Imogen Binnie, Nevada (Topside Press, 2013; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022), 288pp. Paperback, $17.00.
Imogen Binnie’s novel Nevada features third-person narration, but the narration generally hews closely to the point of few of Maria, the protagonist. In fact, it frequently shifts into free indirect discourse, the technique by which the narrator’s voice and the character’s voice blend and become indistinguishable. Here’s an example: “She rides uptown. Riding a bike in most of Manhattan at night totally rules but riding through midtown is awful twenty-four hours a day. It’s practically impossible, unless you are trying to get bruised on a bumper, which is a mood she’s in sometimes. A mood she might be in now, actually.” Maria isn’t saying all this; the narrator is. But the voice is clearly (totally, actually) Maria’s, as she thinks to herself while riding her bicycle in New York City.
Binnie’s reliance on free indirect discourse and eschewal of quotation marks for dialogue destabilize the narration and create a middle voice that sometimes addresses the reader directly through what would seem to be Maria’s words. (Call it the Fleabag effect, though Nevada came first.) This voice feels altogether appropriate for Nevada and for Maria, who is a 29-year-old trans woman. She’s also a hoot. Her voice is infectious, compelling, and fun. She can’t seem to get her life together, but who can? Maybe she should buy a bunch of heroin, steal a car, and take off into the West. Maybe she should just hang out in a random Walmart and listen to pop country tunes.
Riding a bicycle, it turns out, is a central metaphor. Inhabiting one’s own body mostly rules, but now and then it’s awful. And it can be dangerous: “While gender is a construct, so is a traffic light,” Binnie observes, “and if you ignore either of them, you get hit by cars.” But maybe, actually, you’re in a mood to get hit. Staying in your lane and obeying the rules don’t always get you where you want to go.
Nevada originally appeared in 2013 via Topside Press, a small, short-lived Brooklyn publisher that promoted trans and feminist literature in the 2010s. It thus began as an “insider” novel, written for a particular community, while responding in new ways to the trans literature that was already out there. Unlike such prior works, Nevada isn’t a tragedy, and Maria isn’t a sex worker dealing with violent trauma; the novel tries to get away from the prevalent stereotypes about trans people (both as heroes and as villains). The book made a splash—Casey Plett calls it “the novel that started the trans literary revolution.” Now, nine years later, it has been published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux for a much wider readership.
This republication means that most of us are reading Nevada for the first time, while a select few are revisiting a modern classic. It seems important to keep the original publication date in mind, especially since the novel is set sometime between 2008 and 2011 (when Binnie wrote it). Maria maintains an influential blog, occasionally using internet cafes to draft and post new material. This is a world of Myspace messages and Metallica music videos. Written in the present tense, Nevada’s original immediacy is now clearly outdated. The new edition thus calls for the reader to historicize the text, to recall the social and technological atmosphere of the recent past.
Some will be put off by Nevada’s rather abrupt and potentially disappointing—even controversial—ending. (As in, “That’s it? That’s the end of the book?”) Split into two halves, each featuring thirty short chapters, the novel moves from New York, where Maria loses both her girlfriend and her job at a bookstore (clearly modeled on The Strand), to “Star City, Nevada” (seemingly Elko), where a cross-country traveling Maria befriends a possibly trans (but positively autogynephilic) teenager named James. The suddenness of the ending, with its denial of narrative closure, is perhaps appropriate; a fairy tale ending simply would not do, and a tragic ending would risk the stereotyping Binnie sought to avoid. This reviewer found the final page satisfying, even humorous. Sometimes things don’t work out the way you thought they would.
However, one significant flaw does stand out. Binnie’s novel is heavily didactic, directly teaching the reader about trans identity. On some level, that’s fine, but those who believe that a novelist should show rather than tell will be put off by the amount of telling in Nevada. “That’s what it’s like to be a trans woman,” begins one paragraph in an early chapter—before further stating what it’s like (e.g. “being on unsure, weird social footing”). The overall effect might be stronger if we could watch Maria’s experiences instead—even if we lost some of her persuasive voice.
In a laudatory review, Harvard professor Stephanie Burt insists that Binnie’s novel “strenuously resists the stance my friends call ‘Trans 101’”—that is, it does not aim to teach cis people to accept trans people. But many paragraphs in the novel clearly seek to educate. For example:
Part of transitioning is trial-and-erroring your way through the social interactions that most women trial-and-error their ways through around puberty, learning just how to make a rando who’s hitting on you go away without getting mad. But when you’re twenty-nine and you haven’t learned this stuff, it feels impossibly mortifying.
Nevada does reject the stereotypes about trans characters that cis readers might expect, such as suicidality and sex work. But Maria’s chief task seems to be articulating for the reader the authentic feelings of trans identity. Most appealingly, Maria likes to point out that, at the cusp of turning thirty, she feels stuck in arrested development—in the “I can take care of myself but I suck at it stage.” She is fascinating because she knows that she’s making poor choices and goes ahead and makes them anyway. As Burt observes, “The novel brilliantly contrasts the useful things Maria says with the dumb things she does.” For all of what Maria tells us, it’s what she shows us that is so powerfully affecting.