(Note: I tried to write this without spoiling stuff and completely failed, so, uh, this has spoilers?)
Pretty much the day after I finished reading Imogen Binnie’s Nevada, I decided I had to write about it. The two days before which I spent most of reading the book in bed, lots of it drinking whiskey and/or crying and/or grinning and giggling like a dumbass. That was six months ago. I got an advance copy early in November from Topside (which only felt slightly cooler than how I imagine getting an early copy of Super Mario Bros. 3 would’ve been) then I read it again a little more slowly and thoughtfully in January. I have a Word doc with like a page of notes of what I wanted to say about it, and a pitch to a magazine about it that didn’t go anywhere, but mostly when I’ve tried to write about it I’ve ended up doing something else. For…like…six months.
There’s lots of reasons the book is fucking great so maybe I’ll say a lot of those things and then get to what’s been bugging me. So here we go: The book is funny, it reads super fast, the main character Maria is insanely loveable and hilarious even as she’s self-destructive and is kind of a jerk to her friends and generally just does a lot of stupid dumb shit. Imogen has this amazing ability to lay bare what’s driving Maria totally bonkers and give pages (and pages. and pages.) of her inner monologue in a totally real and twisted way but it never feels overly sentimental or frustrating to read or anything. My unfeeling asshole-gland gets easily activated when I read that stuff, even if I identify with all of it (like Lorrie Moore on her off days) where I go “Fuck girl, yeah I’ve been there but GOD STOP WHINING.” But it never happened here; Imogen’s writing voice is so conversational and fluid while always totally fucking uncompromising and smart, I just fucking loved Maria all the time, through everything.
And, duh, I love how it’s a novel specifically about trans women, for trans women, written by a trans woman (any of which has rarely existed let alone all three at once) and that it talks about shit that probably only trans women know about and in a totally real and unbullshit or snow-covered way (see above re: experience drinking whiskey and/or crying and/or dumbass giggling). I love how Imogen doesn’t give a fuck about her audience before she gives a fuck about trans women, we’re the primary audience and Jesus Christ that’s cathartic to have that as a reader. It’s a weird feeling to read shitloads of fiction all your life, and then read this book, and realize it’s the first book written specifically for someone like you to read it: “Gender may be a social construct, but so are cars, and if you ignore them, you still get hit.”
I love how Big Awful Shit in Maria’s life, like breaking up with her girlfriend of a million years, getting fired, etc, will take up lots of page time and then following it taking up lots of page times will be stupid little trans bullshit that nobody else gets or cares about but you spend hours of your day thinking about anyway, about your body, about sex, about fear of the world, about fear of still acting and thinking like a dude, about never being present and dissociating (that was one of those words that especially exploded for me on the page when it was first used like, “YUP that’s exactly how to put it WHELP”) about if relationships are ever going to work and if you can ever connect with anybody ever AND YOU KNOW CHEERFUL STUFF and how that intermixes with all of the Big Awful Shit like if anybody will ever hire a silly transsexual like you for a job that starts out paying you more than single digits an hour.
(There’s also the fact that lots of the book’s first half takes place in a fictionalized version of the bookstore where Imogen worked and years later so did I, and all of which is totally fucking hilarious and true and sometimes kinda eerie (there’s a scene where Maria gets hit on by some rich dude and I swear to you it was a videotape of a million moments I worked there and all the shit I thought about afterward and it was probably in the same aisle.))
I love the secondary characters (not including James, though I love him too, but he feels more like a shadow protagonist or something than a secondary character. Is shadow protagonist a term?). I love Steph, Maria’s girlfriend-turned-ex, who’s funny and mature but can’t seem to help Maria with shit, even though it seems like she’s smart and caring and wise enough to do so. I love Piranha, who’s this antisocial trans girl cashier in South Brooklyn who puts up with Maria’s crap and gives it back to her when she needs it and is a genuinely wonderful friend even as her own life turns progressively shittier. Piranha’s one of those rare people who’ll be the best and most loving person to you even when you totally don’t deserve it, but who’ll never let you walk on her either.
