by Bethany Holmes
Just as Lavery is unwilling to make queer realities palatable, she is not interested in making the reading experience comfortable.
Historically, transgender literature has centred around the transition memoir, a genre which arguably launched in 1933 with Lili Elbe's autobiography Man Into Woman.
Such accounts have tended to deploy a confessional, hero journey narrative, written primarily for a cis audience’s intrigue at the behest of the traditionalist publishing industry .
However, by the end of the 1980s trans writers such as Sandy Stone were questioning the constraints of the genre and a variety of theoretical texts followed, seeking to self-define trans identities.
Fast-forward to the 2020s and trans cultural production has pierced the mainstream, with works for an envisioned audience of trans people that often connect memoir, creative, and critical work.
In 2021 alone, Shon Faye’s non-fiction book The Transgender Issue and Torrey Pine’s novel Detransition Baby featured in numerous bestseller and prize lists. Alongside this has been the rise of the ‘second wave’ of trans studies, characterised by Andrea Long Chu, who in her writings has argued that transness exists without a ‘born this way’ origin story.
Please Miss by Grace Lavery sits somewhere between the flourishing of trans literature and the second wave of trans philosophy. Lavery’s story is one of self-realisation, addiction and – as the subtitle suggests – an investigation into the penis as a theoretical notion and what it means for her as a trans woman to reject it.
In some ways, her tale does conform to a conventional transition narrative; it entwines changing sex, bodily realities and finding out truths about herself. She begins the book with an account of how she cracked her ‘penis problem’, and it ends with her learning things are better than what she thought before.
But it is also much more than a straightforward account.
Lavery, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, spans autofiction, literary and pop culture criticism, satire, pastiche and wit through the use of wide-ranging detours – discourses on Dickens and Wilde, a trans reading of Little Shop of Horrors and a sexy FAQ about Australian finger limes, to name but three. She intersperses all of that with erotic fiction, abstract conversations and vengeful letters from clowns.
If that sounds like a recipe for bewilderment, it is. But through prioritising alternative techniques of disclosure, that flit between the public and the private, aligning the imaginative with lived experience, the devices Lavery uses reveal ‘truths’ that she could not otherwise communicate. In doing so, she subverts the standard trans memoir and its expectation that trans writers should divulge the undistorted truth.
Equally, this rejection of linearity and her tangential narrative style underpin her thoughts about transitioning: there is no clear-cut route, and it remains a thesis that requires working out.
This book will not be to everyone’s taste. Many readers will be left exhausted by Lavery’s irreverent tone, dick jokes and unrelenting academic treatises.
Certainly, it will be inaccessible for those who do not have a strong background in literary and cultural theory. And even for those who do, it will remain a demanding and perplexing read – just as Lavery is unwilling to make queer realities palatable, she is not interested in making the reading experience comfortable.
Despite these misgivings, though, this book leaves an imprint on you. It is imaginative, stimulating and full of rich narrative opportunities that will foster conversations between trans and cis people: about the figurative and material realities of bodies and what non-fiction is capable of doing. And while containing utterly bonkers and hilarious scenes (most notably a porn parody of QI) it is also sincere, empathetic, and nuanced.
Related: A Trans Narrative in 'Girls Lost'
A moving instance comes when, in a hot tub in Sedona, Lavery feels ‘words form in her bosom’ and lets them ‘out into the world’. With that utterance comes a transformation delineating a past she is moving away from and a future she is bringing into being.
As a cis reader, I felt honoured by her generosity in sharing this moment. I also admired Lavery’s efforts to consider the viewpoints of significant people in her life – her husband Danny, her mother, her ex-girlfriend Cecilia – some of these passages are genuinely sublime and demonstrate her skill as a writer.
Please Miss is not a superficial book, and neither are the bodies that we occupy. Although in parts impermeable, and unwieldy, that is the objective of Lavery’s conjectures: devices through which to explore the manifold essence of transness.
Please Miss: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Penis is now available from Daunt Books
Bethany Holmes is a writer and editor from Merseyside, now based in London. She writes about art, culture and politics and has been published by Corridor8, Novara Media, Port, RA Magazine and Red Pepper among others. She can be found on Twitter @bethjholmes