12 October 2008

Trans-sister Radio, by Chris Bohjalian

Lately I've been thinking about how one of the reasons I love novels so much is because I like learning about the world.  This is, I think, one of the most amazing things about fiction, the way it allows you to experience what it's like to be someone, or somewhere, else. Wayne Booth has this beautiful observation, worth quoting at some length:

In life we never know anyone but ourselves by thoroughly reliable internal signs, and most of us achieve an all too partial view even of ourselves. It is in a way strange, then, that in literature from the very beginning we have been told motives indirectly and authoritatively without being forced to rely on those shaky inferences about other men which we cannot avoid on in our own lives.

What I take this to mean is that fiction gives you the sense of having a kind of knowledge about the world that is actually impossible. It's kind of amazing. 

I start with this observation as a long way of getting to the point, namely, this book. I wanted to like this book. It's a topic I find really fascinating, and important, and I was really looking forward to experiencing the inner worlds of the people involved. The center of the novel is the story of a romance between a woman named Allison and a man named Dana. They fall madly in love, and then Dana informs Allison that he is about to undergo a sex-change operation. The novel, in shifting perspectives, describes what the two of them are going through, as well as the people around them - mainly Allie's ex-husband and her daughter. 

So, there are many really excellent things about the book. I do feel like I learned a lot about transsexuality, and that it changed some of my thinking on the issue. While I've always supported the rights of people to have whatever body they choose, etc, I don't think I had ever really understood the burning desire to have the body of the gender you feel you are, and I think this book really helped me in that regard. And for that fact alone, I'm tempted to recommend the book to other people. 

I was also really interested in the discussion of sexuality in the book - the central one being, if Allison loves Dana when he has the body of a man, will she continue to love (and be sexually attracted to) Dana in a woman's body. The book actually doesn't really give you backstage access to Allie's thought process about this, which is kind of interesting. It does talk about Dana's gradually growing sexual interest in men, but Allie's feelings are curiously left aside on this matter. 

Meanwhile, the book is also really focused on the fallout in the small Vermont community where they live, which is depressing and unpleasant. But also, sadly, rather predictable. 

I guess the main problem that I had with the book was all the attention devoted to Allie's daughter, Carly, who no offense, I had damn near zero interest in. Then there was the way it was told as a kind of expanded NPR special, which isn't a terrible plot device, but for some reason, kind of annoyed me. 

The real issue, sad to say, was that the prose was decidedly underwhelming for the most part. 

But to conclude on the novel's strengths, because, like I said, I really wanted to like this book so much more than I actually did, it does have some really fascinating insights and observations on gender identity and performance which I found quite fascinating. I tend to fall pretty strongly on the gender as constructed social identity, not biological fact, side, and I'm ever fascinated in how that social construction works. So I very much enjoyed that portion of the book. 

Ultimately, I guess, it's a really noble project, and an important book in many ways. The author is clearly really intelligent and has some very interesting insights on the world. Unfortunately, the prose didn't quite live up to them.

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