Guaranteed, Michael Crichton's slick new novel about sexual harassment is going to be called antifeminist, antifemale, probably even misogynistand slammed all over the place. But while the predator here is a lady and the lady most definitely is a tramp, in this cunning dissection of corporate gamesmanship, she's as much victim, in the end, as villain. Because the real issue in Disclosure (Knopf) isn't sex, or even gender. It's power.
Tom Sanders works for DigiCom, a Seattle-based high-tech company about to be acquired by a New York publishing conglomerate. At 41, he's happily married, talented, well liked, engaged by his career. Then one morning his good life crashes. Not only is he passed over for the promotion he'd expected, but the job goes to Meredith Johnson, a fast-riser from the California office. To make matters stickier, his new boss is a woman he lived with briefly a decade earlier. Though bitterly disappointed, Sanders makes up his mind to deal reasonably with the situationto conceal his rancor and act like a mature adult. Or at least he kids himself that he does.
But when Johnsonafter stocking up on chilled chardonnay and a box of condomsstarts coming on to him in her locked office, he's caught off guard. (But is he really?) His protests, lukewarm at first, turn firm, angry, and final, thereby kindling his boss' rage.
Next morning, she lodges a complaint with the company lawyer, charging Sanders with sexual harassment. Almost no one at DigiCom believes that Meredith Johnson is lying: A woman harassing a man? Oh, come on. And those few colleagues who do concede the possibility consider Tom Sanders a naive jerk for having said no.
Engaging a high-powered attorney (who just happens to be a Hispanic womannice touch) to defend him, Sanders digs in to fight for his career and his reputation. And to destroy Johnson's. Which, he's repeatedly warned, won't be easy, since ''power protects power.''
Here, just when the novel's thrust seems most evident, Crichton undermines most of our expectations, turning his story from a ''problem'' novel into a dizzyingly clever satire on corporate intrigue. Nothingespecially Meredith Johnson's clumsy attempt at seductionis what it seems to be; motives and objectives are kept, till the last few pages, maddeningly blurred. As an anonymous E-mail correspondent advises Sanders: ''Trust nobody.''
But though urgently readable (once you've started, you'll finishthat's another guarantee), Disclosure is not without its flaws. Characters may be devious, but they're also generic (the gruff CEO, the sleazy lawyer), and the sheer velocity of story eventscrisis to resolution takes only a single work weekverges on the implausible. Worse, the plot pivots, again and again, on audio- and videotapes that pop up in the nick of time, and on critical conversations that Tom, ducking like some dime-store detective behind doors and convenient pillars, just happens to overhear. Crichton, so scrupulously authentic when he's writing about the culture of big business, can be awfully sloppy, even cavalier, when it comes to keeping his narrative honest.
What's almost certain to make Disclosure the new year's first megaseller is its topsy-turvy battle-of-the-sexes dramatic hook. But what makes it actually worth reading has nothing to do with gender politics and everything to do with the writer's craft. Even when Crichton stacks the deck, cuts corners, and rigs the outcome, he's a master entertainer. Guaranteed. B