By Alex Chasteen
Torrey Peters, Profile Books, 2021
Raven Leilani, Pan Macmillan, 2021
Late in Torrey Peters’ debut novel Detransition, Baby, the narrator Reese describes her obsession with Wim Hof, also known as the Iceman. After his wife’s suicide, the Dutchman began submerging himself in frozen ponds, staying underwater until his body and mind went numb. Hof ‘began to crave this cold place ... this place beside pain but not in pain,’ as Reese puts it. In the ice, grief and cold become the same thing, absolute and never going away.
Recent releases Luster by Raven Leilani and Peters’ Detransition, Baby have become popular double-feature recommendations lately. It’s clear why: both are American debut novels about marginalised women in Brooklyn who do not make much money, who are sleeping with married men, who become embroiled in a strange dysfunctional family dynamic in which the protagonist takes on the role of a second mother to a lover’s child. Both are sharp, funny, devastatingly intimate, with narrators barrelling full tilt both towards self-actualisation and self-destruction, sometimes on the same page. But more precisely, they both follow women practicing the Wim Hof method: women who put themselves in excruciating places on purpose, women willing to freeze themselves to reconcile the dissociative split between mind and body, women who grow to love the cold.
Torrey Peters’ debut follows two exes, Reese and Ames, who re-entangle their lives with one clear goal: to help co-parent the baby that Katrina, Ames’s boss and lover, will soon give birth to. Reese is a transgender woman in her early thirties who has no clear path to motherhood but is determined to find one in spite of this; Ames is a de-transitioned transgender woman living again as a man, who didn’t think it would be possible to impregnate anyone, much less his boss. And yet. The novel is an unmistakable bourgeois domestic drama, beginning with an unremarkable, wealthy man cheating on his wife in the glorious haze of New York. But this is the other woman’s story, and being trans, Reese is by default the other-other woman. For her, the affair is not only enjoyable but maybe politically justifiable. In public discourse, it has historically been cisgender women — who have an ample supply of unmarried men happy to sleep with them and commit to being their boyfriends and husbands — who have condemned extramarital affairs. But this is a luxury not usually enjoyed by trans women as a group. So, if married men were the ones who wanted to sleep with trans women purposefully, stubbornly — why not participate?
The point isn’t about cheating being right or wrong. The focus of Detransition, Baby is on elucidating a particularly transfemme perspective of the world (those who are assigned male at birth, but identify to a greater extent with feminine gender identity). In order to cope with this identity, the danger lurking in the everyday is transmuted into sexual thrill—if danger is inescapable throughout trans daily life, why not enjoy it? Why not admit to the eroticism in the pastel sensuality of a maternity store, the kinky rituality of a wedding? The transfemme worldview soon pushes beyond sex just as, in Ames’ flashbacks, a young Amy gets acquainted with transsexual life through erotica, then crossdressing and finally transition. Beyond differing social circles and quotidian habits, the two narrators articulate a sensibility that wields and weaponises language in a recognisable way, with a dissociative distance between the speaker and the world that isn’t at all unique to trans women, but is certainly presented as endemic to them.
This is not a novel interested in combating the myths or unravelling the logic of anti-trans rhetoric. It is a novel deeply committed to the humanity of a precise group of trans women circumscribed down to the cross-streets. It’s clear that Peters is not an author who believes in countering negative lies with positive ones. While obviously a novel by-and-for transfemmes, Detransition, Baby (or Reese, at least) maintains a tongue-in-cheek tone that allows for context and jokes within the same breath, without lapsing into explanation: ‘If you are a trans girl who knows many other trans girls,’ as one chapter begins, ‘you go to church a lot, because church is where they hold the funerals.’ The humour has a dissociative effect as well as an explanatory one: by making jokes to us, Reese shutters herself off and simultaneously lets us peer through the cracks.
