On the shelf
By Imogen Binnie
MCD X FSG: 288 pages, $17
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The popular discourse surrounding transgender people focuses on the fear of narrative disruption. Trans identity is often portrayed by today’s reactionaries as a form of contagion that infects youth and prevents boys and girls from fulfilling their natural destiny as men and women. Children should have the future within them; Transness breaks the normal course of time.
Imogen Binnie’s groundbreaking novel Nevada challenges this kind of transphobic determinism. First published by Topside Press in 2013 and reissued this week by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, it’s a road trip novel that refuses to go anywhere where people aren’t locked into linear narratives. Life stories gather in stasis or revolve around themselves. The challenge for Binnie’s characters is to be in the moment and not to achieve some predetermined gendered goal.
The novel is divided into two nearly equal halves. In the first, Maria Griffiths, a 29-year-old trans woman, watches her life in New York City fall apart. Her relationship with her friend falls apart and she gets fired from her crappy bookstore job. She decides to evict West, which takes her into the second half of the novel.
When she stops in the tiny town of Star City, Nevada, she meets James, a 20-year-old in a cul-de-sac at Walmart who is silently and desperately struggling with his gender identity. Maria and James both believe she can help him – although things aren’t quite as neatly resolved.
In a new afterword for this issue, Binnie explains that she was tired of this transition, the “mysterious in-between phase,” being portrayed as “the most tantalizing and interesting thing for people who don’t have to go through it. So instead of retelling the usual trans story of discovery, change, and arrival, she decided to cut out the middle.
Maria is many years post-transition; James hasn’t started his yet. But Maria’s story isn’t over yet and James’s is already underway. They’re not part of the one story we’re told almost exclusively about trans people — the one that’s fixated on change.
The fact that Maria and James exist outside of this story isn’t just a problem for cis people. It’s also a problem for the main characters. The weight of who they were meant to be, or who they were ultimately meant to be, is cutting them off from the life they are trying to live in right now.
When Maria’s friend tells her that she cheated on her, Maria can hardly answer because she is caught in the emotional loop of a past trauma. “Hey you silly looking girl, why don’t you have feelings?” she wonders. The answer she finds is that “I learned to monitor myself quite fiercely as a kid,” trying to hide her true desires and true self from everyone around her. The present is frozen in the past.
James has the same – or maybe the opposite – problem: It’s the future that paralyzes him. His girlfriend Nicole is frustrated because he never tells her what he wants. He can’t even tell her what movie he’d like to see.
This is because he is afraid of where his desires might take him. If he admits he doesn’t want to see a crappy Drew Carey movie, he would have to admit he wanted to see Paris Is Burning or Transamerica. “The whole castle would fall down and it would lead to being honest about what clothes he wants and what body he wants so he could look good in those clothes.” The narrative’s insistence that every step forward is every step forward freezes it in place.
If trans life is indeed a deterministic narrative, then Maria and James are the same person at different points on the timeline. Both feel it as soon as they meet. “You kind of looked like me when I was twenty,” Maria tells James, “and I thought I wish I had someone at that age to talk to about these things instead of just the stupid internet.” from 2002? The trans narrative is beginning to take on almost sci-fi overtones. Maria is James’ future self who travels through time to tell him what to be and where to go. James is Maria’s past self; she can fix herself by fixing him before he becomes her.
None of that works though. Maria and James aren’t the same person, and there’s no one narrative for being trans — or being anyone.
Jack Halberstam has argued that trans people’s lives exist in a “queer time”; They don’t follow straight paths of development or reach straight milestones in a sequential progression. Or as Maria puts it when she worries about being too old to change her life: “Breaking down normative notions of age is just as hard as breaking normative notions of gender.” You are never too old or too young, to experience catharsis or to be yourself.
Maria and James both earn moments that look like catharsis before passing, as catharsis does. The narrative doesn’t unravel; neither the past nor the future are fixed. But Binnie’s love for her characters, for their confusion, for their insights and for their language creates a kind of catharsis of its own.
The novel makes as much sense (if not more) here and now as it did nine years ago when it was first published. In the midst of a transpanic in which transphobes are demanding that love, work, achievement, and gender all follow the same cis-narrative schedule, “Nevada” steals a car, quits the job, and heads elsewhere.
Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-06-09/a-shatteringly-honest-grounbreaking-novel-of-trans-identity-gets-the-reissue-it-deserves Review: A honest novel of trans identity gets timely reissue