I'm going to skip the rubber balls and ribbons I could use in the verbal gymnastics section of this review and get right down to the mat: I didn't like this book. I wanted to. Oh, how I wanted to. I love the idea of an experimental memoir and I tend to heart everything that comes out of the creative manufactory of McSweeney's, so when I received this non-fiction amalgam of illustrations, footnotes, interviews and lists documenting the author's transition from cisgender female to transgender man, I readied my balls. I readied my ribbons. I was prepared to celebrate the book with rhetorical acrobatics, until I started reading it. With every chapter I tried to ignore the wane of my enthusiasm, quiet the "Is it just me, or does this book... " voice inside my head. But by the end of Real Man Adventures, the voice had just gone stronger. Is it just me, or is this a memoir the author didn't actually want to write?
To back up a couple of paces, the book's author, T Cooper, might take issue with the word "memoir." The word doesn't appear anywhere on the dust jacket. Instead, Real Man Adventures is branded as "a charged, personal, and entirely original take on gender identity," and elsewhere as "a comic exploration of the paradoxes and pleasures of masculinity." In order to give the reader an overview of how complex his own experience transitioning into identifying as a male was, Cooper uses anecdotes, interviews members of his own family and other transgender adults, includes illustrations, diagrams, and numbered lists, and frequently quotes his eloquent wife about her experience standing beside a loved one in transition.
Unfortunately, framed as they were with disquiet and dark humor, (i.e., from an interview with the parents of a transgender friend, "I'm asking you these questions because I'm too much of a wimp to ask my own parents"), these journalistic sideshows provoked more questions than they answered. The frequent interruption of interviews and lists was a bit like trying to have an intimate conversation in a restaurant presided over by an overzealous waiter. Every time the
story got really interesting, someone appeared with a pitcher of iced water. At a certain point, it got a bit rude, really. I wanted to be left alone with Cooper. I wanted to hear his story. I wanted to get intimate. The problem is, T Cooper didn't want to get intimate with me.
Cooper hints at the authorial withholding to come by opening with an anecdote concerning his correspondence with the author, Darin Strauss about Strauss's acclaimed memoir, Half a Life. After hashing over whether Cooper should write about his defining life event the way Strauss wrote about his, Cooper admits, "I don't really want to write about this thing of mine, but I think I might have to -- to stop it from being a thing." Beginning a book by admitting that you weren't sure whether or not you wanted to write it in the first place -- sure, okay, why not. I'll follow you into self-depreciation land. I'm a writer, I practically have squatter's rights to uncertainty. But this anecdote came on page seven. And similar admissions kept coming up again. The waiter was back with that damn pitcher of water, filling us up on narrative reluctance. Again. And again.
Case in point: on page 98, Cooper ponders the irony of "essentially advertising something that I'm ambivalent about being in the business of selling in the first place." On page 200, he admits that he's "slightly terrified of publishing this book." Fifty-nine pages later: "Now if I can just get past the self loathing involved in writing a 'memoir' and the nut-crushing suspicion that the only way my writing is compelling or interesting is if I write about my difference." On the next page, his own wife jumps in to move the narrative onwards: "You really need to get over this chip about telling your story."
I think T Cooper is a brave writer. I'd like to make that clear. He writes with gut-punching anger and palpable, justified concern throughout Real Man Adventures about the dangers of public life as a transgender person. His own story is shadowed by the reprehensible acts of violence that took the lives of James Byrd Jr., Matthew Shepard, Brandon Teena and others in the far too recent past, hate crimes sparked by the current of ignorance and anger currently coursing through America, threatening to short circuit and incite some irreversible, tragic action at any time.
In "The Violence Chapter," Cooper recalls his reaction when a neighbor-turned-friend found out that he was transgender and excitedly offered to introduce Cooper's family to all her transgender friends: "In our household, here's where our brains go, pretty instantly: this friend now goes off and mentions us to someone, totally harmlessly" and eventually, word gets back to "a whole bunch of people who don't know me, didn't know me before, and have no reason too think I'm anything but what they see: the short dude who just moved in with his wife and two kids. A visible man." And Cooper can live with the neighbors knowing, live with the somewhat condescending comments from people who believe they're "hip to the gay thing," but what he worries about daily is the potential that his "secret" is going to reach "that shifty-looking son who's in his twenties, perpetually primed like a piston... and eventually we cross paths on the street some weekend night... and he's already drunk with his buddies... and
then we're off."
