Maria Griffiths is almost thirty and works at a used bookstore in New York City while trying to stay true to her punk values. She’s in love with her bike but not with her girlfriend, Steph. She takes random pills and drinks more than is good for her, but doesn’t inject anything except, when she remembers, estrogenddd because she’s trans. Everything is mostly fine until Maria and Steph break up, sending Maria into a tailspin, and then onto a cross-country trek in the car she steals from Steph. She ends up in the backwater town of Star City, Nevada, where she meets James, who is probably but not certainly trans, and who reminds Maria of her younger self. As Maria finds herself in the awkward position of trans role model, she realizes that she could become James’s savior—or his downfall.
One of the most beloved cult novels of our time and a landmark of trans literature, Imogen Binnie’s Nevada is a blistering, heartfelt, and evergreen coming-of-age story, and a punk-smeared excavation of marginalized life under capitalism. Guided by an instantly memorable, terminally self-aware protagonist—and back in print featuring a new afterword by the author—Nevada is the great American road novel flipped on its head for a new generation.Back of the Book
This is my SPOILER-FREE Book Review for
I intend to use the ***ASPECT method for my discussion and will not spoil the ending.
This review was cross-posted over at the Fresno LGBT News Link website under the “Book Flow” tab. under “More”
Sometimes you read a book because it is important. It also might be good. It might also stay with you long after you have put it down on the end table, the end of the couch, the end of the bed…
Sometimes you are lucky.
This book was complicated and I have complicated feelings about it. Let’s jump right in. Going out of order again, but for a REASON, this time…
T / Why THIS Book?
November 20th, 2022 is Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) which is “an annual observance that honors the memory of the transgender people whose lives have been lost in acts of anti-transgender violence.” it seemed like a good time to read a book about a transgender person. Thankfully, in part due to the fact that it is 2022, there were several to pick from. However, I had seen this book mentioned on lists of “Important Transgender Books” and “Very Influenciaial Trangnder Authors” so when I saw it peeking out from behind a little rainbow sign in a bookstore in Oakland back in September, I snapped it up. (In fact, many credits this as the book that invented the trans novel… and it is held as one of the first “T4T” books – that’s Trans-4-Trans…. As in, a book by a trans author written primarily for a trans audience.)
Ok, back to the regular order of things,
A / ATMOSPHERE (Tone)
Ok, I can explain. The book isn’t damp, my copy is doing just fine thank you very much, and there isn’t a lot of rain or anything in the story. (There isn’t much Nevada either, but I digress.) But when someone says the word “damp” you get a sense, right? The overall impression is that something is not quite right in a mostly negative way. It is damp because it isn’t fully dried yet (the bathroom towel). It is damp because you forgot a coaster (the table under my seating cup of iced tea). It is damp because you wore layers because it is only 50 degrees but then you power walked to the coffee shop and your deodorant was the bargain kind (your armpit). Damp.
Other words that would work for the atmosphere/tone of this book: Distressed (like a worn pair of jeans), Depressed (like the saggy part of that couch you found on the curb and used for two years in your college apartment), Dreary (like the rain on a foggy window that is smudged), Drudgery (like the long walk home when you got mugged and your bus pass was in your wallet).
Now, before you think that all my descriptions will be negative, let’s move on.
S / Writing STYLE
Technically it is third person but in practicality, it almost reads like the first person. We get not just the inner thoughts of our characters but the long, long, meandering stream-of-consciousness thoughts and long-winded navel-gazing thoughts as they try to figure themselves out through some pretty epic introspective deep dives. There aren’t a lot of big words, but there are a lot of big concepts. This is definitely a book that you can’t skim. Reading it is like getting a crash course in three different women’s studies /queer theory classes. Which… can be a lot. Which… is totally the point. This book is here to make you think. The characters are here to say the things that the author feels need to be said. The plot serves the inner lives of the characters rather than the other way around. We are not light on descriptions and the whole thing is very lived-in, very easy to picture, and very authentic.
P / PLOT (Pacing)
There is not a whole lot of plot. This is not a road trip book or a book with people doing a bunch of things. Despite the title of Nevada, our first protagonist, Maria, spends the first half of the book in New York and doesn’t even consider leaving the city until close to halfway through. Seriously, on page 144 she says “F–k this coast” with a vague mention of California. And then we pick up a month later with our second protagonist, James, who is in Nevada. We hang with James for the next hundred and ten pages and then the book ends. Yes, there are some things that happen in both sections of the book, but notably, there is a fair bit of things that happen in that missing month and off-screen.
In short, both protagonists spend a lot of time thinking about things and reacting to things. And then the book ends.
E / ENTERTAINING
Ehhh, No. I really had to push myself to finish and then I really, really had to push myself to revisit the book for this review. Again, though, that was kinda the point I think. First off, I personally enjoy more plot-driven books, and spending this much time in anyone’s head can make my eyes sort of glaze. But, secondly, it is important to acknowledge that this isn’t a fun book. It is a book about people dealing with some pretty big stuff like dysmorphia and depression (more “D” words!) in the best way they can figure. And that can lead to the reader feeling a certain amount of discomfort.
