I heard Imogen Binnie read at Little Sisters as part of her promotional tour for Nevada, her first novel, published by Topside Press. During the reading she talked about how her intended audience was trans women. I wanted to start by clarifying my position as a queer cis man, outside of her intended audience, which will have an impact on my reading of the book.
Nevada is about Maria, a trans woman in her late twenties, who grew up in Pennsylvania before moving to New York, where she was able to start transitioning. It boils down to: Maria is in the middle of splitting up with her girlfriend of four years, Steph, and rather than deal with that, steals Steph’s car to go on a road trip. She ends up in a little nowhere town in Nevada, called Star City, and meets James–a teenaged Wal-Mart employee who might be trans, but isn’t ready to talk about it.
Binnie employs a shifting point of view, a structural choice that I enjoyed because point of view is always something I think about and focus on in my own work; the book stays tightly in Maria’s point of view for the first half, before switching back and forth between her and James in the second half.
The only deviation from this is a chapter near the end of the first part, before Maria leaves New York, where we are put briefly into Steph’s point of view. I liked Steph’s chapter because, while felt a bit late to jump into a secondary character’s point of view, Steph elucidates something about Maria that puts a new angle on her plans to take off to find herself again, something Maria can’t admit about herself. Steph simply reveals to the audience something about Maria’s patterns of behaviour that raises the stakes of the whole expedition.
Things started to break down for me in the second half, though. Maria, haunted by her overintellectualization of her trans identity, unable to process her situation emotionally, takes off for Nevada. We start to alternate between her and James, the closeted trans woman she meets on the road. This would be fine, but ultimately we end rather abruptly with James, Maria falling away. Now, this is an interesting choice, particularly if you choose to read James as Maria trying to interact with who she was prior to beginning her transition, but I was left quite cold by the end. Maria simply disappears right before the end, abandoned by James in Reno while he takes off for Star City and refuses to deal with his own situation. There’s an obvious parallel there, but I didn’t feel as firmly tied to James and was reticent to accept that there wasn’t an invisible third act, that this was a natural end point.
The book feels strongest when we are entrenched in Maria’s voice; we watch her failing to handle her situation, failing to engage with how her detachment has led Steph to break up with her, even as that detachment allows her voice to blossom. The people who inhabit her life in New York are solid and move as dance partners for Maria’s uncomfortable dance. It’s a hard book to put down for that reason, particularly because there’s something infectious about her compulsive auto-critique, a free-floating analysis of how everything ties back to her identity, even as she struggles with that. James’s chapters are compelling for their own reasons and offer us a chance to see Maria from the outside, much like Steph’s chapter, but I don’t feel like they were taken full advantage of and that’s part of what makes the ending so frustrating.
Binnie’s prose is energetic, jagged in all the right places, distancing the audience or drawing them closer using only a shift in tone. She grounded me right away and it was easy to empathize with Maria, following closely as she zips around New York on her beloved bike. Maria is funny and angry and both self-aware of unaware. I enjoy how the chapters are brief rather than larger chunks, sometimes even breaking in the middle of a scene; Binnie knows how to pace, how to place beats. My criticisms are structural and really spring from being disappointed that we left Maria behind without enough warning.
(Nevada was published by Topside Press in 2013)