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Tuesday, June 1, 2021

'Detransition, Baby' by Torrey Peters

From the BLURB:

Reese almost had it all: a loving relationship with Amy, an apartment in New York City, a job she didn’t hate. She had scraped together what previous generations of trans women could only dream of: a life of mundane, bourgeois comforts. The only thing missing was a child. But then her girlfriend, Amy, detransitioned and became Ames, and everything fell apart. Now Reese is caught in a self-destructive pattern: avoiding her loneliness by sleeping with married men. 

Ames isn’t happy either. He thought detransitioning to live as a man would make life easier, but that decision cost him his relationship with Reese—and losing her meant losing his only family. Even though their romance is over, he longs to find a way back to her. When Ames’s boss and lover, Katrina, reveals that she’s pregnant with his baby—and that she’s not sure whether she wants to keep it—Ames wonders if this is the chance he’s been waiting for. Could the three of them form some kind of unconventional family—and raise the baby together? 

This provocative debut is about what happens at the emotional, messy, vulnerable corners of womanhood that platitudes and good intentions can’t reach. Torrey Peters brilliantly and fearlessly navigates the most dangerous taboos around gender, sex, and relationships, gifting us a thrillingly original, witty, and deeply moving novel.

‘Detransition, Baby’ by US author Torrey Peters came out in January of this year and has become perhaps the most buzzed-about book of the moment – and not necessarily for the best of reasons. 

This book came on my radar – rather deliciously, in hindsight – when it was one of 16 titles longlisted for The UK Women's Prize for Fiction, and received backlash from trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs). Peters – a trans woman, writing about trans identity – dealt with the backlash with absolute aplomb in interviews and essays (as for iNews), and I simply had to know what this book was, that had won the admiration of so many readers and booksellers I trust, and the scorn of bigoted communities I despise.

Turns out – ‘Detransition, Baby’ is one of the most original, chaotic, luscious, and confronting reading journeys I’ve ever had the joy to experience. It’s a book that when I was reading it and had to put it aside, I’d keep thinking what I’d just read in that chapter and I’d count down the hours until I could crack it open again. It’s a book that when I finished reading, I was bereft. It’s the rare experience to know while you’re in the middle of something for the first time, that you’ll crave this moment of newness and wish you could go back to experience it anew all over again. 

‘Detransition, Baby’ is the story of three very different characters orbiting one another. There’s Reese – a trans woman living in New York whose long-term, five-year lesbian relationship with another trans woman ended years ago, when her partner decided to detransition and become a cis male. Reese is now aimless and slightly self-destructive, partnering up with married cis men who treat her rough and keep her secret.

Then there’s Ames – who when Reese knew him her name was Amy, and she was a trans woman and Reese’s long-term partner. A violent encounter had Ames detransitioning and cutting off all ties with their previous trans community, Reese included. Ames has been living in a somewhat liminal existence, but a slight grounding came when he started a clandestine affair with his married cis boss, Katrina – who does not know that Ames was once Amy.

Katrina is even more shocked when she gets pregnant and Ames is the father, since she assumed that he was infertile for his allusions to being unlikely to progenate. But conceive they have, and now the three of them – Ames, Katrina, and Reese – have a baby on the way. Because Ames has declared that he likely can’t go through with parenthood (and not that even more abstract concept, fatherhood) without the presence of Reese, the last person he was meant to start a family with. 

That’s the basic gist of the story – and forgive me if this sounds caustic for the pronouns, but I’m meaning to only refer to general concept when I say; ‘Three Men and a Baby’ 1987 film vibes. Which was itself meant to pull laughs from the supposedly ~ToPsY tUrVy~ flip of gender-roles to have three bachelors care for a baby, what madness! Peters and ‘Detransition, Baby’ is taking a similar premise but going, obviously, deeper and playing with gender-roles again and archetypes throughout society as she plays with what it means to be a family. Even in theory. And actually; ‘Surprise, baby!’ plots abound in literature, from the Virgin Mary of the Bible to Les Misérables and Jean Valjean becoming a single-father to Cosette. It is a truly ingenious plot-‘trope’ that Torrey Peters has designed to launch this far-reaching millennial story. 

And ‘Detransition, Baby’ is very much a millennial story … I eye-roll slightly (and still) when people say that Sally Rooney is “the first great millennial novelist,” because ‘Normal People’ was ~fine~ but honestly, Torrey Peter’s book pulled far more introspection out of me, and moved me in a way that Rooney just could never. In Torrey Peter’s novel I found a deep and cathartic confrontation of womanhood. Reese is undoubtedly the MVP of the novel, even though I came to love all three main players, it’s Reese who has the most poignant and sometimes toxic thoughts on femininity, and what it means to be a woman. It's Reese who is snarky-elegance, encased in fragile ego and a yearning so bone-deep it's beautiful.

