Thea McLachlan reviews Casey Plett’s A Dream of a Woman and Jackie Ess’s Darryl.
You should meet David. He’s going to transition. He’s living in Portland, falling in love with a cis girl named Iris and figuring out if he is trans.
When David was eighteen, his stepfather heard that he was struggling with his gender identity. He told David that what he was experiencing “is no different from what millions of young men over centuries have experienced. Searching for a solution, but it’s a solution that doesn’t come. The only thing available? Be happy with who you are.”
At twenty-three, David isn’t happy with who he is. He still doesn’t feel ready to transition, yet he knows that he ultimately will. That’s because there are moments in his life that remind him that all is not how he wants it to be. For instance, he is stoned at home in a skirt and he sees a vision of himself with “skin soft and glittering, covered in translucent layers, his hair falling everywhere, breasts under his clothes, without any doubt on earth in this spinning world that he was not a boy.” Or he is in his lover’s bed, with his eyes “closed under the sheets, and he would shift his body in the bedding and imagine his lover and himself in this spinning, lucent sway.” In that moment between “beginning to move and actually touching her, that was when he most felt like a girl.”
David is the protagonist of “Obsolution,” a story told in five parts throughout Casey Plett’s new collection of short stories A Dream of a Woman. Plett grew up in a Mennonite family in Winnipeg, Manitoba and now lives in Windsor, Ontario. A Dream of a Woman, released this September with Arsenal Pulp Press, follows Plett’s debut short story collection, A Safe Girl to Love, and her Lambda Literary Award-winning novel, Little Fish.
Where Little Fish focuses on a trans community living in Winnipeg—revolving around Wendy Reimer’s quest to understand a secret about her Opa—there is more isolation in Plett’s latest work. In A Dream of a Woman, Plett’s characters struggle with feeling detached from themselves and the world around them. They crave connection and a sense of groundedness, seeking salvation through transitioning and love.
The present is not always a place that we want to be present in. Like many trans and non-binary people before they start transitioning or coming out, David seems stuck: unable to express himself or connect to the world around him. Those experiencing gender dysphoria (a medical term to describe an incongruence between gender assigned at birth and gender identity) are anywhere between three and eighteen times more likely to experience chronic depersonalization and derealization, dissociative conditions in which people feel alienated or estranged from themselves or their surroundings.
In her newsletter Sad Brown Girl, the American academic and author Jules Gill-Peterson goes so far as to describe dissociation as “something like a trans method.” Gill-Peterson pushes against exclusively pathologizing dissociation, developing a new appreciation for it as a method of survival. A neuroscientist once told her that “the kind of hypervigilant circuit, in which you are always devoting a considerable amount of your body and brain’s attention to surveying your environment for threats, is a hallmark of trans life.”
Gill-Peterson’s point isn’t that we should live our lives dissociating from the present. It’s that we need to rebuild the world to make a life of love and fulfillment possible for all of us. Dissociating (rather than mindfully taking in the grim world around us) helps us to glimpse—like jumping on a trampoline to see over a fence—what we need to do to get to that world, both at an individual and collective level. In that sense, there is a kind of utopian ethic to dissociation—a hopefulness unbounded from the slop of the present.
In “Obsolution,” Plett scratches at the generative power of dissociation. In less comfortable moments, she shows us, dissociation can allow us to cope a bit better with the here and now and begin to imagine what a then and there might look like. For David at least, dissociating offers him a chance for survival before he begins transitioning. It provides him with a vision for how he wants to exist in the world so that it can be a bit more livable.
Of course, dissociating isn’t always comfortable, and not all trans and non-binary people experience what the medical community has defined as gender dysphoria. (Many reject the term on the basis that they find it pathologizing.) But those who experience depersonalization or derealization describe a painful absence of feeling.
In 2017, trans health journalist Zinnia Jones conducted interviews with trans and non-binary people to document how they feel. One respondent, Jennifer, said that depersonalization felt “like I was looking at the world through someone else’s eyes … I used to think of it as like the little space alien with the human exo suit in Men In Black.” Haz, a non-binary person, recorded that, “Everything from taste to smell to touch to sexuality and intimacy and conversation feels manufactured and cold and empty.” Lycha, a trans woman, described it as like “trying to replicate an M. C. Escher drawing using a dull piece of charcoal.”
