Whatever, punk rock: Nevada by Imogen Binnie

Nevada Imogen Binnie

Nevada

Imogen Binnie

Topside Press, 2013

review by Tessa, with comments from Rebecca

characters

in NYC

Maria Griffiths- still wants to write the ultimate zine that explains what it means to be a trans woman, but hasn’t yet. feels a little trapped in her union job at a bookstore. feels a little trapped in her head.

Steph – Maria’s increasingly distanced girlfriend

Kieran – a fellow bookstore worker and catalyst for life changes in Maria and Steph’s relationship

Piranha – an agoraphobic, pill-savvy and wise friend to Maria.

in Nevada

James – a boy stuck in the worst city ever and maybe stuck in a male body

Nicole – thinking her way out of Star City’s claustrophobic social norms, and an increasingly frustrated girlfriend to James

hook

Maria Griffiths is a little tired of everything—her job, her girlfriend, thinking about being trans. She is starting to think that her new life philosophy should be about irresponsibility.

nevada2

worldview

The first time the reader meets Maria, she’s being unsatisfactorily choked during sex by her girlfriend. Then she fakes an orgasm. To say she has intimacy issues would be an understatement. It’s like Maria wants to find intimacy but someone gave her a map that omitted it entirely, so how is she ever going to find it without some serious luck?

It’s not like Maria hasn’t done relatively well for herself. She’s union at her job, she’s really good at riding her bike, and she successfully figured out that she was transgender and transitioned. But life isn’t a series of radio boxes ready to be clicked, leading to fulfillment, and something’s missing for Maria.  She doesn’t know if she wants to be saying something to a wider audience or be left alone to make bad decisions.

Luckily or unluckily, her distance from her girlfriend Steph leads Steph to tell a little lie about cheating, which makes Maria start thinking about where her life is, and where her life used to be when she was growing up in small town Pennsylvania, getting high on heroin and passing out in crash-pad houses – knowing there was more out there — “There was a Borders and hour away and sometimes somebody would manage to get a zine onto their magazine rack, so she knew that there was more going on than classic rock radio and getting fucked up.” (27) – but not being able to escape yet.  She’s not making those bad decisions now, but she’s really not making any decisions—until some bad things naturally start happening, because the scale of Maria’s life tips just over into uncertainty, and she embraces it.

did this book achieve its intentions?

Have you ever, like me, wished you could have a real-time transcription of your thoughts?  Imogen Binnie’s narrative style is as close to that as I’ve found, except it’s not in first person. It’s like Binnie read Maria’s thoughts and wrote a journal of Maria in third person, and I find it is a very fun and effective way to get to know Maria.

Here is Maria thinking about what she wishes people knew about trans women

(and please note all quotes are from the ARC and could be changed when the final copy comes out NEXT WEEK woot!):

“It’s worth pointing out that 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. Oh, neurosis! Oh, trauma! Oh, look at me, my past messed me up and I’m still working through it! Despite the impression you might get from daytime talk shows and dumb movies, there isn’t anything particularly interesting there—although, of course, Maria may be biased.

She wishes other people could understand that without her having to tell them. It’s always impossible to know what anyone’s assumptions are. People tend to assume that trans women are either drag queens and loads of trashy fun, or else sad, pathetic and deluded pervy straight men- at least, until they save up they money and get their Sex Change Operations, at which point we become just like every other woman? Or something. But Maria is like, Dude, hi. Nobody ever reads me as trans any more. Old straight men hit on me when I’m at work and in all these years of transitioning I haven’t even been able to save up for a decent pair of boots.

This is what it’s like to be a trans woman: Maria works in an enormous used bookstore in Manhattan.” (10-11.)