When we meet her, Reese is fully-aware that she is entering into unhealthy relationships with cis men who are using her. At the start she’s the ‘other woman’ to a Manhattan Cowboy who has already contracted (barely detectable) HIV from a previous trans partner, and is again cheating on his wife who is currently trying to conceive via IVF, he’s now cheating on her with Reese. In Reese’s story of sexual encounters with this man and others like him, ‘Detransition, Baby’ often becomes fairly erotic and highly charged, as Reese enters into slight BDSM bedroom relations with these men. At one point she likens this to a desire to be meek and hurt; the ultimate feminine is to be vulnerable, aggression is the male response. Now – just because it’s written doesn’t mean it’s true, or that Torrey Peters actually believes this herself. But her character Reese does, deep down. Reese – like a true millennial – is in many ways caught between her boomer upbringing (the cusp of a bygone era of almost-Betty Draper’s and the American housewife she still secretly views as the pinnacle of womanhood) and a new generation of ‘baby transes’ for whom she is a sort of mother-figure and matriarch, but who have a very separate world outlook to her which she often, hilariously, comments on; 

This is what happens when the only trans voices out there are the loudest, shrillest trans girls constantly publishing dogmatic Trans 101 hot takes to rebuke the larger cis public. You get people thinking that in order to avoid offending trans people, you must locate and follow a secret guidebook filled with the arcane rites, instead of just thinking about them decently, as you would anything else.

It’s through Reese that I think we get some of the most perfect captures of pop-culture and nostalgia that Torrey Peters articulates beautifully. Like this one musing from Reese, which is entirely factual and something I didn’t even know I’d remembered and realised the difference until Peters put it right in front of me, perfectly;  

In Reese’s memories of childhood, night had a different blue-black tone than in her adult life. And, in fact, she later learned when she returned to visit Madison after a long hiatus, this change in the color of night was not an illusion of time and remembrance but a historical fact. Like most American cities, Madison, Wisconsin, had replaced the blue-white lighting of incandescent and mercury-vapor streetlamps with the orange of sodium-vapor. This not only required less energy to run but, because a trick of the human eye perceives orange light to be brighter and thus more revealing than the same lumens of white-blue light, cities installed sodium-vapor in the “super-predator”-panicked nineties as a method to deter street crime. 

The history of Ames/Amy and Reese is also a delectable and depressing story-thread in the book … possibly mistaken for soap-opera, but is actually Peters accurately and brilliantly inviting readers into the realities of queer communities and tangled relations. Ames is as much an enigma to himself as Reese and readers, but brings their story of childhood, young adulthood, transitioning and then detransitioning so honesty to the page that it reads painful, for being so bared. 

The past is past to everyone but ghosts.

If I had any issues with the novel, it was something that author Roxane Gay had a near-perfect explanation of on their Goodreads review; “Some of the storytelling was too... indulgent is maybe the word I'm looking for, like, when you're in the groove as a writer, loving what you're writing, digging down into it, and you don't know where to stop. But that's okay!”

It’s true; some of the monologues and character dialogues are a little too neat and sharp, I’d call it rehearsed if it wasn’t novel-form. But at the same time, much of these thoughts being made to a fine-point are so important that I was willing to let it pass when character maybe went on a little too long or too-articulately;  

Every year, the list of murdered trans women, most of color, grows longer. Among those cases, the number of victims who were misgendered in their own obituaries is greater than the number of victims whose murderer has been identified. 

Finally; I just want to acknowledge that I know this book won’t be for everyone. Maybe it’s too erotically-charged, sex-scenes are more graphic than some people want in their literary reads. Maybe people won’t want to engage with the ideas Reese is musing on about what it means to be a woman; ingrained in her from a myriad lived-experiences and distorted pop-culture that she’s absorbed and can’t dispel so easily when it’s ingrained in society and ideals of femininity. Maybe it’s just the audaciously lush and brilliantly true-chaotic depictions of queer communities and families that won’t sit well with people – for their own issues. 



I think those people are missing out – but at the same time I’ve been genuinely moved to see so many more take this book and just ~run~ with it. Which was my experience too. One of sheer joy and adoration for Torrey Peters and what she’s done here; this genuinely enjoyable and fabulous reading experience that had me gasping and crying and missing these characters as soon as I finished (but I am so glad it’s getting the TV adaptation treatment, it must be said. If only so I can experience them anew, again.) 

And I also want to say; ‘Detransition, Baby’ clarified for me that I need to read and engage with the ideas being put out by trans authors. This was also distilled for me in a recent (brilliant) write-up of cis male author Craig Silvey’s ‘Honeybee’ book, which features a trans protagonist. Sydney Review of Books had the ‘own voices’ piece ‘Review: Oliver Reeson on Craig Silvey. Not Who, But How’ … which is an important read regardless (highlighting how woeful Australian arts commentary is nowadays) but also reinstating for me why I had no interest in reading ‘Honeybee,’ or pretending I ever enjoy Silvey’s words or worlds. 

There. I said it. 

‘Detransition, Baby’ unlocked a lot in me. Not just a cathartically deep-down enjoyable read, but also an and edge-of-your-seat chaotic reading in which I was desperate to turn the pages and so joyful at being in this author’s world, nested in their words and characters. It is hands-down one of my favourite-ever experiences that I won’t soon forget, and I can’t wait to read what Torrey Peters does next. She’s an essential read to me now. 


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