But where Peters really shines is in inopportune and shameful lapses of emotion, in moments where instead of protecting oneself, dissociation renders its subject almost less human: being irritated at a suicide, relieved at a miscarriage, neutral towards a pregnancy. Some of these moments operate along gendered fault lines — the oppressive silence around miscarriage, the mandated joy of pregnancy — but Detransition, Baby doesn’t restrict itself only to that. For, as often as a character boldly breaks a taboo around a forbidden subject, they might also speak boldly in self-pity; in embarrassingly white-centric terms; or simply in a mess of weaponised identity language meant only to injure, not to express. Peters is more interested than most in how easily victimisation can ferment into self-pity, and how self-pity can fossilise into judgment and narcissism. In one scene, isolated and desperate and furious, Reese writes a long angry letter to both Ames and Katrina, confident that ‘political righteousness as the surest way to win an argument, even between two individuals.’ They accuse Katrina of gentrifying queerness, furious at her indulgence in AIDS panic. Deconstructing the characters in Detransition, Baby is difficult not just because they are complex moral agents, but because they are political subjects intensely aware of their status as subjects. They throw around this weight as it serves them, in the shared, charged language of an insular group: a language no one much likes, but which everyone can speak.
Peters fills Detransition, Baby with ambivalent incidents like this, ones that refuse to toe the party line while also dodging a cruel, reactionary position. It’s a novel that is overtly political (how many times does Reese speak about adoption laws, trans surgery insurance, the AIDS policies that popularised the term “transgender”?), but also crosses to the other side of the street when it spots these politics (how many times does Reese sneer at the bathroom debate, or over-earnest protest organisers, or “baby transes” who want to say everything right?). Politics, in the legal sense, remain outside: sometimes it knocks, but it doesn’t come in. ‘Who needs your public bathrooms?’ Reese muses, ‘We’re already in your bedrooms, fucking your husbands, and we’ll use the master bath, thanks very much.’
Detransition, Baby has no interest in relitigating the policy-oriented debates that dominate news cycles, and what Peters terms the ‘Twitter-Tumblr Industrial Complex.’ But of course, policy undergirds the whole novel: it is because of policy that any other type of motherhood is so impossible for Reese; it is because of policy that trans healthcare was unthinkable — let alone inaccessible — to young Amy. But these policies are not examined directly. Instead, the questions that are most pressing to Peters are internalised and somatised within Reese and Amy: they are worked out in the play of language itself. Politics as a whole is not totally dismissed; instead, Peters dismisses the politics outside of transness – the polemics and policy fights fought by cisgender people in power, lawmakers or human resources heads or op-ed writers, who use trans people as a prop in their own culture wars about political correctness. The politics within transness, by contrast—the places where trans girls’ pursuit of health and happiness collide with healthcare policies, with hiring and adoption policies, with the police – are well catalogued.
For younger trans people, there is significant pressure to justify one’s existence, chiefly by regurgitating the party lines that dispel the myths of trans people as transgressive threats. But when mainstream feminism and liberal media have abandoned you, fighting for mainstream correctness becomes an uphill — and, to some, an unwinnable — battle ‘Why should the burden be on her to uphold the impeccable feminist politics that barely served her? The New York Times regularly published op-eds by famous feminists who pointedly ruled her out as a woman,’ Reese points out as she recounts the first time she was hit by a boyfriend. ‘Let them. She’d be over here, getting knocked around, each blow a minor illustration of her place in a world that did its gendering work no matter what you called it.’ To Reese, gender is not something innately safe or healthy—cisgender manhood and womanhood are carved out of the same friction and violence that is associated with transness.
