"The Narrator, Who May or May Not Be Genetically Female"

"Nobody Passes," Make/shift, Spring/Summer 2009

It’s true—while biotechnology continues to advance by leaps and bounds, we are not yet at the point where we can test the ink on this page for its gender. True, in the more environmentally concerned publications, these letters may well be created from genetically modified soy, a specialty we look upon with a great deal of pride. Even if the letters are made with the old, reliable petroleum-based ingredients—yes, yes there are certainly genes to be examined in there—the remains of fossilized animals stuck in the wrong place at the right time, thank you, big oil! But we have not yet specialized our scientific radar to hone in on the masculine or feminine; with genes this is difficult. Sometimes it is even difficult with jeans, but we promise you—this technology is on the horizon.

Publishers Weekly, the industry standard-bearer, did not deign to touch any of my first five books, except perhaps when an editor’s assistant yelled to her intern: “recycling!” So, when a PW reviewer declared my new novel, So Many Ways to Sleep Badly, “profane meanderings” and scolded the book for its “bitchy play-by-play,” I was quite, um, amused. I mean, I fully subscribe to the cliché that all press is good press, but what I didn’t know until I read the sentence beginning, “The narrator, who may or may not be genetically female . . . ” was that I’d written a mystery novel.

It’s interesting that the reviewer chose “genetically female” over the more common yet still problematic “biologically female”—apparently this reviewer/scientist wanted to go beyond the classic pull-down-your-pants-and-see-what-you-can-stick-your-fingers-into gender-assessment test. Perhaps that mode of categorization is no longer considered polite behavior, and now the invasion must move to the microscopic. That’s right—break out the biotechnology experts and let’s bring science to the rescue!

The narrator in question starts the book in a cruising park, continues in a Bikram yoga class where “they turn the heat up to 120 degrees and the instructors wear microphones like Janet Jackson,” and then in the second paragraph waits for the shower while “some guy steps out with a dick like a bowling pin, Rolling Pin Donuts, sending me back and forth from Collingwood Park to Dolores Beach with no luck either way, it’s too late at night for cruising.” Third paragraph is a return to the locker room where there’s “a guy I’d kill for, maybe I already killed for him but it got me nowhere. Either he’s Italian and plucked or French and radiated, but cute faggots can’t talk to cute straight boys in locker rooms, so I’m just studying the curve of his spine and all that’s around it.”

Now, to any not-so-astute reader, it seems immediately apparent that the narrator, who may or may not be genetically female, is nonetheless campily bemoaning the fact that “cute faggots can’t talk to cute straight boys in locker rooms” while studying the curve of a guy’s spine. Desire seems quite clear, if physical space and linear time are not so clearly delineated. And, sure, pronouns in this book come and go, ebb and flow, shift and turn and burn—yes, if there’s one thing that’s clear, other than desire and all of its problems, it’s that socially assigned gender is not in the cards for these characters.

Okay, so a charitable reading of this reviewer’s “genetically female” gaffe is that maybe this reviewer has never met (or read about) someone such as the narrator of So Many Ways to Sleep Badly, a queen who insists on shifting gender pronouns depending on mood and intention—how frustrating when someone actually thinks about language in the everyday (and how hard for a reviewer)! Maybe this reviewer has never encountered a character like Alex, who at one point

calls from New York, he was at the gym in the women’s locker room and two big guys followed him in—excuse me sir, do you have a problem? New York Sports Club on 7th Avenue just above Christopher, the same gym that opened without a steam room so fags couldn’t cruise. It was the early ’90s, and I think people actually protested, but there’s no protest for Alex who has to say I’m a woman—even if he doesn’t believe it.

Do you see what I’m saying? Maybe the reviewer just got confused, didn’t think that confusion was productive and wanted to call in the authorities.

More likely, however, the reviewer wasn’t talking about the narrator at all, but about some other individual who may or may not be genetically female. A certain author, perhaps?

The publishing authorities are always ready to police the boundaries of what is considered marketable. I mean acceptable. I mean good writing. With all of my books, I’ve struggled against niche-marketing tyranny, which declares that everything outside the supposed center of normalcy must speak to that center or stay out of the “mainstream.” Too many people are destroyed by this type of regulation for me to risk furthering its sway. With So Many Ways to Sleep Badly, I felt it was especially crucial to make the reader enter on the narrator’s terms—so much good writing is ruined by explication. Sure, you might get confused by someone’s gender, oh no! At times—or maybe the whole time—you may not know exactly where you are or what exactly is taking place. Maybe you start breathing deeper, but at first you think you’re holding your breath. And yes, that means you can surround yourself with the texture of language and possibility, even when faced with the overwhelm of the everyday.

Of course, some people aren’t interested in possibility.