So what helps?
In “Obsolution,” David begins hormone replacement therapy (HRT), which gives him a deeper connection with his body. “His internal self was no longer solely some blank oval of maleness; it was like now, suddenly, he had flesh and muscles and he could feel them and it wasn’t bad.” His body became something, not necessarily that he liked, but that he related to, felt part of and encased by.
But trans and non-binary people who dissociate have often been doing so since puberty. It can take something more than HRT to help them connect to themselves and the world. In A Dream of a Woman, that something more is intimacy and love.
David moves to New York and, at a party, she starts going by Vera. In New York, she finally finds a community of trans people to help her. Intimacy, though, remains difficult. Vera and her former partner Iris stop seeing each other but, eventually, they float back into each other’s lives.
Intimacy is hard for Vera because she had bad sexual experiences with Iris. As she gets older, these experiences lead her to only date other trans girls. But early in her medical transition, Vera and Iris do have sex again. In that moment, Vera seems to grow closer to herself. She feels “the cool of the sheets on her skin.” She realizes that “this is what it’s actually like to be touched.”
“Hazel & Christopher,” another story in Plett’s collection, is written partly as a narrative and partly as a letter from Hazel to Christopher. Hazel, a trans woman, recounts her relationship with Christopher and how that relationship changed when Christopher began to transition. Hazel writes movingly about what their relationship did for her and her connection to her body.
The story begins in the close third person. After Hazel and Christopher begin seeing each other intimately, it shifts to the first, zeroing in not on the relationship, but on how their time together has shaped Hazel. She says that “it was through sex with him that I felt my body flower and come back to me. I felt my skin as a real part of the world.” Hazel, in one of many moments of tender reflection in the collection, says that sex with Christopher felt like a “ghostly hand touching [her] insides, bringing something back to [her] about desire.”
In “Rose City, City of Roses,” Plett explores the special connection that can be felt by two people who are both trans. Plett writes this story as a confessional in the second person, which brings the reader closer to the character’s thoughts. Nicole is writing letters to her dead friend. She writes about kissing Cleo, a “trans dyke.” She says, “We kissed slow, delicately and I felt for the first time the largeness of another human’s body as beautiful.”
This echoes a moving section in Little Fish, where Wendy meets another trans woman, Aileen. While kissing her, Wendy thinks: “Here, here is my skin that feels like your skin, my muscles and frailties that feel like yours, the lift of your flesh something I intuitively know from my own body, inner maps that, for most of my life, I thought were purely shameful and mine alone.”
The trans women in Plett’s stories are not asking for very much. They seek a comfortable, at times ordinary, grounded life in the world. Sometimes, it seems, that grounding comes from grounding yourself in the world of another: having someone to shore yourself up against and experience what people mean when they talk about melting into someone else’s body.
Darryl, the star in Jackie Ess’s debut novel of the same name, also longs for connection. Darryl is a cis white man who begins the book as a cuck. He likes watching his partner, Mindy, have sex with other people (in the same way that you and I, he says, “live vicariously through celebrities”). He writes in his journal in a kind of folksy George Saunders voice. He “prefer[s] hiking to rock climbing” and cuckoldry to “relationship anarchy” and is not a “sophisticated guy.” Darryl’s musings do not seem to expect a public audience. Each chapter is short, staccato. Darryl’s reflections, of which there are many, are both profound and stupid.
Yet Darryl looks to connect to the world through language. We live in a world of words and Darryl would like some words to use to describe himself. He asks: “what links my life to life?” He wants an identity that he can wear, one that fits him chicly around the hips. For Darryl, “there’s something fucked up going on and it’s related to being a man.”
Darryl grows closer to Bill, a cis man, who was having sex with Mindy and is “trying to get more into the cuckolding lifestyle as an alpha.” He becomes friends with a trans woman, Oothoon, but considers himself “too much of a feminist to be trans.” After reading about being “genderqueer,” Darryl says, “I could probably be that but I also think most of the people who use that word, or about [a] dozen other words like it, are my son Tony’s age. And Tony probably beats them up.”