I love Maria’s coworker Kieran, who’s this overenergetic bouncy trans guy who’s kind of a dick and also kind of alright. He’s not as developed but there’s something there about that coworker relationship I dig, where it’s like, well, on some levels we get along, and some we don’t, but we’re going to have to coexist for a lot of our daily lives, so… Or at least it seems that way from Maria’s perspective. Kieran seems to think they’re best buds.
Lots of terrible and frustrating shit in the book is punctuated with the one-word sentences “Whatever.” and “So.” Amy Dentata mentions her reactions to the “Whatever.”s and I think I agree: “the word “whatever” is just shorthand for when it hurts too much to say how you feel. But trans women who transitioned sometime after four years old become teenagers all over again because of it, and we tend to hurt a lot, so you’re going to get a lot of whatever’s in this book, whether you like it or not.” And parallel to those lines, I totally love how Imogen can somehow move the narrative forward from said jumbles of terrible and frustrating shit just by concluding with “So.” No summaries, just like a little nod that the previous paragraph of inner-monologue has no wise conclusion but we’re going to keep going. “So.”
I love how much of the book is about sex, like in a deep, explicit, inner-shit, “I am REALLY REALLY fucked up about this” way.
I love how distant Maria and James are (who’s a sort of crypto-trans woman, as I heard Imogen put it once, who meets Maria as she’s road-tripping and trying to figure out her life). I love how after everything Maria has gone through and everything she knows, and with how damn obvious it is that James is proooobably a girl…that Maria can’t help him and that James doesn’t like her, even though it seems like he REALLY wants to like her and be helped by her.
I love the ending. I fucking love love love the ending. I love the ending because it stops abruptly and doesn’t resolve anything, because at the end of the day Maria is stranded in Reno, broke, single, jobless, and basically no further from figuring anything out than when the book started, and James isn’t a whole lot further either. I love how the last sentence is about James wanting head from his girlfriend, because that way he can imagine himself as a girl and it’s the only way he can get off. I love how Imogen doesn’t remind you of that explicitly at the end. (see above re: writing for/about/by trans women.) I LOVE books where lots of crazy shit happens and yet the protagonist is still just as fucked when they started, because, well, some shit is hard to move. I guess maybe it’s similar to how I felt at the end of After Delores, where (MORE SPOILER ALERTS) even though all sorts of crazy fucked up shit happens, including the unnamed main character avenging a girl’s death by shooting a guy through his apartment door, the book’s about this woman who desperately misses her lover and it ends with her still missing her lover. Or like Mrs. Bridge, I guess, where this sad housewife who’s really trying to make a good life for everyone sees her husband die and her kids grow up but she’s still kinda the same person at the end.
ANYWAY. So there’s a bunch of reasons why Nevada is brilliant and you should probably just order the book now. Here’s the link again.
But there’s something too about bleakness, and hopelessness, in the book, that in this last month especially I’ve been able to articulate as a reason why I’ve had zeeeeeeero compunction to write about the book, even though in person I’ve gushed about it to a lot of people, Imogen included. It’s weird talking so bubbly and animatedly about a book that made you feel so messed up. And I’ve thought about the book a LOT since those two days in November in bed drinking whiskey and/or crying and/or giggling like a dumbass. Like as in, I got out my copy of the book to write this post, but so far I’ve written all of it from memory without opening it once, and the last time I read it was January. Nevada dovetailed with an increasing realization that my world outlook has gotten bleaker in the last year or so, and I’m less of a hopeful person than I used to be. When I started transitioning, I wanted everything in my life to stay the same. I thought I could orchestrate it perfectly and flawlessly, and keep the same family, the same friends, the same personality even, just, y’know. Girl-version. Cool. Well, that didn’t really happen, though I do have (some) of the same friends, some closer and some not, and I do have (some) of the same family, some closer and some not. I wanted the perfect ending and I thought that stuff would be hard but that I could get it.