This quote showcases Binnie’s lovely (not kidding) use of colloquialisms like “Dude” and her slipping in and out of “I” to “she”, and it showcases the way that being trans isn’t what the book is about. To me, that’s the hallmark of a good read – Nevada is a portrait of Maria at a crux in her life. Maria is trans and it informs the past and current course of her life, and she thinks about it a lot, so it’s not like it’s not in there. It’s just that the “issue” is in service of the character and not the other way around. So it’s not an “issue”, it’s a part of a person, just as cancer functioned in The Fault in Our Stars and class functioned in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and being a lesbian was part of Starting From Here, and how the encroachment of meth failed to function in A Plague Year.

Imogen Binnie

Imogen Binnie, photographed by Julie Blair/Topside Press

One of Rebecca’s favorite things about Nevada, and I’m inclined to agree, is how Binnie “evokes a really particular (and very self-conscious) demographic (microdemographic?). these are characters who are really familiar to me but I’ve really never read about them in another book. And I’m so glad there is now a book about them.”

One of the ways that I see this happening is how engaged Maria and the other characters are in literature, theory, and philosophy. They think about it so much it becomes part of their in jokes, as in this part of Kieran and Maria’s friendship:

“Kieran heard that Maria liked Kathy Acker so he started doing shitty Kathy Acker impressions at her and normally she responds with shitty impressions of James Joyce, who Kieran is really into. She’s supposed to say, Yes I say Maybe Whatever Yes Sure Fine Yes Whatever Sure, but right now it’s not like she even wants to talk to him. It’s stupid, anyway-he is supposed to be this End of Gender gender tough genderqueer radical, but was James Joyce working to undermine patriarchy. Kieran 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. But fuck that conversation right now.” (31).

Much of Nevada is in Maria’s head. There are glimpses of other narrative voices, but hers is the main one.  (Binnie’s style also makes it a little more work than ussual to differentiate the nuance in each voice as well, which may be a drawback to some, but I enjoyed it so much I noted it and moved on). Reading Maria’s paragraph-long musings is bracing, funny, and hypnotic. At times in the book it’s like she and I were simultaneously looking up from her thoughts to realize that there was an entire world out there, with fresh air and ways to forget her obsessions, even though her obsessions are an interesting space in which to spend time.

nyc bookstore cart - by flickr user markhurst

nyc bookstore cart – by flickr user markhurst

Rebecca notes, sagely, regarding characterization, that “Binnie is ruthless in regard to her characters, which I love. We’ll read about maria’s thoughts about how she thinks Steph is oblivious of something and then twenty pages later, Binnie will show us a glimpse of Steph and it’s clear that Steph is actually totally aware. No character is safe from Binnie’s narrative’s edge and it’s a joy to see how incisively she understands her characters’ perspectives, and also how totally capable she is of seeing their weaknesses.”

Although Nevada is a novel about adults worrying about adult things, like possibly being fired and how they’re going to pay rent if they break up with someone they’ve been in a relationship for four years with, and how that also will affect their personality, it also contains themes that run through many YA novels. In some ways, Maria feels like she never had her adolescence because she was trying so hard to protect herself by suppressing herself, so her journey in Nevada is the journey of trying to make herself open up to adolescent experiences.

The plot is divided up into two parts—her crumbling but triumphant escape from New York City and a snapshot of her travels, presumably cross country travels.  It’s in this second part that Binnie shows Maria as she’s seen by another person—a probably transgender Wal-Mart clerk named James.

Through her interactions with James, Maria tries out the guise of mentor and the task of audibly explaining her experiences to an outsider to her world. And while the ending thankfully shies away from identity-road-trip conventions, it doesn’t eschew the connection that both Maria and James are looking for. I was left with the feeling that both of their lives were opening up a little more, that they were accepting other potentialities for their life, even if getting there would be uncomfortable or painful. I’d be happy to go along with them and find out what happens, but unfortunately, the book ends.

readalikes

I’m pulling these from books I’ve read, but please check out the great lists that are available on Goodreads on the subject of trans memoirs and fiction!

girl_original

Girl by Blake Nelson – for the evocation of a strong character through voice (and: girl in a state of life transition).

hard-love1

Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger – While Wittlinger has other books specifically with trans characters, Hard Love’s theme of figuring out how to separate linked feelings is apropos for many of the relationships in Nevada.

a-e-4ever-Ilike-Merey

a + e 4ever by ilike merey – intimacy issues + exploring sexuality and gender performance + close friendship + the intensity of being a teenager = a messy, real graphic novel

Girls-Visions-and-Everything

Girls, Visions, and Everything by Sarah Schulman – Lila spends a summer purposefully wandering without purpose around New York, bearing witness to the way she and her friends live before it becomes unaffordable, getting into adventures and finding ways of loving people.

