his awful encounter, he echoes the female rape victim's concern "that it was all his fault, that he had misled (her) in some important way."

God knows we need to talk about these matters, from acquaintance rape and the plaint that "pale males eat it again" to corporate genetics; when Tom whines about Meredith's unfair advantage in having plastic surgery to look like the boss's dead daughter (another absurd moment), he is reminded that he, too, performed to please the boss, from playing golf to guzzling beer.

"Disclosure" is a thin forum for such heavy debate, but apart from Oprahvision, in this country, movie-fiction is, dismally, all we've got.

All the more reason for Crichton to play it straight. The test is, will "Disclosure" be celebrated for its admonitions and its questions, or for its sensational Rush Limbaugh fodder? Do I really think I need to answer that question?

"Disclosure" is also available in a large print edition and on audio cassette, read by John Lithgow, from Random House Audio (4 hours, abridged; $22.50).

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