Review: $how Trans by Elliott Deline
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Elliott Deline’s new book, $how Trans, reads like a journal that has been edited to read like narrative. It’s a rollercoaster of a read. Deline interprets his own and others’ behaviors inconsistently – one minute flagellating himself for his desires and choices, another minute reporting them with eerie detachment, still another minute blaming all his problems on other people.
As the author of a romance book with a trans protagonist, I chose to write a world where things are a little bit better, go a little bit smoother than is usual in real life. I felt that folks could use a feel-good book where a trans man finds love and the conflict has nothing to do with his gender. It is a realistic trans* story in the same way that most romance is realistic, and important only if it succeeds in providing warmth and hope.
Happy possibilities and best-case-scenarios aside, there are other important trans* stories. This one doesn’t waste any time on how being trans* can be a blessing (not even in disguise) or what amazing lessons and perspectives a trans* person is given. Deline is handing over his experiences, edited and shaped but remarkably honest, and they are frequently painful. Banal or hypersensitized, his responses to events vary according to a complicated chemistry of anger and exhaustion, awareness and blockage, disgust and need.
The use of first person memoir to tell stories in which the person frequently blacks out – not passes out, but has memory blackouts – is both compelling and severely restricted. Deline remembers at least one instance of rape, but questionable consent is a constant thread throughout the book, and some crucial moments when consent might have happened are erased by Deline’s dark memory. Moments of decision, moments of pressure. These disappear into a shrug, Deline’s admission that he doesn’t remember what came next.
On the other hand, there are plenty of stories told in great detail that carry a similar weight of indecision, with Deline often bowing to pressure in ways that don’t feel like decision-making. Another thread through the book is that things just happen – sex, love, rejection – with Deline barely paddling either with or against the flow. In this tone, I hear the voice of an addict, and Deline uses the word himself about his relationship with sex. His struggle to exert his will over his life is as painful to read as it is chillingly realistic for so many.
There is no truth in this book but the author’s truth. No attempt has been made to balance or flesh out Deline’s understanding of events, except with his own changing perspective through time. In the scenes with Grindr hookups or the more regular sex trade partners, this doesn’t seem to matter. I’m only interested in what Deline is feeling and how he is experiencing his own desires and those of others. His descriptions of wanting something more nebulous than sex from them are compelling. Some of his strongest voice, moments when I can practically hear him speaking, is in the agonizing confusion of being inadequately gendered by sex partners who simplify him, deny him, or just use him and ignore his need for someone to understand his maleness and blend of masculinity and femininity.
The relationship he has with the object-of-love is beautiful and empty, formed of feelings and denied by them, as unwanted by the object as it is impossible to give up. In some of the most intimate description in the book, the object is brought only into soft focus. Deline doesn’t give us a well-rounded, complex character in the person. It is the image of love and of the lover that we see in the book. The person is specific only in that no one else affects Deline the same way. We don’t get to know this person at all and have no idea whether or not we would sympathize with their version of this situation.
It’s not about that, though. It’s about Deline’s experience of love and loss, love and rejection, love and hate. While the object-of-love is vague, Deline’s response to him is not. He feels his way through the relationship, his desire and yearning the strongest impressions provided us. This is where Deline’s authorial voice is given the reins and allowed to speak. He provides a little context with some nice descriptions of Santa Cruz, for example, but focuses on the feeling of being in yet another situation he doesn’t control. The hope he holds for this situation doesn’t outweigh the sense of doom I have as the reader. His hope is tenuous and depends far too much on other people. His pursuit and eventual loss use the same personal and interpersonal tools he’s been using in the rest of his life – assumption, unwarranted hope, and blind pushing. There is no way that this love will be the growth experience that changes everything for him. This is not a romance.
I sense that there is a lot of truth to the idea that Deline’s life has been made harder by some of the people in it. On the other hand, the way he moves toward a mode of blaming others makes me think of people I know who’ve gone into therapy and started looking for “causes” for their behavior or experience of the world. More than a reliable indictment of the people involved, I got the image of a person struggling to change. He admits to self-diagnosing his sex addiction and Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), which I find telling as a search for explanation more than a convincing diagnosis.
His desire to understand his own choices grows through the book and provides the bulk of the narrative continuity. I’m not certain he comes to a place of great self-knowledge, but he does find support from outside that helps him feel better about himself. Perhaps self-love will open the door to self-knowledge.
$how Trans was provided to me free for an unbiased review. I’m a tough grader.