It’s Complicated

Detransition, Baby by torrey peters. new york: one world. 352 pages. $27.

The cover of Detransition, Baby

TORREY PETERS HAS BEEN self-publishing and giving away her stories online for pay-what-you-like prices since the mid-2010s. In the short works The Masker, Glamour Boutique, and Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones—a sci-fi contagion story about hormones—Peters zeroes in on moments when her trans protagonist behaves or thinks in ways that communal consensus has agreed is “wrong.” Peters simplifies nothing, explains nothing to the outsider, which is why she is treasured by readers who are also protective of her and her work. For as long as such stories have stayed in the underground, where people make an effort to understand one another, fans who love Peters’s racy honesty haven’t had to worry much about how it fits into the broader literary culture.

Her new novel, Detransition, Baby, however, just came out from a Random House imprint called One World. This is a certified piece of literary fiction, meaning it must pass a sophistication test with high stakes. Anti-trans rhetoric shouldn’t dictate the terms of trans art or its reception, but it does—sometimes before the art is ever made. The jumble of books and blogs and films and tropes that we call “trans discourse” itself offers an inevitably limited view of trans experience. It is composed only of what trans people are willing to reveal, what their editors are willing to publish, and what the literary community is prepared to remember as literature. This isn’t to say that trans artists or writers are essentially inhibited, trembling before the imagined judgment of the cis reader. But the way a piece of art about trans existence is received depends on a host of social factors.

What to do about it might be the key question facing trans writers today. It’s tempting to spend all one’s time in combat, but it’s also tempting to leave anti-trans sentiment out of the work altogether—why let the enemy provoke you into accepting their terms, after all? A certain kind of writer gravitates towards the contradictions and problems inherent to working under these conditions: Andrea Long Chu, for example, has written about our need for complex transition narratives that include the possibility of unhappiness as well as—or in relation to—the goal of personal fulfillment.

Detransition, Baby embraces the reality that relationships, especially romantic or familial ones, place people with different styles of gender into conflicts of interest. By forcing this idea into narrative form, Peters fashions ordinary conversations out of what is often either screamed online or left unsaid. This is not a social novel in the strict sense, because there’s no problem at its heart beyond the immutable problem of coexistence. Writing through the particular confusions facing trans characters seeking love, however, lets Peters show that fiction as an art form has a relationship to fiction as a misrepresentation, either as the result of miscommunication or a deliberate lie, and establishes her as a foremost specialist in situations in which they become difficult to distinguish from one another.

Provocation, in her hands, becomes a method for inviting such misrepresentations into the work. The word detransition performs just this function. Gender detransition is a fact of life for a lot of people, for boring reasons like the military or parents, but the term has been weaponized by anti-trans pontificators who consider it grounds to say you’ll regret this. That it’s been spun into outrage doesn’t mean the ordinary application has disappeared, but the word sits at one of those places in society where people’s conflicting accounts of reality snag and rub. Last year, for example, a book with the risible title Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, a pamphlet-style denunciation of the accounts of trans experience that became a marketable genre after the so-called tipping point of the 2010s, begat more press than its contents warranted.

Emma Kohlmann, Elliptical Forms Different Times of the Day, 2020, acrylic on canvas, 20 1/8 x 29 7/8"
Emma Kohlmann, Elliptical Forms Different Times of the Day, 2020, acrylic on canvas, 20 1/8 x 29 7/8" Courtesy the artist and V1 Gallery

A nonsensical exhortation embedded in a vaguely sexualizing form of address, somewhere between a catcall and B-movie dialogue, the title Detransition, Baby turns out to be a flash-bang strategy for confusing the oncoming reader. Via an inverted double-entendre, the title simply labels the story’s topic—a detransition, and a baby—but its effect proves that it’s impossible to strip the reactionary valence out of a word once it’s in.

The detransitioner in question is a sympathetic person who begins the novel as a man named Ames, but who was previously a woman named Amy. Slowly, we learn that Amy and a beautiful trans woman named Reese were not so long ago on the brink of having a child together, when, in classic human fashion, their own damage—partly kindled by the maternal expression in Reese’s mentorship of Amy’s transition—exploded the relationship.