The jab at the op-ed transmisogynists may resonate even more with British readers, who are frequently treated to a veritable barrage of such takes from either political extreme. The cruellest takes often come from left-leaning authors, academics, or otherwise public intellectuals entrenched in establishment media. It’s true that the situation plays out as much in the NHS as the Guardian or the Times: the UK enjoys far fewer gender clinics, longer wait times, and more expansive logistical barriers to trans care than in comparable countries. Detransition, Baby would not be a very good book to give to such individuals to change their minds about transsexual women as sexual deviants who resent and envy “real” women. But it is a good book for actual skepticism about and relief from the mantras around gender that liberal, cisgender feminists have increasingly enshrined as gospel.
Peters most clearly questions familiar stories about trans people by using misgendering as a narrative device—or not strictly misgendering, but a purposeful destabilising of the now de-transitioned Ames-Amy’s pronouns. Narrating detransitioned Ames, Reese switches between ‘she’ and ‘he’ depending on situation and mood; in Ames’ narration, pre-transition Amy is ‘she’, as is transitioned Ames, while in detransition, he is ‘he’. As readers, we are utterly reliant on Peters’ pronouns to gender the objects of narration. It is impossible to have conflict between image and language when the third person insists she she she or he he he: we trust the authority of the words themselves.
Part of what makes Ames so compelling is the indeterminacy of their gender — not ambiguous nor fluid, but indeterminate in the Schrödingerian sense. Instead, transness becomes an existential state. To transition and detransition is to see the accordion layers that separate your self-image from how the world sees you, and to pull the accordion as tightly or loosely as you need. After reading Peters, it seems strange that the transition novel isn’t its own subgenre next to the coming-of-age novel or the flâneur’s.
Transition is about seeking experiences and actions that do gender to you in the ways you want – carefully and on purpose – although instinctively and blindly, cisgender people seek the same things. Early in the novel Reese points out how so many cisgender women locate the pleasure of gender validation with the pain of gendered violence. ‘Hear the strange sense of satisfaction when [cisgender women] talk about the men who have hurt them,’ she sneers, ‘the unspoken subtext of it being because I am a woman.’ Agency over gender is paramount, and for the more extreme personalities – be it domestic violence; drugs; social repercussions – if it gives you agency over your gender, any other loss of agency is acceptable collateral.
What Detransition, Baby complicates, then, is the limits of this thinking. Katrina sees the “queer” model of three parents as naively liberating, a freedom to remake life in any more fulfilling or healthy way one wants; Ames and Reese recognise that queerness is about a lot more than that. Ames chooses to detransition because, mostly, being a man made him feel safe again. But the question is litigated and relitigated: does making himself into a man make him a man again, or is there an essential born-with-it femaleness that detransition struggles to deny? In detransition, Ames shows the conflict between two articulations of transness that are normally compatible. We see the limit of the defensive myths that activists use to justify trans existence – using “myths” here in the old school, Apollo-driving-the-sun-chariot way. It’s not that the ideas are that far off the mark. If you need to explain the sun to your inquisitive toddler, the Apollo story might be perfect. But for astronomers, the myth fails. The incredible relief of Peters’ novel is putting the astronomers first, when every op-ed in the world seems to indulge the toddlers.
The interesting intersection with Luster is the similar articulation of absolute dissociation. The unlinking of mind and body and the toll it takes, in a narrator who came about it differently. Luster follows a young Black woman, also living in Brooklyn, who begins an affair with an older white man who has recently opened his struggling marriage. After HR uses her reputation as the ‘office slut’ as an excuse to fire her, she moves into his Jersey home, navigating fragile relationships with his medical examiner wife and their adopted Black daughter, who is deeply isolated in her parents’ decidedly non-Black social circles. To read these books together suggests a sort of unified theory of dissociation, linking together social marginalisation (as understood through transness, Blackness) with sex and violence as ways of coming into or leaving a body you’ve been alienated from. Often in both of these books, sex feels bad and violence feels good. Violence can be a form of validation that something is wrong, a transubstantiation of mental anguish. Violence gives a source and a purpose to a pain that was already happening. Sex, on the other hand, exposes the gap between how a body is supposed to feel and how yours feels, which doesn’t do great things to the mind.
