a review and a few thoughts on the new transgender genre

By Zoe Tuck

Is this a new genre?
One of the Topside authors— I won’t say who—recently posted a vine filmed in a bookstore, in which she slides a copy of Imogen Binnie’s Nevada over the display copy of Ariel Schrag’s new novel Adam. It’s more of a cheeky move than a petty one, motivated not so much by a desire to thwart Adam’s sales as by a feeling of distress at the political consequences of its potential mainstream success and how it might affect transgender fiction.

Transgender literature is an emerging category with its own emerging conventions, but for this essay, I will define it by its most expansive parameters: literature by or about transgender people. Trans lit. has not been completely immune to the mainstream media attention that trans people have received in recent years. I don’t have to recite the litany of the most well known trans names in film and TV because you’ve encountered them: on the cover of TIME, on CNN, in your favorite Netflix show. You might be less familiar with the names of trans authors, but they are also making an impact: TC Tolbert and Trace Peterson’s anthology Troubling the Line broke poetry wide open for trans and genderqueer voices. Topside’s The Collection did the same for fiction. Nevada, a drug-infused picaresque, may be trans fiction’s first breakout success— not because of massive sales figures, but because of its rapid elevation to cult status. For young trans people, trans women especially, this is their On the Road.

Is Schrag late to the game she wants to dominate?
This nickel tour of transgender literature is somewhat disingenuous. What about Jeffery Eugenidies, Kate Bornstein, Renée Richards and Leslie Feinberg an astute reader might ask? Transgender lit, depending on how you define it, can easily be said to have existed for a hundred years, and to have flourished in the last thirty. However, social and political forces ensured that the authors of what might be called Trans Lit 1.0 remained outliers or curiosities, rather than members of a flourishing literary ecosystem. Growing knowledge and, sometimes, acceptance of transgender people has accompanied the growth of transgender literature as a genre.

Trans lit. 2.0 has also grown up with the rise of web 2.0 and the transformation of print media, the internet, the decreasing cost and increasing quality of print-on-demand technology. And social media have accelerated the splintering of readers into smaller and more self-selecting communities. These audiences are perhaps better served by small presses whose survival and success depends on understanding them. In some ways, the battle around Nevada and Adam (published by an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is as much about models of publishing as it is about the politics of representation.
Is it just a market?
That’s another characteristic of recent offerings in trans lit: rebellion against the notion that transition narrative is the only interesting story that can be told by trans people— and that it must be told again, and again, and again. In that respect, it would seem that Schrag’s Adam offers an antidote. Its titular protagonist is a teenager from the upper-class enclave of Piedmont, CA who visits his sister for the summer and pretends to be a trans man. Other than this unlikely bit of deceit, his attributes and struggles are utterly generic. What does he want? Sex, love, and friendship—or the approval of his peers. What stands in his way? Unpopularity, inexperience, and, ultimately, dishonesty. Generic, right? Six pages before the end of the book, Schrag attempts to give Adam an interest:
But Adam, in his nights of frenzied studying, had become especially obsessed with his human anatomy class. Even though he wasn’t ‘trans’ anymore, his interest in gender remained, and he was amazed to learn it wasn’t just chromosomes— XX or XY— that determine a person’s sex, but a whole array of factors... that means a person’s sex is in some sense physically on a spectrum rather than the strict male/female dichotomy everyone is taught. That broad diversity is really what’s ‘natural.’
Adam, floored by his Gender 101 realization, posts his revelation on a trans message board, where it goes almost unnoticed— a striking bit of verisimilitude in an otherwise caricaturish novel. This first sign of life comes too late in the book to redeem it. It also undermines a key plot point: in order to pass as trans, Adam must not only walk the walk, he must talk the talk. Earlier in the novel, Schrag has Adam doing his homework by watching hours of transition vlogs and reading about the side effects of HRT (hormone replacement therapy). As such, Adam would have encountered above sort of realization ages before.

Here's a realization

The problem is that transition, gender dysphoria, these things may often occur in similar ways, but they are always filtered through the specificity of an individual’s experience. One of the paradoxical paradigms of good fiction writing is that general appeal can only be achieved through specificity. And unfortunately, Schrag’s characters are sketchy and partially formed. Her dialogue can be punchy, but overall Adam seems a kind of queer Pilgrim’s Progress. Rather than June, Adam, or Casey, Schrag should have called her characters Traditional Lesbian, Radical Queer, Trans Jock, so that they could resemble the principles or qualities she intends them to depict. Schrag’s recent work has been for mainstream TV and she has picked up most of that genres worst habits—heavy emphasis on plot, punchy dialogue and broad characters.

What does television do to a movement?
Both TV and fiction writers love coming of age stories and YA. Sometimes the two become confused, as some readers feel they are in Adam. The Rumpus recently published an interview with Schrag, in which she responds to and dismisses criticisms of the book, such as whether or not it is YA:

I don’t find it offensive; I find it weird. People will write reviews and say this is really YA, and I’m like, What does that even mean? Becaause [sic] I’d definitely say it’s coming-of-age in terms of genre, but I don’t even really know what makes something YA. That’s only something that’s been around the last twenty years as this marketing category, so it feels weird to me when people have the need to call something YA or not YA. That said, people can call it whatever they want just as long as they read it. I don’t care at all. Technically, it is not YA. Technically, it’s under the category of adult fiction because there is a division in the way companies publish or imprint things. But I find the need to put it in either category weird, and I don’t really see what the point is.