Reese’s damage is the sexiest, and Peters opens Detransition, Baby with a full blast of it. Reese has a genuine desire to be a mom, but she also has a genuine desire for disrespectful married men. Her trysts with other people’s husbands and wish for a child of her own are related but incompatible. We meet Reese adrift in the feeling that she has missed her only chance at motherhood, which was back with Amy, who no longer even exists. Reese may not know what to do with her desire to mother, but she is highly skilled at reconfiguring it through sex. She and an HIV-positive suitor married to a cis woman, for example, joke about forgoing condoms and “knocking her up.” The notional “danger” of exposing her to the virus turns into something proximate to the “danger” of conception: Reese runs the risk of creating something. In one of the book’s first really astonishing paragraphs, Reese sends the husband “one of the sexiest, but most ostensibly non-sexual, sexts of her life—a short video of her cramming a couple of her big blue Truvada pills into one of those distinctive pastel birth control day-of-the-month clamshell cases.” Without the invisible wife to keep in the dark, however, the hot husband wouldn’t be a husband at all—although Peters gives us little information about her, she is as key to this dynamic as Reese is. Withholding the facts from the wife (or any number of her equivalents) becomes a creative act that engenders yet more secrets and yet hotter desires. Reese and the husband turn each other on with tense and rapid inversions of life and death, fear and desire, vulnerability and control, lie and truth—aspects of heterosexual relationships so normative that they can easily be taken for granted.

While Reese gets on with some picturesque dissolution, Ames has withheld truths of his own to confront. A decidedly nontragic figure who has no trouble attracting partners in either of his/her gender presentations (who are also demonstrably the same person), Ames is still wistful for Reese when he falls for and impregnates a recently divorced cis woman named Katrina. The pregnancy forces Ames to face the prospect of fatherhood, the one social role that feels so impossible it knocks a great crack through the wall of his masculinity, revealing it to be partly a protective fiction. When Ames proposes to Katrina that Reese enter their burgeoning family unit, the fallout reveals fictions at work in the others’ genders, too—ones difficult to reconcile. Isn’t Reese’s eroticization of motherhood also a fiction, one that makes play out of what really requires work? Is the budding friendship between Reese and Katrina a strategic alliance masquerading as solidarity, and what’s the difference between strategic alliance and solidarity, anyway?

Detransition, Baby has a conventional plot, as far as novels go, and its satirical bite invites comparison to novels of marriage and self-sabotage like Mary McCarthy’s A Charmed Life or John Updike’s Couples. Like those writers, Peters takes swipes at the bad ideas in her way, but only in order to formulate different ones: Amy is afraid of self-pity, for example, but frames her fear in cultural terms, refusing to become “a trans version of those Didion-worshipping bourgeois white girls who subscribed to a Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain, those minor-wound-dwelling brooders with no particular difficulties but for an inchoate sense of their own wronged-ness.”

Resolving the moments of language failure between each character turns out to be a larger project of acknowledging and articulating fear: Reese’s fear of never being a mother, Ames/Amy’s fear of ever being a father, Katrina’s fear of what happens after you realize your husband bores you to tears, everybody’s fear of looking stupid. Nobody wants to stare down their own fear, Peters suggests, because doing so means acknowledging the limits of fiction’s capacity to help.

This is an artful book, and in it, Peters creates a literary style out of the particulars of gendered misunderstanding. Turn a feeling into a performance and you invite irony into the situation, which can, as with drag, be misconstrued as dishonesty if you’re not getting it. But a joke flying over most people’s heads can intensify its effect; a true confession taken the wrong way, in contrast, can be agony. Detransition, Baby sails straight into the pain, to show that sex, death, and reproduction are not made less prone to fictionalization by their physical tangibility, but more so, and that the fight for control over them is the origin rather than the ending-place of lies, stories, prejudices, and misfires. The white-hot and scandalizing effect of Detransition, Baby burns all whose fascination compels them to reach out and touch.

Jo Livingstone was awarded the 2020 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.