When I decided to write a review for this blog, I probably could have chosen something more recent than a book in which a Fugazi CD leads to emotional revelations, people still use LiveJournal, and the main character says “The Facebook”. At the same time, though, Nevada by Imogen Binnie and the story of Maria Griffiths–a depressed punk transgender woman–is a perfect starting point for Trans Narrative. This work of realistic fiction talks about so much of what I have already written on this blog, even though this is only my second post. It considers the pressures to fit into a certain mold, the performance of gender, and intersectionality, primarily through the lenses of the main trans protagonist and a later gender-questioning character. Their casual tones as narrators, though, hide Binnie’s clever techniques, making Nevada a subtle masterpiece. Her relatable and educational work of #ownvoices fiction renovates the misogynistic styles of some of the “greats” from classic literature for the sake of developing new transgender narratives, all the while keeping the reader interested with a riveting plot.
The novel itself follows Maria Griffiths’ and James Hanson’s failed attempts to seek their true identities outside of being transgender without falling prey to the “one trans narrative” problem, corrosive masculinity, and apathy. The first half is from Maria’s perspective in New York, while James takes the lead for the latter half in Nevada, where their two stories come together. Each of the two narrators speaks with a colloquial tone that immediately makes the reader feel both as though they are in the heads of the characters and also sharing a drink (or many) with them.
Binnie’s narrative style makes it clear to the reader that these characters, and trans people in general, are far less interesting and melodramatic than media makes them out to be. Maria puts it best when she says, “Trans women in real life are different from trans women on television. For one thing, when you take away the mystification, misconceptions and mystery, they’re at least as boring as everybody else.” (Binnie 4) This struck a chord for me, after having seen transgender people being written, played, and filmed by cisgender individuals for so long. Though there can be dramatic moments and emotional turmoil, the fact of the matter is that trans people are just the same as everyone else and shouldn’t be treated differently.
Binnie also approaches how subtle the effects of enforced masculinity can be by paralleling James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway. Even a reader intimately familiar with their works wouldn’t notice it until Maria alludes to the two authors. She first talks of trans-masculine Kieran’s obsession with the irish novelist, saying that he “will talk about all the reasons that yes, Joyce was working to undermine patriarchy, but the actual answer was no, James Joyce was a patriarchal fuck and dead white man worship is a function of patriarchy.” (Binnie 20) However, this is right when she finds herself in the middle of being a cuckold to Kieran, himself, as well as struggling with her identity and intimacy with others: a mirror image of Leopold Bloom from Joyce’s Ulysses. Maria goes on to jokingly mimic Hemingway in a journal entry, saying “I am a soldier in the First World War. I don’t have very many feelings. I drink a lot and girls like me. We had a long conversation about whether she should have an abortion, but we didn’t use the word abortion. The whole thing was a dream and I am dead.” (95) Just like with Joyce, Binnie developed Maria’s emotional detachment, use of alcohol to cope, and incessant need to travel, just like what one could expect from a work like The Sun Also Rises.
These allusions do more than just point out the blatant misogyny in the so-called greats of classic literature: they foreshadow Maria’s own failings brought on by the societal norms forced upon her at a young age. First of all, no matter how woke Maria is and how much she talks about other marginalized groups, she is still a white person, which I believe was Binnie’s nod to narratives of color being held at a distance while her own was picked up and published. Maria grew up in a small town out in the middle of nowhere, being of that white middle class upbringing where one believes that their story absolutely, without a doubt, must be told and can change the world, without regard for anyone else. This sentiment is akin to many modernist white writers at the time, what with modernism being a movement about taking action and, in a number of cases, white supremacy. As well, the part with Hemingway about not mentioning abortion foreshadows the many pages in which Maria and James dance around the topic of being transgender without bringing it up in conversation for fear that it would be uncomfortable for the other. Instead of coming right out and saying it, she spends a whole day getting high with this twenty year old who she just met, trying to get him to tell her incredibly intimate things about his life and giving her own opinion that was not asked for. All the while, she was seeking to use him for her own growth. This sort of parasitic relationship, while not common to all trans people, is one that is due to the survival mechanisms of self-isolation Maria used as a closeted child. Her past, no matter how hard she tries, influences her actions in the present in a major way.
Though the parallels inform the narrative, Binnie also augments them in a way that shows these are not stories for men, about men, by men. The fact that Maria is meant to be Leopold Bloom left me wondering who would be Stephen Dedalus–the youth who ended up with an unwanted mentor. In this case, it is James, and it all plays out perfectly. However, through revelations I do not want to spoil, Binnie reveals that Maria may not be as likened to Leopold Bloom as one might originally suspect. The two characters do not perfectly overlap. As well, although yes, Maria’s emotional distance and narrative tone is akin to modernist characters suffering from PTSD after the War, she also shows her feelings in the narrative quite clearly, even if they don’t always match up with her actions. On top of this, in the brief times when her girlfriend and James’ girlfriend each give a chapter to speak for themselves, Binnie shows the two leads from a perspective that makes the reader question how seriously Maria and James can be taken. Such a choice is not in the Hemingway style. In this way, Binnie takes the iconic hyper-masculine modernist aesthetic, guts it, and places inside of it the story of a woman–a beautifully artistic representation for transness, wherein a person has so many values pressed onto them to form a frame, but their true identity does not fit it.
Now I suppose I should end my blithering essay about modernism in Nevada and actually get to the part where I tell you if you should read it. Overall, I would say yes. As I held a poorly rebound copy from the library, and I read the first chapter when Maria talks about her “junk” and about feeling disconnected from her body and uncomfortable during sex, my heart welled like the Grinch when he decides to save Whoville. I had grown so accustomed to not seeing or hearing or reading trans characters portrayed as individuals and not having any real validation about my own discomforts or fears. When I began to read Nevada, though, it was affirming. It made me realize that this is the feeling I want to inspire with my own writing, and it gave me ambition to push ahead in editing my own manuscript. I think that many trans folks like me would feel similarly. At the same time, a newly-discovered trans person might also find references to gender theory and events that could spur them to learn about trans history, making it a good starter piece.
On the other hand, though, it is still important to keep in mind that this is an incredibly privileged narrative, like I said once before–though I do believe Binnie wrote it with a more than decent amount of awareness. I do feel she could have done a better job with other forms of representation, especially since the major of literary references were also of white authors. I, of course, cannot comment on this with great nuance, what with being white and privileged in many other ways myself, so I do hope that anyone reading this who is part of another marginalized group will write your own review and send it to me so I can get an understanding of your opinions, as well.
For cis people, I feel it might be alien to them, though that is certainly not a bad thing. I would tentatively encourage them to read it as well, though I would be nervous about assumptions that could be made from reading it. Nevada certainly doesn’t represent all trans people–I, myself, don’t fully identify with Maria or Kieran or James. It can be very easy to extrapolate about a certain group just because a person has only read one book about it. Like I will continue to say, if you truly want to understand this, you’ll need to put the effort in and do some research. Hopefully, my reviews of other trans works to come will inspire you to do so.
There’s so much more
that I could talk about, what with it being a full length novel and with me
being such a big nerd. But alas! This is a blog and I have much more writing to
do on other topics. I at least hope now you all can see why this work fits so
well for my first review. If you read Nevada,
please do comment below or shoot me a tweet or an ask. I’d love to hear
everyone else’s thoughts!
Nevada by Imogen Binnie
Publisher: Topside Press (2013)
Paperback: Around $17
Hardcover: Around $30
Number of Pages: 262
Content Warnings: depression, drug use, dysphoria, harassment, sex, transphobia. No trans person dies in the book but they do live dangerously.