But for lots of complicated reasons (some of which might be obvious, I guess, depending on who you are) that never happened, very little went the way I thought it would since I started HRT in October 2010, and I’ve done lots of stupid shit and lots of stupid shit has happened to me. And reading Nevada in some ways was a big articulating hurtling train-wreck of OHHHHH FUUUUUUUUUCK. Like FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK. And definitely it’s occurred to me in the last few months like shit, I really don’t want to write about how bleak and depressed and hopeless I’ve been feeling for a good chunk of the last year and a half, and how this book covers a lot of why that’s the case. The fact that that time period coincides with right about when I finished my McSweeney’s column makes me really not want to write about that, because while I’m proud of (most) of that body of work, and everything I wrote in it was true for me at the time, it was also a little more of an optimistic period for me and represents such a different place in my life (though I do still feel very close to the last one I wrote). I’ve been re-reading those lately and thinking about how I felt back then. Every now and then I’ve gotten an e-mail from people who’ve just come across the column and they’ve said, “Hey, I hope things are going well for you.” It’s weird and tough responding to those people. Especially in the months since I left New York in August, when lots of my life was up in the air and I was living in the town I went to high school in and really coming to terms with how transitioning changed everything, how I didn’t have much faith or respect anymore for people and institutions that I used to. (the non-private manifestations of such are boring, and the non-boring ones are, well, private.) In smaller-scale stuff yet somewhat related, I hooked up with crappy dudes, lived in my parents’ house, drank a lot, and hit a brick wall on the big writing project that I’d uprooted my life to attempt to finish.
Anyway, so I read Nevada in the middle of that weird little period. Later at the end of March, when I’d been settled here in Winnipeg and had had a job and an apartment for a good month, and was thinking a little more out of my sad fog, I read this review of Nevada. I’m gonna post the last paragraph of it:
“You know how the last episode of Angel is kind of controversial? Like, it all ends with them in an alley, ground down to nubs, gearing up for yet another end of the world battle royale? & some people complained that there wasn’t any closure, any resolution or truly final Armageddon…while everybody else said, “duh, exactly, that is the point.” As much as Buffy was a meditation on being a teenager, Angel was about being an adult, & the point of the finale is you have to keep going. You keep on living. There is no end to the fight. It keeps going. That is pretty much how Nevada ends. Sometimes stories just don’t end, & in a story about being trans, where the usual cultural message is all about crossing some rubicon, whether it is coming out or getting surgery or whatever, (or that life ends, suddenly & violently, which is all to prevalent a fate for trans characters, & how messed up is that, that transgender characters are largely just plot points, props, & not even characters in the least) the notion that life goes on is pretty punk rock.”
Okay, now, I never finished Angel (though now I am getting through Season 2 thanks to this review, natch) but I loved Buffy to fucking bits when I was a teenager, so this kinda got me. The concept of Nevada having to do with being an adult never crossed my mind before, though now that I think about it Maria spends a lot of the book feeling fucked up about not really being one.
Something I’ve only realized today as I write this: As a reader, my inner reaction to a book usually tends to be that the end is the end. When you finish Nevada, Maria is broke and sad and jobless and friendless and single, thousands of miles from anyone she knows in a sad casino in Reno, having fucked up with the person she just really tried to help, who btw also stole a bunch of the heroin Maria had in her car. So to me, as a reader, Maria is now forever broke and sad in Reno etc etc, till the end of time. James is forever in that car driving back to his awful small town, wanting head from his girlfriend. These two characters are forever fixed there. Like how Mrs. Bridge is forever stuck in the garage trying to get out of her car, like how the narrator in After Delores is forever missing Delores. Fin, motherfucker, total Fin.
