With my PhD in English Literature at Edinburgh University about to begin, I will be reading lots of stuff this year. Do not expect weekly reviews, I do not read quickly. But I will share with you anything interesting I do read, whether it’s a novel that’s in vogue, or something from my course that I think is worth knowing that broadened my horizon. I’ll be reading a lot of things about transgender discourse, but hopefully, a lot of things which aren’t, as well.
Tiny Pieces of Skull by Roz Kaveney
In Tiny Pieces of Skull, the Lambda-award-winning novel woven around the lives of a network of trans women in the late 1970s, a twilight world is opened up to the reader of ‘street life and bar life’ on the margins of polite society. The magic that gleams from the darkness is proof of the paradox at the heart of the story: this is a bildungsroman, a tale of a formative, spiritual education, no less uplifting or poignant for the violence and unstable conditions the characters find themselves in. The protagonist, Annabelle, is no Victorian heroine à la Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot or Jane Austen, in spite of her own casual displays of a formal education that ought to have taken her along a more publicly legitimate pathway. Yet in embracing her transness, she has both liberated herself from an original destiny and condemned herself to an existence judged by law enforcers and clients as degenerate, and fair game.
The theme of destiny, and its subversion, is announced early. On deciding to leave London for Chicago, Annabelle is accused by a friend of trying to “ignore history, to step outside it and start again … you regard yourself as some kind of totally free agent” (2015: 28). A familiar transgender crisis-point rears its head, so recognizable in the work of the trans writer and director Lana Wachowski: the protagonist decides on a defiant bid to embrace the truth, whatever the consequences, including to be consigned to some desert of the real – ironically, like Wachowski’s Matrix, the location is Chicago, though in the case of Kaveney’s novella more 1979 than the 1999/2199 in Wachowski’s cyberpunk story. Warned that the taking of her own proverbial red pill will end in tears, Annabelle replies, “But tears that are at last authentically mine, perhaps.”
What transpires in Chicago is Annabelle’s re-constituting of herself within an ostensibly amoral world, less Bronte’s Jane Eyre than a sometimes menacing, Pinteresque setting. To one sceptical warning, she says, “Falsehood has become, if you like, my first name and my last … untrustworthy and unreliable … I am a thoroughly bad lot, at last, and I am really enjoying it.” Meant to cower in self-shame as a trans woman dependent on sex work and bar work, Annabelle defiantly appropriates the scarlet letter; she will not be ashamed, but instead take quiet pride in her friends and her survival as she makes a new life for herself. One result is a surreal comedy of contrasts, of a refined survivor and social ‘degenerate’ pragmatically making the best of her circumstances and options. At one point, she is described in an S&M double-act, Annabelle the good cop to her friend Natasha’s bad cop while a client squirms underneath them: “Annabelle had gathered that her role in all of this was to sit still well out of the way and look sinisterly uninvolved … Once the man had a blindfold on she used the opportunity to get on with reading Proust.” Later, and having been praised for her performance, Annabelle produces a pithy reply before marking “her place in Proust with a piece of discarded thong” (114).
In spite of the wickedly amusing incongruity that frequently arises, there are some harrowing moments, and these provide the essential other side to the story’s lightness, with simmering violence waiting to erupt without warning. In one shocking, brilliantly realized scene, Annabelle finds herself trapped at the hands of a rapist, whom she escapes through quick-thinking trickery (90-95); the tragic story of the initially annoying Tiffany, meanwhile, is memorable because of what emerges from the general absence of pathos or self-pity, with Tiffany revealed gradually as silently suffering physical agony, along with an oppressive familial background that may drag her back into self-abnegation and invisibility. A strength of Tiny Pieces of Skull is the tense unpredictability at its heart: the trans female characters may separately be annoying, selfish, or simply unremarkable, but behind each of them is a survival story, and the absence of elaboration adds to their poignancy. As Tiny Pieces of Skull concludes in its final words with a broader message, “part of the point of feminism is that there are no minor characters” (179). Through this story, we are reminded not to make assumptions or judgements of such figures who have so little, and whose desire to be remains defiantly uncontained.