And Imogen Binnie has a blog, which can also be read.

I received this book from Topside Press with no expectations or remuneration on either side

Slices of Life: No Crystal Stair and The Watch That Ends the Night

No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller

Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

illustrations by R. Gregory Christie

carolrhodaLAB, 2012

The Watch That Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic

Allan Wolf

Candlewick Press, 2011
review by Tessa

Characters

No Crystal Stair

Lewis Michaux, headstrong, driven man who wanted to make sure African-Americans knew the history of their people

Lightfoot Solomon Michaux, Lewis’ brother, a famous preacher

Mary Michaux, wife of Lightfoot, disapproving of Lewis

The FBI, wants to keep tabs on this bookseller in Harlem

Malcolm X, a friend of Lewis

The Watch that Ends the Night

The Captain, the Businessman, the Refugee, the Shipbuilder, the Iceberg, the Dragon Hunter, the Immigrant, the Navigator, the Gambler ,the Telegraphist, the Socialite, the Lookout, The Stoker, the Tailor the Tailor’s Son, the Junior Officer, the Violinist, the Baker, the Ship Rat, the Undertaker, the Postman, the Cook…

Hook

The most world-changing bookstore you never knew about, told by the people who were there. The most well-known disaster at sea, told by the people who were there.

Worldview

I chose to review these two books together because they take a similar tactic in dealing with their particular historical investigations. No Crystal Stair calls itself a “documentary novel”, and so I’d call The Watch That Ends the Night a “documentary novel in poems”. Neither are billed as non-fiction, but both explore real historical figures and events. And neither are straight novel or straight poetry, but rather novelistic in scope and varied in voice and structure.

a photo of Michaux’s store, via Harlem World Mag

One of the fun and frustrating things about history is that there’s always another way to look at something.  Even if you were there, a witness to an event, it would often be difficult for you to authoritatively say what happened.  Nelson and Wolf exploit and expand on this aspect of history by breaking their narratives up into voices.

Nelson’s are very much in the talking-head style of a documentary, except written down in paragraphs on the page: “All those black books! I’ve never seen anything like it. The Howard University bookstore had some black books but mainly textbooks. When I walked into Lewis Michaux’s bookstore and saw all these histories, biographies and autobiographies, fliers and posters, it was mind-blowing.” (96).

Wolf’s voices speak in poems. Some are letters and telegrams. Some are free-verse and could just as well be prose.  Some are free verse and let the poetry work for them, playing with imagery, slipping into concrete poetry, and even using lack of capitalization and punctuation to underline the lost voice of a toddler:

“the barber shop is a razor.

the barber

he wants to shave at papa’s mustache.

so i cry.

too many things are gone.

papa is a mustache.

and papa is pockets.

with biscuits. with bullets.

and a pistol. bang. bang.” (180).

Some (the iceberg) have actual rhyme schemes: “James Dobbins (last to die), not jumping clear, / while he himself Hail Marys and huzzahs, / is crushed by timbers as the people cheer.” (14).

What was the book’s intention and was it achieved?

Each author’s use of the documentary style lets the reader into history without letting history fade into the background. Unlike a historical novel, where a character just happens to be at the right historical place in the right historical time, whether by working for a famous historical figure or being the right age/sex to get drafted into war, in these books the characters are there because they already had a part to play, and that is being documented.  The narrative is helped by the leeway that fictional interpretation can give.

it’s the watch that ended the night! get it?? photo by flickr user digiblue

This is most apparent in The Watch that Ends the Night and less so in No Crystal Stair. Any filigree of yearning, ambition, light romance, or life that Wolf gives to his characters serves to make them mourned should they not survive the night. The book would be propelled by a sense of doom whatever Wolf did, but he plays it up in his poems, too, doling out foreshadowing judiciously like a stoker would manage the coals in the furnaces of the ship.  Wolf’s not playing around with any of the facts of what happened,  he’s using his poetic license to play with our emotions.  And in doing so, he’s making the facts stick.

