"Nevada" by Imogen Binnie

Fall is here, which is bittersweet in this part of the world. It's my favourite season, but it's also extremely short. It won't be long before the snow flies. 

I will have some exciting, writing-related news to share soon. Until then, I just finished the novel "Nevada" by Imogen Binnie (Topside Press, 2013), and I've had a million thoughts about it swirling around in my head, so I thought I'd put them down here. 

"Nevada" is about Maria Griffiths, a young trans woman living in New York City. She finds out that her girlfriend lied to her, and they break up, which forces Maria to face the fact that she's in a state of arrested development, trapped in a protracted adolescence since she transitioned a few years earlier. 

The book is written in the conversational cadence of your average millenial woman; long sentences, littered with "likes" and "shits" and "fucks." Maria is prone to long internal (and external) monologues, and is constantly trying to parse all of her complicated, ever-shifting feelings about what it means to exist in the world as a trans woman. 

"Nevada" is, as one cover blurb puts it, a "jackhammered" version of the typical American road novel. We spend the first half with Maria aggressively navigating her bike through the boroughs of New York; then, after her break-up, she steals her ex-girlfriend's car and takes off across the country, eventually ending up in Star City, Nevada. 

The run-on sentences, the internal monologues, the lack of quotation marks; it's like Binnie takes the boring, pretentious stylistic choices of the (all male) beat writers and punches them in the face. The way young women speak, which is so often maligned as being stupid and vapid, is uplifted to a literary level. 

I read a lot. But "Nevada" is the first novel since I read "The Hours" by Michael Cunningham 3 or 4 years ago, where I dog-eared every few pages because it's like Binnie is right inside my head, saying things I've always felt but never been able to put into words. 

Like, it would be nice to believe that you could just exist, just be some true, honest, essential self. But you only really get to have a true honest essential self if you’re white, male, het, and able-bodied. Otherwise your body has all these connotations and you don’t get the benefit of the doubt.

When Maria leaves New York to head off on her journey of self-discovery, the narrative voice shifts abruptly, from what for the first half of the novel seems to be a very close, self-reflective, non-omniscient third person narration, into a similar voice but this time inside the head of a 20-year-old boy named James. 

James lives in Star City and works at the local Wal-Mart. His internal voice reads exactly like Maria's, only he's overwrought with self-hatred in a way that Maria seems to have overcome. 

Because look it’s not like James doesn’t think about whether he’s trans too, right? To be totally honest he thinks about it all the fucking time, he just can’t imagine actually being trans in the real world (...) Like there are a million reasons why he is obviously not trans or not the kind of trans person who transitions. He has never said it out loud or even explicitly thought about it but he is probably kind of genderqueer, so he doesn’t even know what to think about it (...) He knows that if he’s transsexual he’s definitely not, like, a normal kind of transsexual, normal transsexuals all fucking know they’re transsexual when they’re little kids and fucking tell their parents and get yelled at for it or else start hormones when they’re thirteen.

Binnie is taking the reader on this stream-of-consciousness journey through the mind of a young transgender person, and it's so authentic, and so important. Because that's the narrative we hear about trans (and queer!) people, isn't it? You can only be "authentically" trans if you've "known" since you were little, if you didn't repress anything, if you couldn't live any other way except as your authentic self. 

In the real world, there are plenty of trans people who don't transition until they're much older. Who don't come to terms with or understand their identity until later in life. Some trans people never transition; some trans people don't want to transition. 

James's struggle to understand himself as trans, to try to fit himself into this narrative he's been presented with, is gut-wrenchingly real. 

I should mention that before Maria left New York, she bought $400 worth of heroin, which is in the glove box of her stolen car when she arrives at the Star City Wal-Mart. When she walks in and sees James, the intimate third person narrative voice is able to jump back and forth between their heads in a way that suggests they are of one consciousness. They recognize each other; James recognizes Maria's trans-ness, and Maria recognizes James's; he looks exactly like she did at that age. 

Maria asks James to direct her towards the Miranda Lambert albums (she likes Miranda Lambert because her music is all about literally murdering men when they do you wrong which, like, yes). She leaves, but decides to come back and take James on as a "project." As if she might be able to go back in time and help her younger self by helping James. 

Another great moment where Maria struggles internally about what pronouns to use when she's thinking about James:

She’s like, Let’s start with the kid’s understanding of himself. Herself. Theirself. Wherever James winds up, you don’t get to pick a pronoun for someone even if you want to give them one you think they’ll like.

Maria keeps trying to get James to open up to her, to "admit" that he's trans. But even though he feels an intense sense of relief to be around the only trans woman he has ever met in real life, he also has his defences all the way up. While Maria monologues and tries to force the conclusions she's come to about gender and sexuality on James in a matter of hours, it seems clear that James isn't ready to accept those things. Those are conclusions he needs to come to on his own, however much of his life he might waste in the process. 