At one point, Mindy starts having sex with a woman called Kit. Darryl feels left out of this relationship. He wishes to “belong to a world of women” but, he says, “I don’t ... I belong to whatever’s beneath the world of men, which some people think is the world of women, but it isn’t at all … So I’m in this null zone that has no name, I’ve fallen out of masculinity, but I never landed, just falling forever.”
Ess is a co-founder of the Bay Area Trans Writers Workshop and now lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia. What is so fun and brilliant about Darryl (published this spring by Clash Books) is how she explores issues of gender and language through a character who, yes, is thinking deeply about these issues, but is also at times misguided or flippant. Darryl’s ambivalence reflects the kind of internal mess many of us feel when thinking through how we fit into the world. That makes Darryl easier to relate to, but also harder to figure out.
Darryl seems to be failed by language. He does not connect to the terms that might otherwise signify his identity. Despite his efforts, he never seems comfortable describing or accepting himself as trans or genderqueer or a cuck. He can’t use those terms to help access a community or to build a stronger relationship with himself. Simply, he is in a “null zone that has no name.”
In part, for Darryl, perhaps the inadequacies of language stem from the inadequacies of his community. He doesn’t have enough people around him who he feels comfortable expressing himself with, so he can’t learn about himself through that process. He just spends a lot of time with his thoughts pinballing around in his skull.
Like the characters in A Dream of a Woman, meaningful, chest-opening relationships ultimately allow Darryl to connect more to the world. Darryl meets Satori (“beautiful dreadlocks,” “probably been to Burning Man,” “knows about Tarot”) at the monthly BDSM & Polyamory Munch in Eugene, Oregon, where the novel is set. It was the kind of thing “people call ‘love at first sight’, when they haven’t done much introspection,” he says.
Satori and Darryl start having sex. After coming during one sexual experience, Darryl “lay there in this quiet moment that felt like forever. I wasn’t male or female, there wasn’t success or failure, there wasn’t even the absence of those things. It was just a moment unmoored from striving, thinking, speaking, not even talking to myself.”
Later, while visiting Oothoon, but wanting to be back with Satori and Bill (who he has started seeing), Darryl feels like he has grown out of issues relating to his identity: “the cuckolding, the trans connection.” Instead, he says, “I care about love. And I have love. At home.”
What is it about connecting with someone that helps us to connect to ourselves? Why does love do this? In A History of My Brief Body, Billy-Ray Belcourt, a writer and academic from the Driftpile Cree Nation, writes about love’s power in the process of self-definition. Belcourt defines love as a kind of spilling over of self-sovereignty. It is a process not of making but of undoing. He quotes the American academic Lauren Berlant who said that love is “one of the few places where people actually admit they want to become different.”
Belcourt interprets this as meaning that “in order to architect a livable world with someone, a loved one, with you, I have to undergo a process of self-abolition, to be in a position of existential risk.” Love, for Belcourt, is something that comes not through control—it’s not a vision of two independent bodies living together—but of jettisoning yourself into another; of confessing, as he puts it, that “I’m prepared to be devastated by you.”
In A Dream of a Woman and Darryl, connecting to yourself and the world doesn’t seem to come from checking in with yourself and your body again and again. It comes from losing yourself in another and in the process, stumbling along the way into a closer relationship with your body and the world. It comes from spilling out into another person. To answer the question that Darryl asks about what connects his life to life (and with the risk that this will make eyes roll), it is love that connects life to life.
At the end of Darryl, Darryl is reeling from bad news. He is driving, on his way to Bill. In the car, he is “just trying to pull [himself] together” but then wonders what people mean when they say this. What Darryl then says gets at the heart of the process of transformation hinted at in both A Dream of a Woman and Darryl. In his cheesy writing style, he asks: “What does it mean to pull myself back together? I don’t want to pull myself together, I want to fall apart.”
Thea McLachlan is a journalist based in Tiohtià:ke/Mooniyang (Montreal) from Aotearoa (New Zealand). She can be reached at [email protected]