We (Still) Need Nevada

‘Nevada’ by Imogen Binnie


TO REREAD IMOGEN Binnie’s cult classic Nevada nearly ten years after its first publication is to remember the seismic shift this novel created in both queer/trans literature and in life. Nevada, initially published in 2013, was the crest of the wave that was Topside Press, a small-but-mighty, short-lived press run out of a New York living room by trans friends that became, for a few years, the nucleus of trans writing and publishing, only to later collapse into itself like a black hole.

Like any scene, Topside was just a couple of people with an idea to do something big together, and like any scene, it created a sense of belonging for some and of gatekeeping for others. This all depended on one’s feeling of proximity to inclusion in the networks of writers that gathered around it. What is undeniable is the fact that Topside’s mission—to publish literature by trans writers, trans women writers in particular, for a trans readership—was successful. By launching modern, edgy, unapologetic, nondidactic, and intellectual trans fiction into the forefront with zeal, the authors of Topside were no doubt a part of the force behind what Time magazine would later crow about as “the Transgender Tipping Point” in 2014.

And oh, how the landscape of trans life has changed since then! The rapid proliferation of trans representation in media since the first publication of Nevada—in fine art, movies, television, news, literature, podcasts, and social media—might only be matched by the virulent uptick of anti-trans legislation currently sweeping the US. However, you’d be hard-pressed to find a trans person surprised that the explosion of trans representations in media has not been commensurate in safety, laws, and the right to be left the hell alone. Visibility has not bestowed upon us the right to just live.

That’s why Nevada is as powerful a read in 2022 as it was in 2013, and why the novel’s title itself has evolved into a kind of shorthand among so many trans people, particularly trans women a bit younger than me who grew up writing their own experiences into the ether on LiveJournal and Tumblr. You’ve either read Nevada or you have not, and there is a shared sensibility among those who have. As a Gen-X trans man who got a T script at the Tom Waddell Urban Health Clinic in 2001 (and started hormones twenty years ago), I was not the book’s target audience, but I still felt lucky when I read it for the first time those many years ago, like I’d been let in on a secret. But in reading the reprint of Binnie’s book, I was a bit envious that a work of transmasculine fiction on par with Nevada had not existed for me earlier in my journey—though I would argue that I have found such literary and philosophical shoring-up in later years, particularly in Jordy Rosenberg’s Confessions of the Fox. Nevada is not just a story, though it is a classic story in the broad strokes of its narrative arc; it is a philosophical investigation into what it means to be a woman, trans or not, in late-stage capitalism. Nevada reckons with what it means to decide if the present world is a place worth living in when the teeming potentialities of society, or the self, are yet to be realized. Binnie has written a punk ontological argument riding undercover as a classic, disaffected road-trip tale.

I remember feeling skeptical about the hype from the publishers when I read Nevada for the first time, though everything I’d read from the press so far had lived up to the hype. (Full disclosure: Topside published a story of mine in the 2017 anthology Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Science Fiction & Fantasy from Transgender Writers, edited by Cat Fitzpatrick and Casey Plett and now reissued by LittlePuss Press.) As Muhammad Ali once said, “It ain’t bragging if you can back it up.” I remember the humor and smart brashness of the novel’s protagonist, Maria Griffiths. Maria’s voice merged in my mind with my (albeit limited) sense of Imogen Binnie as a human being in the world, an author with whom I crossed paths a couple times during those Topside years at lit events (including the Writing Trans Genres conference at University of Winnipeg in 2014). Her rock-star swagger more than backed up Maria’s brag, but in my recent rereading of Nevada, I palpably felt the vulnerability and despair behind that swagger. The toll it takes for Maria to not shrink away, to not assimilate, to stay queer, to stay here, to stay alive, weighed heavier on 2022 me.

Binnie has written a punk ontological argument riding undercover as a classic, disaffected road-trip tale.

Like an earlier version of me, Maria is on the precipice of either a dive into self-annihilation or a turn toward something perhaps even more terrifying: facing the healing she’s shut herself out of for two and a half decades. After breaking up with her girlfriend and getting fired from her job, she realizes the maladaptive coping mechanisms that have allowed her to survive so far can no longer protect her. In fact, those old survival skills are now cutting her off from being fully present in her relationship, her body, her life. There is an ambiguity to Maria’s westward travels (in a car her ex has reported stolen, and with $400 worth of heroin), one that hardly requires overt spelling out for many readers of trans experience, but the out that the drug-stuffed socks in the glove box suggest looms darkly in the periphery of the story.

That is, until Maria meets James in some shitty Walmart in some shitty nowhere Nevada town. To save herself, she thinks, perhaps she can save someone else. She can see something of herself mirrored in the dissociated downward spiral of this young person, who seems equally magnetized toward Maria as she struts down the aisle of a big-box store.

Binnie gorgeously voices both characters’ inner lives. Maria’s interiority dapples her cockiness and wisecracks with effacing self-awareness. As her life falls apart around her, a part of her stands outside of it and sees the broader picture—but that doesn’t quite give her the power to change the course of events. James’s perspective is perfectly rendered through a fog of stoned shut-down. If he checks out enough, maybe he can feel like he is the one holding the keys to his cell. His life in a small desert town closes in and becomes suffocating, even to the reader. It is not a comment on shitty small towns so much as a comment on how capitalism turns towns like James’s into spaces of unconscious consumption and traps people with limited choices, truncating the possible life outcomes for queer and trans people.

Those who want a tidy ending, a perfect denouement, might feel chapped by the lack of obvious conclusion to both characters’ stories. Some might even argue that the novel lacks plot, though I disagree. The open-endedness at the conclusion of Nevada is genius in form, as well as content. Not only does Binnie eschew cis mainstream expectations of a trans story, she also messes in a punk-as-fuck way with conventional expectations of narrative. Rather than leaving the story unresolved, Binnie leaves the storylines of these characters ongoing. Like trans lives themselves—if we are indeed lucky enough to survive or privileged enough to thrive—the story continues past the boundaries of the page. We can hope that Maria will stay on a path of healing, and we can hope that James, when ready, will find a way to dream his life beyond the smallness of his numb existence. Binnie leaves Maria and James’s possibilities expansive and multivalent.

In the new afterword for Nevada, Binnie discusses Joanna Russ’s treatise on feminist literary criticism, “What Can a Heroine Do,” which argues that Western patriarchal narrative structures are inadequate armatures for women authors. In rejecting Freytag’s pyramid, Binnie achieves something more lyrical and formally innovative in Nevada, perhaps writing around an “unspoken, invisible center” like Woolf does. As Russ argues:

The problem of “outsider” artists is the whole problem of what to do with unlabeled, disallowed, disavowed, not-even-consciously-perceived experience, experience which cannot be spoken about because it has no embodiment in existing art. Is one to create new forms wholesale—which is practically impossible?

[ . . .] Make something unspeakable and you make it unthinkable.

Rereading this philosophical, hilarious, sharp novel reminded me that no matter what help might be offered, no matter what support might exist, no matter where we live—small, shitty town or booming cultural epicenter—transition is ultimately something one must confront and wade through alone. Many of us found our north star through literature, and Nevada shines brightly on the western horizon for readers, trans and cis alike, who refuse to buy into the status quo.

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