A New Experiment in Self-on-self Drag

Trisha Low’s first book The Compleat Purge collected experiments in writing adolescent femininity ranging from suicide notes to spurts of collaborative fan fiction. “Dear Mommy and Daddy and Marsha,” reads the first Preliminary Declaration of “Vol. 1: The Last Will and Testament of Trisha Low.” “If you are reading this then it means that I am dead. I am very sorry.” Over a series of nine wills and testaments, we watch young Trisha grow up as she moves from city to city, accumulating a growing list of objects bequeathable to a revolving door of intimates: a full life presented through imagined death. In her author’s note, Low describes the book as “a transcription of personal ephemera.” Fiction? Nonfiction? The Compleat Purge sneers at such pitiable categories. It rejects, too, the fantasy of authentic identity, insisting on the self as performed, fabricated, artificial: what Low terms “self-on-self drag.”

Where The Compleat Purge relished in performing the delicious narcissism of the morbidly melodramatic teen girl, Low’s new book Socialist Realism is decidedly Adult. More restrained, less indulgent, and properly, legibly, nonfiction, Socialist Realism is a mostly earnest, always engrossing long essay that charts a personal quest for utopia in the form of some kind of home. If this second book is not, frankly, as fun as her first, its pleasures are of an altogether different sort. Low has traded in the no-futurism of her suicidal phantasies in favor of dreams of revolution. A quixotic, improbably sentimental work, Socialist Realism longs for a better world while celebrating the minor joys of this one. This Low is not threatening to bequeath us her Franz Ferdinand CDs; she’s committed to life, for now, and to building a something else, a something more—what might be called home.

“Home, what even is it?” she writes. “I’m not sure, but I know I want it—because home is a chronic matter of wanting. Of forcing desire, despite itself, into a shape—one with a beginning, middle, and end. It’s about futurity.” And it’s a particularly salient problem for Low, now far from her familial home in Singapore, where she grew up before moving West: first to boarding school in London, then to college in the US, where she has remained. Low harbors some guilt over this decision: “Cowardly, I didn’t come home." Instead she has extended her westward migration from the East Coast to the Bay, searching for home elsewhere, even as she distrusts this pursuit. “Home—it’s just something to contain our misplaced desires for a better world. How can we willingly long for that?”

Low’s central question is the place of the domestic within the utopic, an inquiry anchored in the work of her teacher José Esteban Muñoz, specifically his notion of queerness as not-yet-here, a horizon of possibility. Doing a version of Muñoz’s “backward glance that enacts a future vision,” Low adopts a simultaneous present that holds together her former, present, anticipated homes. She is “at home in California,” “back home in Singapore,” not at home in church (but “not-not home” either). She finds home in Lolita fashion; at her grandmother’s house in Hong Kong; in a dream of a house with blue walls. As she leaps between quickly sketched scenes in Singapore, Hong Kong, New York, London, Philadelphia, the Bay Area, and the speculative future, Low builds a layered portrait across blurry points in time and space. It’s a portrait not of Low herself so much as a kind of home: transient and unfixed, here and not here. A roving container for the abstracted self.

That self—Low’s narrative persona—is somewhat removed, obscured by the frothy buildup of texts she thinks through. More commentator than character, Low is most present as a seeking, questioning I-entity. In addition to Muñoz, she draws on Freud, the French filmmaker Maurice Pialat, writer and cultural theorist Svetlana Boym, the artists Kazimir Malevich and Sophie Calle, Jurassic Park (the film), to give a very partial list. Across these texts she moves nimbly, citing, for example, Proust, Chantal Akerman, Kathy Acker, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Chris Burden all within the space of four pages.

Curiously absent is any nod to Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, arguably the formative work of recent queer autotheory. In its tectonic arrangement, prodigious intertextuality, and pursuit of home in the form of queer love, Socialist Realism could almost be said to be patterned after Nelson’s influential book. Like Nelson, Low tracks the love she finds with a genderqueer partner, writing both about and to them (“I want to chart all the ways you make me dizzy, the way you shift with the graceful momentum of what’s changing around me”); and attends to the pleasures and politics of erotic masochism. There’s even a photo-printed ashtray, an analogue, one might argue, to the family-photo-emblazoned mug that Nelson’s friend calls “heteronormative” in The Argonauts, launching a series of questions about what constitutes queerness in relation to the familial. By comparison, the ashtray in Socialist Realism is a bizarre souvenir of a trip to Brighton Beach, where Low and her boyfriend get their photograph printed on the only piece of china they can afford. The painfully posed photograph “looks easy and natural, as if we’ve been married for at least five years.” In fact it’s their second date, and within a few months they’ve broken up. Where Nelson’s mug gets recast a symbol of the queer lurking in the normative, Low’s ashtray becomes a parable about artifice posing as authenticity, and a winking reminder that this book-length essay on “socialist realism” may itself be a kind of posturing: autotheory as a new experiment in self-on-self drag.