And that's the tragedy of the novel, at its core. That's what Binnie is getting at when she talks about the privilege of being a cis, het, white, able-bodied man. You don't have to spend half your life working to understand yourself when society has already taught you everything you need to know, has shown you how to be, and accepts you without question.

This was a pattern that went back my whole fucking life. I was totally checked out in high school, to the point that it seemed like a good idea to try a little heroin now and then. I barely made facial expressions in grade school. I learned to fake it well enough that people didn’t mistake me for an autistic kid; actually, it’s fucking wild if you think about it, how being totally checkout out emotionally can look like normal American masculinity.

Maria and James decide to go to Reno to party. When James reminds Maria that he's not old enough to drink, she tells him about the heroin. Here, again, it struck me how Binnie is turning tropes of trans and queer people on their heads. It often seems that if you're going to be trans in a narrative, you have to be unflinchingly good. You're not allowed to be a deviant and also be a complex, human person with both good and bad qualities. 

Maria has stolen her ex's car and spent all that remained of her money on heroin, which she's now offering to share with a 20-year-old who has never done hard drugs before, and who she initially set out to help. 

The most heart-wrenching scene in the novel has to be when Maria tells James about an interview she heard on NPR during her drive across the country. Two psychologists were having a debate about how parents should treat their transgender children. One was preaching acceptance; the other was basically saying that parents should shame their trans kids and be cruel to them so that they repress their feelings and don't grow up to be a "pervert."

Maria is incensed by this and she decides to call in.

And I’m like, Yeah! Here it is! I’m gonna solve this shit once and for all! Except I open my mouth and nothing comes out, right. I had thought, maybe I’ll get carried away and flip out on this asshole! And I’d thought, maybe I’ll just rationally lay out the contradiction inherent in this guy’s argument, right. But I hadn’t thought of a first sentence to even start out with. If I’d been like, Hello Dr. Zucker, I probably could have started. But instead I froze up in the face of institutionalized patriarchal misogyny, ageism and transphobia and I couldn’t say anything.

And it's true; it's so heartbreakingly true how you can be this incredibly thoughtful person who works so hard every single day to unlearn all of the horrible shit you've been taught all your life about what it means to be male or female or trans or queer. You can know all of these arguments like the back of your hand, you think about them constantly. They're arguments for your own humanity, for your right to not only exist as a human being in the world, but to be happy. But when you're actually staring someone in the face who believes you're lying about yourself, or you're perverted, or wrong; someone who would take away all your rights and tell you, no, you are not allowed to be this way. When you get in front of a person like that, it's like they represent everyone, and you are just you, alone. And it's almost impossible to stand up to a giant like that all by yourself. 

At one point, Maria is using the bathroom, and James is alone in the car. He pops open the glove compartment and stuffs about half of Maria's heroin into his shoulder bag. He doesn't seem to have a clear idea why he's doing this, but he does it anyway. 

They arrive at a casino on the outskirts of town. It's huge and mirrored and complex, and when they get inside, James loses track of Maria almost instantly. She abandons him, it seems. He eventually finds her playing a slot machine. She has shifted from being overly invested to totally dismissive. James seems to sense this; he tells Maria that he's going to go smoke, but he really calls his girlfriend, who comes to pick him up. 

It's a remarkably quiet ending. There was so much emotional buildup, plus the fact that this kid now has $200 worth of heroin on him. Nothing is settled. Nothing is done. 

It's a hard ending for a reader to reckon with, but it makes sense. Throughout the book, Maria tells herself over and over again that if she could just think it through hard enough, she would eventually get to the root of her problems. She could figure herself out and be better, somehow. Be happy and not messed up. The ending seems to suggest that that will never be possible for her, and it will never be possible for James, either. This is the world trans people live in. There's no ultimate acceptance, there are no real conclusions, just survival and existence. 

The similarity of the voice between Maria and James, combined with our ability as readers to exist inside both of their heads at once, made me think that maybe they are one person. Maybe James is Maria's creation, a mental exercise she uses as part of her journey of self discovery. Maybe she feels that if she could go back and help her younger self earlier, she could get herself out of this state of arrested development she's come to inhabit since the time of her transition. 

But then how are we to read James's theft of the heroin, and his ultimate departure? Maybe Maria snorted half the heroin at once and OD'd. Maybe his leaving her at the casino is representative of her finally letting go that part of herself. 

Or maybe I should just take it at face value. This book is nothing if not blunt, after all. 

http://store.topsidepress.com/shop/nevada-in-paperback/