Clearly, one of Cooper's principal motivations for not writing Real Man Adventures was to protect the privacy and safety of his family and himself. His fears are valid, and unfortunately, validated by hateful language and actions against transgender people nearly every day. Nevertheless, the continual references to his doubts about whether or not he should have written this book -- as justifiable and understandable as those doubts are -- ended up, somewhat self-defeatingly, interrupting the momentum of the story and our ability to fully appreciate the courage it took him write it in the first place.
My frustration with Cooper's authorial wavering was deepened by the passive-aggressive way in which the author used the charts and illustrations included in the book, particularly when it
came to the question of what is, or isn't happening in the super-charged polemic area referred to as "down there."
Listen, I'm a woman. I was biologically born as a woman and I identify as one, still. I only have one person in my social circle whom I know of who is transitioning and it would be hyperbole
to call her a friend. Perhaps this makes me gauche, low-brow, or hopelessly insensitive, but if you've written an entire book about your transitioning experience from female to male, yes, I'll admit it: I'm going to have questions about what's happening in your pants.
Cooper himself is fully aware that many readers are going to be wondering the same thing, which is why he goes out of his way to explain that it doesn't matter, that it shouldn't matter, that it's not about that. Unfortunately, in a contradiction of his own message, he also takes several slightly flirtatious attempts at near reveals which left me feeling blue balled. In a section entitled "Gallery" he writes "All four of the bodies you see in Gallery A and Gallery B
belong to transgender men, people who were assigned female at birth, but transitioned into men, (I might or might not be one of the four.)"
He gets us all hot and bothered in a chapter called "When I Knew" with a seven-page anecdote about the first time he went to buy man's boxers. He describes how he came home to his bedroom and began to film himself, adding a tube sock into his button-fly boxer briefs and
grabbing his "package" for the camera, explaining that that was the very moment that he knew that he was going to become a MAN, before following all this up with a winky blank space and this sentence: "No, that's not what happened at all. I just made all that up."
The do-I-or-don't-I peepshow didn't end there. One of the penultimate chapters, entitled "The Sex Chapter" consists of nothing but this footnote:
1. Conversation I had with my wife one recent night in bed, after sex:
HER: Hey, are you going to write about sex in your book?
ME: Hey, are you fucking kidding me?
HER: That's what people always want to know about.
ME: No fucking way.
HER: "Just asking... "
ME: Well, I'm definitely going to work in something about how I'm far and away the best sex you've ever had, ever -- a world champion -- but that's pretty much it.
And that is it. That's the chapter. That's the closest you're going to get to earning about "Sex." And while I can respect Cooper's need for privacy and the argument that your genitals do not define your sexuality, such will-he-or-won't-he moments felt awfully manipulative. I came to this book fully ensconced in above-the-waist thinking, prepared to suppress any questions about genitals because from what I've read of Cooper and other transgender authors, it isn't
supposed to matter. But the kind of revelatory vacillation going on in the "Sex Chapter" underscored by the narrative uncertainty overloading the whole book, made for a reading experience that was grating, contradictory and vaguely disagreeable -- like a sensual mole sauce with too much chipotle in the mix.
As I started off this review by saying, I wanted to adore Real Man Adventures. There is so much here to root for. The fact that T Cooper has entirely done away with the intermezzo type pacing that underscores every single personal essay I've ever read in "Modern Love." The candor, not just in Cooper's own anecdotes, but also in his supporting cast of contributors and interviewees. The self-depreciating humor of chapter titles such as "A BRIEF INTERVIEW I DID FOR Esquire's 'HOW TO BE A MAN' ISSUE, FROM WHICH MY ANSWERS WERE EXCLUDED IN FAVOR OF INSIGHTS FROM GUYS LIKE TOM CRUISE." His courage. The territorial I'll-cut-you protectionism and true love that surges up every time he writes the words "my children" or "my wife."
I wanted to finish this book with that fists-in-the-air feeling that greets a writer at the top of his craft, a writer who has arm-wrestled narrative challenges and shown us how experimental non0fiction is done. But the fact that Cooper relies so heavily on other people's words and opinions to beef up Real Man Adventures made me too aware of the dearth of his own. When T Cooper returns for a solo performance of this almost-memoir, I call the first row.