“There was no way of telling how a man horde would act once it formed . . . The men who horded never remembered joining a horde.” What can be done?
In “The Atmospherians,” by Alex McElroy, Sasha Marcus and her best friend from high school, Dyson Layne, cook up a solution. They’ve both had run-ins with toxic masculinity. Sasha, co-founder of a social media wellness brand called ABANDON, is on the run from men’s rights activists after an online stalker blamed her for ignoring his messages and livestreamed his suicide. The younger Dyson faced mockery from his macho, workout-obsessed father for being overweight, prompting an eating disorder so severe it gave him a heart attack.
Now in his late 20s, Dyson convinces Sasha that founding a cult will save them — and society. “The Atmosphere” will gather 12 men (groups of more than 12 men are forbidden in the horde-averse culture) and teach them how to lose their aggressive tendencies and forge authentic connections with each other, supposedly in preparation for rejoining their friends and families on the outside.
Murphy’s Law says if anything can go wrong, it will. And plenty goes wrong with Dyson’s plan. But McElroy’s Law says if anything can go wrong, it will be strange — and strangely relevant. For example, Dyson decides that his cult members will take a cue from his past of disordered eating and weekly gorge on a “family meal” and then disgorge that meal in “the trough,” a ghastly reminder of the lengths to which Western women will go to remain slim.
This debut novel has its uneven bits — the long sections about the Atmosphere’s beginnings could be trimmed to save space for explaining how the cult grows later on, but McElroy offers trenchant commentary on our society’s fraught gender dynamics. Men, we are told at one point, “appeared happy and content” when “free from the lives that led them here, wrested from the pressures of jobs, rent, love, family, and friends — free from expectations and need.” And “women deserved to be more than who we were told to become.” The patriarchy is a win for no one.
In this dystopian satire, winning is far from the point. The novel has occasional lists of things men “needed to know.” At first they’re almost funny: “Shirtsleeves are not napkins” and “What you consider pain is likely mere inconvenience.” But they go on to become quite serious: “There is no reason not to be honest” and “Love is far more important than loyalty.”
By the time Sasha and Dyson plot another scheme that will change their lives forever, readers will understand that anyone, of any gender, can be divorced from a true, compassionate self. Sasha runs a cult while running from herself; but what happens when she faces up to her faults? “The Atmospherians” provides a sharp-edged view of how contemporary gender politics have changed culture — but not what it means to be human.
Bethanne Patrick is the editor, most recently, of “The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People.”
By Alex McElroy
Atria. 304 pp. $27