Schrag’s stagey confusion about the impulse to categorize Adam as young adult fiction comes off as tetchiness. This is a problem with conflating a coming-of-age story with YA (as genre cum marketing category): writers can describe youth with a sophistication that excludes younger readers, such as Carson McCullers' Member of the Wedding and Denton Welch's In Youth Is Pleasure. Unfortunately for Schrag, I don’t believe her critics to be guilty of this conflation but that we subscribe instead to its corollary: that simplistic fiction intended for younger audiences has a crossover appeal for many adults.

Is this what we get?
In fairness, YA has been home to some of the most heartbreaking and sophisticated writing around— an open secret among savvy adult readers. The publishing industry picked up on this interest, but with a lack of interest (or deep cynicism) about its raison d’être. Consequently, YA has recently become synonymous with unsophisticated melodrama like John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. Adam is squarely in this camp: its plot relies on its big reveal, undercutting its focus on the transformation of queer and trans lives. Its setting and characters are likewise thin.

Take Casey, Adam’s older sister. She enters the novel a lesbian and a new student at Columbia. Casey affects a worldliness that she doesn’t totally possess. Her community has just shifted and, with it, her economy of prestige. Adam watches, somewhat mystified, as she downplays their hometown’s wealth or as she characterizes their high school, which he thought of as diverse, as segregated. As Adam is set in 2006, Casey is a stand in for a young lesbian navigating an environment in which trans men are increasingly visible and, for Casey, desirable and possessing a certain social cache.

What happens when a movement becomes hip?

Adam’s big secret is not the only one in the book. When Adam first starts to understand the presence of trans men in his sister’s social circle, he wonders, “...What if Ethan was like those guys at the party? A girl. It seemed impossible, but how could he even tell? Ethan was taller than Boy Casey, taller than Adam. And besides, Ethan just seemed like a guy. For some reason, the thought that Ethan was a girl... scared him.” Near the close of the book, Ethan reveals that he has transitioned, in an attempt to intervene in an argument between Adam and his visiting friend Brad about the dangerous conflation of passing and deceit.

Boy Casey, so called in order to distinguish him from Casey, is an out trans man who Casey dates. Through Adam’s perspective, Schrag paints Boy Casey’s masculinity as loud, boyish, and immature. I do have a moment of respect for Schrag when Adam talks to Ethan about Boy Casey. Adam expresses his criticism, which Ethan (to Adam’s surprise) attributes to Casey’s youth, “Which was weird, since Ethan was twenty-one and Boy Casey was twenty- three” (77). Here Schrag demonstrates sensitivity to the notion of ‘transition time’ or the idea of the second adolescence which changing hormones is often said to occasion. That some of Schrag’s purpose seems to have been processing her own feelings about this time of subcultural transformation, and fulfilling a wholly self-appointed mandate to educate about trans issues, tempers my enthusiasm about such moments of sensitivity.

And there is a critique
Just as Schrag distills groups of people that she perceives as types into single characters, she condenses cultural tensions into single representative events. Adam, June, and Casey attend Pride March, waving signs in favor of gay marriage, until they encounter Boy Casey under a banner that reads, “QUEERS AGAINST GAY MARRIAGE” (116). The next two pages play out the complex and ongoing debate between assimilationist and radical queerness in which everyone sounds flat: Casey and company play the naive marriage rights advocates; and Boy Casey and his crew give more-radical-than-thou sound bites in return. All the while Adam, the book’s roving id, breaks down the gender and sexual subtext as he understands it.

Moments like these cement my impression that for Schrag, as for her protagonist, all the politics of queer and trans life can be traced back to sexuality, betraying her fundamental misapprehensions about trans lives. When Schrag creates another “representative event,” it is when the murder of a trans woman hits the news, and the event becomes an occasion for some of the characters to debate whether to disclose trans status before sex, as well as foregrounding Adam’s ongoing deception. When Ethan comes out in the course of the debate, Adam’s political awareness contracts and his focus shifts to Ethan’s body, “Every interaction, every conversation he’d ever had with Ethan, raced through his brain, memories doubling up on top of other memories, but now with Ethan as trans, Ethan as a girl, Ethan with a vagina.”

A proclamation

The final setting of the book is Camp Trans, created in response to the exclusion of trans women from the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. Schrag seems to get it as a site of both protest and hope, but stops painting after of few of the same broad and blurry strokes with which she depicts Pride March and Nelly Chua’s murder. She turns quickly to Adam’s sex life and the ultimate revelation about his act of passing. Since he’s the protagonist, why shouldn’t it come back to him?

Ultimately, I believe that Adam and his actions are always a proxy for Schrag’s perspective as a cisgender (that is, she identifies with her assigned gender) lesbian. The subtext of Adam is that the increasing visibility of trans people in queer communities transformed those communities, communities in which Schrag, as a queer tastemaker, has a stake. But the stake is about dating trans people and its implications for queer sexuality. Through the smokescreen of a cisgender male protagonist, Schrag believes that she can explore with impunity such questions as: Does dating a trans man make me straight or bi? How is queer different than gay? What does dating a trans person say about my gender? While these are important questions, Schrag’s attempt at finding answers is hampered by cavalier attitude towards the elements of fiction and trans lives.

Take another look

©Zoe Tuck and the CCA Arts Review

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