If a decade ago many queers were enamored with the alluring radicality of queer negativity, in the Trump era such grandiose nihilism seems puerile. Whether or not Low is drawing deliberately on Nelson, she shares the older writer’s mistrust of the radical, reveling instead in family, the home, gushyushy love—“I’m soupy like a kitchen sponge, saturated and swimming,” Low writes of a quietly intimate domestic scene with her lover, the poet Syd Staiti. Yet unlike Nelson, Low seems to distrust these more orthodox attachments even as she is performing them. Early on, she beholds Kazimir Malevich’s later work at his Tate Modern retrospective: “I have to contend with the horror of watching an artist degenerate into his own sentimentality.” My initial reactions to Low’s own book were, to be honest, similar. But like Malevich’s “blank colored circles” that stand in for faces, Low leaves a great deal open and unsure, resisting a romanticized now in favor of—struggle.

As the quixotic gets undercut by the pragmatic and back again, the essay’s uncertainty sprawls. No vehement Tiqqun treatise, Socialist Realism is a searching book; indeed, as the questions keep coming Low achieves a vertiginous effect. Written in an engagingly casual, millennial punk style, it is eminently quotable, yet has moments of glibness. At one point Low describes an encounter with Lucy Skaer’s Leviathan Edge—basically a whale skull as art: “To me, the beauty of [the work] is that no matter how much you long to, you can never see this sought-after skeleton, its contours and edges, in its entirety. Rather, like any identity, it has to be believed in order to be seen.” The leap from skeleton to “any identity” here reads as flimsy. Or maybe it’s the slippage from “self” or “subjectivity” to this cruder, facile word. More nuanced—and more compelling—are the ways Low negotiates responses to a reading of part of this book. An audience member thanks her for her vulnerability. Another says they were “convinced I was vehemently against the very aesthetic with which I’m currently engaged.” The experience leads Low to ask, “Does writing about race make my writing ‘realism,’ a David Attenborough documentary special? Does it matter?”

She addresses her own identity categories with directness and some frustration at the ways in which what she calls “the story of identity” can reduce. Her Asianness is “simply true,” she writes, a circumstance of her life. So is being “only gay sometimes.” And her class status: How could she write a book invested in socialist principles without coming clean about her rich (like, very) parents? Tellingly, she first shares this fact in the third person, as a past self admitting as much to her friends. Later, in one of the book’s most memorable scenes, she expresses disgust when her mother asks her to purchase a twenty-five thousand dollar purse for her in San Francisco. Low objects strongly but doesn’t refuse. “I resent my parents childishly for their wealth,” she admits. “I resent the filial piety that compels me to do whatever they ask.”

During a May Day protest that turns violent, Low falls and busts open her knee, an injury bad enough to take her to the hospital. Later, at home with her friends, she observes, “It feels like we’re building a fortress, but that’s silly. I mean, it’s just home, some weird little apartment somewhere. Still, tonight, it feels far outside the world. It feels, in its own way, like more of a utopia than the one we were marching to live.” Is this a too-convenient way to reconcile her insistent, if troubling, desires for domesticity with her radical political investments? Maybe. She’d be the first to admit that possibility. “I don’t know how to struggle correctly,” she might say, a refrain that borrows the language of a facilitator at an S/M waterboarding workshop. During a demo, the facilitator is horrified to discover that Low is holding her breath—“Oh god, stop, you’re a breath holder!” she shrieks after tearing the towel from Low’s face. If you don’t struggle, she explains, your partner won’t know if you’re dead.

This book sees Low struggling mightily, with intention and passion and verve, to accommodate seemingly oppositional impulses. In the end, she finds their synthesis, deciding, with characteristic nonchalance, “Whatever. You can make utopia out of almost anything.” Staging an evenly matched tug of war between the utopian and the quotidian, Socialist Realism yanks us ruthlessly from one position to the other until the two collapse finally on top of each other.

Megan Milks is the author of Kill Marguerite and Other Stories.