Leilani pays close attention to the sentence, how effectively brevity, quick clean movement from idea to idea, and adjective-less description can evoke psychological chaos. At the novel’s emotional highs, she favours the long sentence, not trying to imitate or internalise the rhythms of what is being described, but instead recording the monotonous drill of one act after the other, dragged forwards by the force of its own inertia: the precise yet rote observations of someone observing themselves more than participating or being present. The novel is told in the present tense, but it is a strange present tense: very organised, suggesting some sense of foreknowledge, or maybe just a dread of the inevitable, such as when the narrator has snuck into her married lover’s house — a house she is never supposed to enter according to the rules of her lover’s open marriage — relayed in a single breath:
‘And now I know where he lives so ten days after having fucked him I go right up to the door and find it unlocked, and no one is home, so I walk around the house and pick up these cold lemons on the counter and roll them around in my hands, and I open the fridge and take a drink of milk and carry the carton up to the bedroom where a door opens to a closet with a collection of women’s clothes and I gather the silk and wool and cashmere in my hands and then there is a voice, and I turn and standing in the doorway of the attached bathroom in yellow rubber gloves and a T-shirt that says Yale is his wife’.
Grieving two difficult parents; apathetic in a publishing job that tokenises her Blackness; bogged down as she bikes deliveries across New York to make rent, and starved of touch, sex and friendship, Luster’s narrator is not short of reasons to be alienated from her body. What is more surprising is the person she becomes, quickly and without reflection. In the couple’s house she sneaks around, she reads diaries, she watches routine Tuesday night sex and swipes household objects to paint as painstaking still lives.
Luster is told in short fragments full of long sentences, so the still life is the appropriate symbol. The novel itself becomes a series of them, snapshots of the narrator’s life across time, arranged artfully to suggest an Einsteinian illusion of narrative cohesion, all quick cuts and startling images. Immediately after the reveal of the wife, the chapter ends, and the next begins by picking up on a passing thought from days and pages earlier: ‘I got the abortion in my junior year of high school.’ As Detransition, Baby’s structural leaps in time provide context and disrupt the linear movement of de-transitions, Luster’s generates a chaotic and directionless psyche, a wandering ‘I’ trying and failing to reunite with her body. The novel is full of plot, yet it feels rhythmically plotless: the narrator resists arranging her fragments into narrative arcs.
Like Reese letting a boyfriend abuse her as a form of gender validation, after Luster’s narrator trespasses in her married lover’s home and he confesses that he wants to hit her, she lets him. She’s wanted him to be more aggressive in bed before, and now she has finally pushed him to be the lover she needs. But the more she pushes him, the more he pulls away, and the more precarious her situation and her safety becomes. It’s not that violence is productive or redemptive, only that it gives the narrator a hit of sensation she can’t get anywhere else, that freezes everything else out. Grounded in the tangible details of the contemporary structures that crush us — defensive Christianity and shoplifting as a bonding activity, and app-based delivery servitude and the gun under the master bed no one talks about — the dominant response isn’t polemic or rage or sadness or righteousness or anything but numbness, non-response. The violence she chooses for herself, at least, makes her feel something again.
Late in the novel, the narrator comments on pregnancy, but the passage works as well to articulate the paradox of novels that are deeply embodied and audaciously political, novels where the personal and political pinwheel around each other: ‘It is not so bad to be an incubator. Everything I eat and drink feels like it means something. [...] But conversely, it is terrible being an incubator. Everything I do feels like it should mean something.’ In two novels about motherhood without pregnancy, incubator status is not possible, nor necessary. It is hard to let go of the idea of the body as a vehicle for something more important. But a different understanding—a kinder and more complicated one—is necessary, if only so that we can keep living in ours.
ALEX CHASTEEN reads some, though not as much as they’d like in the last few months. They’ve been watching more movies, and recommend Laura, Edward II, and A New Leaf.