Sexual harassment: all talk, no action

January 10, 1994|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

Michael Crichton has never written conventional thrillers, and "Disclosure" is no different. It's about sexual harassment in the workplace, which is hardly a sexy topic around which to build a thriller. No one dies in "Disclosure," and there is practically no actual sex in it, though the topic is much discussed.

So, no murder, and no sex. What's left? Readers get an earnest discussion of a contemporary issue, often done clumsily and with maddening didacticism. The latest in computer and communications technology is covered in detail. Some of it is quite interesting, especially the parts that deal with virtual reality and amazingly complex CD-ROMS. But those who don't subscribe to Computer World may be skipping passages and flipping pages.

Yet, in its own quirky way, "Disclosure" entertains and keeps the suspense going to the end. Given such successes as "Jurassic Park" and "Rising Sun," Mr. Crichton would have had a best seller under any circumstances. But he does take chances in "Disclosure," and for all his weaknesses as a writer, he's got an inventive and ingenious mind.

"Disclosure" tells the story of Tom Sanders, a 41-year-old Nice Guy who is an executive at Digital Communications, a Seattle firm. He's married, sometimes happily, and has three kids. He's well-liked and considered competent, operating as a fellow who oversees quality control. But DigiCom is about to be taken over by a larger company, and Tom's future with the firm is in doubt.

It's destroyed, actually, when he gets passed over for a promotion in favor of a beautiful, aggressive DigiCom executive named Meredith Johnson, with whom he had an affair a decade ago. Colleagues and friends ask him if he's miffed. Tom, being a Nice Guy, says he's not.

He does get upset when Meredith invites him back to her new office and, with a minimum of foreplay (verbal and actual), jumps on his bones. They've barely spoken to one another in years, but now she wants him desperately. Nice Guy or no, Tom thinks about his marriage, and what it would be like to carry on with his boss. He turns her down. She turns ballistic.

The next day, Meredith informs the firm's legal counsel that she was sexually harassed, but wants to keep the incident quiet because any bad publicity could affect the impending merger.

She tells their boss: "He resented my getting the job, and he couldn't deal with having me as his superior. He had to try and put me in my place. Some men are like that."

Tom is stunned when he hears about this development, and gradually figures he's being pushed out of the company. He decides to sue the company, claiming sexual harassment, although his attorney informs him that "even in the most clear-cut situations -- the most extreme and outrageous situations -- sexual harassment is notoriously difficult to prove." A titanic confrontation with DigiCom ensues.

All of this takes a long time to set up, and "Disclosure" moves at a balky pace for about half the novel. The technical information, though key to the denouement, tends to overwhelm, and a reader can sense Mr. Crichton is setting up all the pins before he is to knock them down.

Worse, it is during this time that the author is discoursing on the nature of sexual harassment. All writers use characters to

propound points of view or interject information, but Mr. Crichton's intentions with them are especially obvious. Characters are seldom fleshed out or developed; they say their piece to advance the dialogue and move on.

Feminists invariably are seen not as people who have come to their views through experience or much thought, but as zealots intent on mindlessly pushing an agenda -- the Red Guards of the sexual revolution. Writing about sexual politics, in business or elsewhere, takes a writer who understands subtlety and the complexity of human relationships. Mr. Crichton tries, but fails.

Tom is set up as a clear hero and Meredith as the ruthless and manipulative villain, but they are so transparent it's hard to sympathize with either. Meredith doesn't have a redeeming value. Tom is supposed to be an innocent victim, but he's thick as a brick, oblivious to the world except when it hits him in the face.

For instance, Meredith comes on to him after eight pages of her batting her eyes and recalling their affair ("remember the night we broke the bed?") and hinting at future trysts. When she begins to kiss Tom passionately, he thinks: "Jesus, she's pushing it." No kidding.

Going back to his first novel, "The Andromeda Strain," Mr. Crichton has set himself up as the well-meaning professor who wants to inform while he entertains. Certainly, after some slow going, "Disclosure" is a suspenseful thriller, and the looks at the technology of the near-future are fascinating. But it doesn't resonate. The dinosaurs in "Jurassic Park" came off far more convincingly than the Neanderthals do in this book.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Disclosure"

Author: Michael Crichton

Publisher: Knopf

Length, price: 405 pages, $24

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