No Crystal Stair is similarly researched and it includes historical asides, photographs, and news clippings.  Better that it does, because it’s telling a story that should be more widely known, but isn’t.  Earlier this year, the New York Daily News published an article about East Harlem getting its first bookstore.  It failed to mention Harlem’s original bookstore (located in the Mount Morris Historical District, as far as I can tell from Wikipedia), which was built and run by Lewis Michaux, despite much struggle on his part.

This was the National Memorial African Bookstore on West 125th Street. It was an institution dedicated to informing black people about their history and the works of their forebears and peers.  Malcolm X frequented it and spoke in front of it.  And it was eventually forced out of its home by developers. The story follows Michaux from his childhood, where he was outshone by his famous brother, a preacher, through his first idea of having a bookstore, through the long years of getting the project off the ground, to its success (leading to a thick FBI file on his activities which was forced to conclude that he was no threat to national security).

photo by flickr user aoyenda

Although Michaux and his family are sometimes not easy to like, he didn’t let anyone give him any guff and it’s plain to see that the man did admirable work and was an admirable person.  And boy, did he know how to speak in a memorable soundbite: “Until the neglected and the rejected are accepted and respected, theres gonna be no damn peace… nowhere! Only a tree will stand still while it’s being chopped down.” (127).

Lewis Michaux was the great uncle of the author, Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, who says that she “visited the store only once, when I was fourteen and, regretfully, didn’t realize the store’s significance until years after it had closed and my uncle had passed away” (166).  While Wolf’s research on the Titanic proved challenging because there was too much written on it too soon, allowing for a wealth of rumor, research on No Crystal Stair had the opposite challenge for Nelson, with “nonexistent and conflicting information complicat[ing] the project” (166).  It’s easy to see why Nelson turned to the format that makes up No Crystal Stair, leaving room in the imagination for what could not be verified in research.

However, the research she did do became marred, in my reading, when I found that one of the most affecting personal stories of a bookstore customer was revealed in the endnotes to be a full fabrication.  There was so much to be impressed by with the story of the bookstore that I found myself wishing that it had been left to stand on its own.  The extra story ended up feeling like too much manipulation, a failsafe in case the story couldn’t speak for itself.

Despite that small letdown, No Crystal Stair is a work that should be read and enjoyed by people who have an interest in the history of New York, bookstores, black power, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps stories, or any student that wants to have an especially interesting Black History Month research project. And The Watch That Ends the Night is a great suggestion to fans of the film Titanic, fans of stories in poems, or morbid-minded people who want to get a little weepy.  After these two reading experiences, I hope more authors explore the documentary novel as a form.

Readalikes

 

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village

Laura Amy Schlitz, illus. Robert Byrd

A Newbery Medal winner from 2008, this book uses poems to illuminate the world of medieval England, using 22 distinct voices.

Crossing Stones

Helen Frost

Helen Frost is the MASTER of the novel in poetic voice. This particular book is set during World War I in the American heartland, and has four main characters who do the speaking. Its poems are deceptively straightforward, but trust me, don’t skip the explanation of their structure at the end.

World War Z: an Oral History of the Zombie War

Max Brooks

So, this is a history of things that have never happened.  But it sounds just like what oral histories sound like – a little dry, but exciting because it really happened (please read some Studs Terkel if you don’t know what I’m talking about)! Only this never happened. But there are zombies!

Disclosures & Digressions

I wish there were more R. Gregory Christie illustrations in No Crystal Stair, and more Jon Klassen in The Watch That Ends the Night.  Illustrations 4-evah!!!

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