The Book(s) I Want

I’D LIKE TO DESCRIBE AN ORDINARY ENCOUNTER WITH GENDER. Which is fiction. I walk into a hardware store and I ask where the spray bottles are. He directs me. He-seeming person. I grab one and walk back to the register. I shove it toward him and he goes “three-oh-mmph.” I don’t know what the mmph is. I say what. He says if you give me four cents (as I hand him a five) I can give you back two dollars. I know how it works I explain. He hands me the two dollars and then says thank you ma’am. Now I bet many male-seeming people might not describe that exchange as gendered.

Yet he took my what as not understanding. Or consider the blurrier thought that he was bugged by my questioning him. He couldn’t imagine himself inaudible but he could imagine me dumb and that somehow I had never received change in a store before. When I aggressively insisted that I did understand how giving him the exact change in tandem with a larger bill indeed ensured that I would get bills back not change he probably thought this person was being hostile for even correcting him and since he guessed I was female I was just being a bitch. He wasn’t going to call me bitch but he did want to say something to the effect that I was female and that was the problem. Because women always make things complicated and problematic. So to put the point on that he said ma’am. Thank you ma’am. Meaning I think you are a woman hence a pain in the ass. Or maybe he even knew I didn’t hear him. But that annoyed him. Maybe I am old and female.

But the point of all this is gender. I think if any part of this occurred with a guy he would have given him wide berth at every moment—either out of respect, politeness to an older guy who can’t hear, or else to avoid danger—because to treat the other (supposed) guy like a pain in the ass could either escalate into simple unpleasantness and it’s a hardware store, a man place, so nobody wants that (to stir the shit) or actual violence. Because you really never know when the other guy is nuts. But possibly he wasn’t even thinking at all. But I was. So it’s my problem, not his.

I think of my friend who worked in a Silicon Valley corporation for years and though the bosses were Christian and conservative they required sensitivity-training sessions of all kinds—race, gender, sexuality. Because they didn’t want any of that shit at work. They valued the flow of labor more than they cared about politics because they wanted to get the maximum from each of their employees and all their employees all day long as a group.

I think of “corporate” as body sounding. And the corporation of men works that way too. There’s a corporation of men at all times in the world and if they think you are a woman or worse if you think you are not a woman but also not a man you will be adamantly reminded that you do not fit and the policing word is always a gendered word. That’s what I feel. How many times have I apparently bothered a man on a panel somewhere and he suddenly slyly goes well Ms. Myles. . . . I just saw it on TV last night. I was watching Borgen and the conservative minister on his way to making his point prodded the female prime minister with her gender as if it were his dick. He suddenly shifted into Mrs. Prime Minister as if he had advanced a threat. Remember what you are. This sort of analysis I’m doing here is actually fairly common in literature written by women and by gender-neutral people and/or by queers and endlessly deployed by people of color in terms of race. We write about it because we are endlessly encased by a discourse. I just read Anna Burns’s Milkman and I have to say at the outset that the book ended badly for me, it cascaded into a pink and blue confetti of cute things little boys and girls were doing in the street in parody of all the adults. I was disappointed by the rampant heterosexuality of it.

Some days I just get pissed off by couples kissing in the street. Their privilege makes me pissed as hell. But throughout Milkman, which was largely brilliant, Anna Burns examined in an embodied and aesthetic fashion the gender politics of ’70s Belfast society during the Troubles. It was skillful and fascinating.

It was machinic. It was Becketty, the writing being driven remorselessly by a darkness, a sense of claustrophobia which I think represented the repressive conditions in Ireland probably still to some extent but especially then. She knew it like a woman had to know it, in a dangerously controlled partisan show.

And that reminds me of an encounter I had in Cambridge a few years back at the screening of a documentary about a beloved Irish Peacekeeper who had such mediating skills that he was called upon to conduct such sessions all over the world. But along the way, in the film, there was so much sexism in his personal life I felt that this was the one war he could not touch. I asked him in the Q&A about this gender issue and he exploded both onstage and off at the suggestion he should think about his own masculinity, his gender behavior, as another war zone worthy of some kind of détente.

So here is my ask. I want fiction by “men” in which they go into real detail about the internal mechanics of their own masculinity. I want evidence of that interiority on the page. Does it exist. All I’ve ever seen is silence or violence. I mean he’s perpetually doing it, the performance of being a man in writing, but he concomitantly refuses its existence except when there’s a glitch, meaning a woman, a queer, or an oddly behaving man. It’s like the only way a man ever talks about gender at all is by talking about them. Never talking about how it is to be a man.

That’s what I want. Before it’s over. Because I am for the abolition of gender difference. Or at least of a system that insists on two, placing one above the other. I want nothing short of the end of patriarchy. And I think you, guy, could bring it on if you would share with me your codex. If you can’t then you are bound to keep reproducing the trauma which is exactly where we’re at.

Gimme that book. Give me lots of them.

Eileen Myles is a poet, novelist, and art journalist. Their most recent book is For Now (2020), part of Yale University Press’s “Why I Write” series.