But being uncomfortable doesn’t mean we should avoid things. It might mean we have work to do… and honestly, I had to unpack a bit of my own privilege to really get into this book. Entertaining, or enjoyable, doesn’t always correlate to “important and necessary.” This book is proof of that.
However, lest you think this is all dismal (another “D” word!) let’s turn to the thing that saves this novel….
C / CHARACTERS
Holy smokes. We have Maria. We have James. They are both two sides of the same coin and vastly different people dealing with different things. They are also as different from me and my safe cis life as you could probably be. And yet… and yet I felt their pain. I mean, sort of. I know that I can only really scratch the surface of what a person who is part of the trans community goes through, and I in no way want to diminish that. I do want to say that more cis people need to read more non-cis books… and I don’t mean the glossy “everything is fine now” trans stories. Yes, those are important and good and representation matters… but the struggle is also valid, real, and important. This book offered a totally unsanitized hard to look at version of trans people that resonates and resonates hard.
Yes, these characters are complex. No, I don’t think I want to be best friends and travel the world with either of them. Yes, they are amazingly in-depth and vivid. No, I don’t understand a lot of what they are going through. I don’t see myself in these characters but that’s ok. Because I am not one of those characters and this book wasn’t meant for me. I think, *think* that this book is a love letter to those in the transgender community who are still wading through the muck and the mire and dealing with all the stress of 2nd or 3rd puberty, the decision if they want to transition -and how much and in what ways-, the messed up politics of passing, and the whole roller coaster of self identification. I am just lucky that I get to get a glimpse of this world as well.
Now, I don’t want anyone out there saying that these characters are totally perfect stand-ins for all transgender people. No. Their struggles might mirror or serve as reminders of the struggles of others, but I think that the point of this book is to point out the dangers of assuming that everyone is going through the same things as others in their community. You literally cannot tell the mental health, physical issues, gender, or queerness by the surface. This book is a good reminder of that.
Final Thoughts / Would I Recommend It?
Oy. Yes… but with a caveat. This is not a book for everyone. It is slow. It is a character study and these characters are hard to watch, hard to identify with (for some of us), and hard to understand. They are not, however, hard to root for. But then, it ends and since this is a spoiler-free review, I won’t say anything too detailed but the ending definitely is in the “fits with the themes of the book” vs “is happy and wholesome and full of kittens and rainbows.”
But it is an important book. Not just for broadening one’s horizons, but also as a historical document. This book was (and still is) very important to the canon of queer and trans literature. For that reason alone, it should be read by anyone who wants a decent working knowledge of queer/trans history.
I am glad I read this book. I am also one of those people who wants to better myself and attempt to understand the lives of others, especially those I feel are being marginalized or are the underdogs of society. And as of right now, that definitely includes the transgender community.
If you are a transgender person you might enjoy seeing some of your own reflective thoughts in this book (representation matters, you are not alone) but you might not want to go back to a potentially triggering place of doubt and fear.
If you are a cis person hoping to understand the trans experience, well, first off know that you can’t ever really understand and then read this book knowing that there will be times when you will be frustrated with these characters but that discomfort (another “D” word) is because we have not had to do this sort of hard work.
Again, where the book shines, for little cis me, was the characters. I was challenged by them and humbled by them and had to sit with some concepts about gender and power dynamics and sense of self… and so yes, I am glad that I read this book.
(I am also glad my version had the author’s note at the back… it was also incredibly worth reading.)
If you want to do something helpful for the trans community, consider donating, supporting, calling out bigotry, and making sure your transgender friends and family know that you are on their side. An easy first step is to get educated about the disproportionate risk of violence faced by the trans community (especially trans women of color).
Places to start:
- GLAAD’s More Than a Number – Shifting the Media Narrative on Transgender Homicides
- Mic’s Unerased: Counting Transgender Lives
Organizations and resources:
- Anti-Violence Project
- International Transgender Day of Remembrance
- National Center for Transgender Equality
- Sylvia Rivera Law Project
- Trans Women of Color Collective
- Transgender Europe’s Trans Murder Monitoring Project
- Transgender Law Center
- TransJustice at the Audre Lorde Project
Reports on violence and discrimination:
- Human Rights Campaign’s Violence Against the Transgender Community
- National Center for Transgender Equality’s Discrimination Survey
- Learn more about transgender people on GLAAD’s resource page
*** ASPECT Method (I created this, I used it, feel free to do the same.)
A Atmosphere: How did it make me feel? What was the world like? This might include the overall tone.
S Style: What was the writing style like? Simplistic or sophisticated? Clunky or beautiful?
P Plot/Pace: Was it engaging? Were there holes? Did it feel too rushed or too long?
E Enjoyment: Was it a chore to finish or compelling enough that I picked it over other fun activities?
C Characters: Were they believable, sympathetic, interesting?
T This? Why did I read *This* book?