Usually that has no effect whatsoever on my emotional state, because most of what I read is stuff that doesn’t bear too heavily on my daily reality (despite the fact that I read a lot of contemporary realist fiction by sad women in their 20s and 30s.) Even when a book hits me hard, and I have to sit with it for a bit, eventually I kind of internally place it somewhere and then go devote mental energy to something else.
But for all the reasons above (well, plus the fact that Nevada possesses that undefinable quality that separates plain ol’ great books from books that in the apocalypse you would save over pictures of your loved ones) Nevada had a really, really big effect on my emotional state. And mordicai’s review made me think explicitly a bit about what probably happens after the book ends. I realized that I assume James ends up transitioning, but it probably takes him a few more years and a lot of more shit then what he confronts in the actual book. Thinking about Maria, I realized I assume that she calls Steph crying about how she’s fucked everything up, and Steph probably yells at her for like ten minutes but then wires her money to come back home because Steph too seems genuinely like a good person who wouldn’t fuck her ex over that badly, especially when Steph herself has money. Or maybe not, but anyway, somehow Maria gets back in touch with her friends, who help her get back to New York, and, well, stuff goes on. Or maybe not, maybe other stuff happens and Maria fucks around in California for years with Steph’s stolen car, who knows.
But the point is, no matter how bleak or sad life gets, the difference between life and a book is that in life MORE STUFF WILL HAPPEN. I guess that’s blindingly obvious, but with how I see now that I react to books’ endings, combined with how deeply this book spoke to my life, it wasn’t obvious to me till recently. I think because I’ve been feeling so sad and bleak this last while, that the ending of Nevada made me really examine and feel around in this place where it seemed like nothing new would ever happen again. That’s kind of a shitty place to be, though it’s also made me search around and let me grab on to stuff I can say without bullshit is genuinely solid and good. For instance, while I’m often not happier about my personal life per se, and I’m often angry and sad about stuff in the world, I’m internally more peaceful and calmer in a way I never was in my pre-transition life, and I can say that definitively. Or, for example, I’m better about articulating what I need from the people I love, which I was always terrible about especially in pre-transition life but now am a little better at. There are lots of other good things that, even, I wouldn’t have even imagined about my post-transition life back when I started. Anyway, point is life looks different in a really strange way, and I do pretty alright in the end, but there’s a lot I’ve needed to work through that I wasn’t expecting.
There are probably only two other novels that have sucker-punched me as much as Nevada: Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. Both of those books—besides being unspeakably beautifully written and all that—talk to me about stuff in my life that no other fiction’s ever been able to. Gilead ends peacefully, with a seventy-six-year-old pastor about to die. A Complicated Kindness ends somewhat phoenix-like, with a sixteen-year-old girl who’s lost everything but is about to leave a world that’s suffocated her. Neither of them have shit to do with gender, they’re both about family and religion and small-town prairie life and trying to be a good decent person when the question of heaven and hell and redemption take up everything. And ACK is about Mennonites, which in some ways is its own thing altogether. ANYWAY, point is, Gilead is about life ending for good, whereas A Complicated Kindness is about life actually starting to begin, and I always finish those books…not exactly feeling hopeful or happy, but not bleak either, which is where Nevada left me. Part of the reasons I find those two books so beautiful and nourishing, maybe, is because they do come to their resolutions organically and without shortcuts, and converge on their endings in ways most writers just can’t pull off. But even my ladies Toews and Robinson get assists from the larger world, because there are pointers society has in place for what happens afterward in those two books, as we do for kind old Christian men about to die and teenage girls setting out for the city after losing everyone who’s loved them, and they couldn’t have written those books that way if the world wasn’t set up accordingly. And Nevada doesn’t have any of that. Because it’s about a queer trans woman in her late twenties dealing with Stupid Trans Lady Shit on top of Regular Adult Shit six years after her first estrogen pill and there are no ready-made pointers for that. And the book doesn’t pretend it can make them. There’s more to it than that, there’s so much about this book I have left to think about and I’m still going to be thinking about. But the book can only leave Maria to figure her own shit out.