What’s new, readers? On January 11 Torrey Peters released her debut novel, Detransition, Baby, in which the opening focuses on Reese, a trans woman who grew up in Wisconsin and now lives in New York City, ruminating on her fear of isolation and introspection that has driven her to cheat with a string of married men while in the middle of having a kinky affair with the latest of those men. Her world is upended by a call from a partner with whom she broke up three years ago: Ames, who was also a trans woman named Amy when they were together but has since detransitioned, or changed back to the gender he was assigned at birth after identifying as a different gender for a time. Ames is now with Katrina, his divorced cis boss, who, to his astonishment, becomes pregnant with his child. Taking into account her plan to get an abortion if he leaves her, his desire to delve into parenting without being viewed strictly as a father, and Reese’s yearning to be a mother, Ames proposes to Reese that she could be a co-mother to the future baby.
Peters, a trans woman herself, has already addressed transness in three novellas: The Masker follows a young character who considers transitioning from male to female, Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones is set in a post-apocalyptic world where the population has to take synthetic hormones and choose genders in the wake of trans women spreading a virus that blocks the production of sex hormones, and Glamour Boutique takes us through the inner life of Amy before we meet her as Ames in Detransition, Baby. In Detransition, Baby—what might be the first piece of great American trans literature of the century—Peters creates an idiosyncratic family unit to present a conversation-starting trans feminine perspective on gender constructs, motherhood, bourgeois life, and the human condition. The story thrums with such an achingly true-to-life soul that you can’t help but be invested from the get-go, whether you’re trans or cis. The gorgeous prose balances playfully razor-edged wit, bold spirit, and intensely raw emotion, all while readily encouraging you to explore the narrative’s complex world without making you feel as if you’re invasively snooping around private grounds. A small aspect with which I do struggle is how the plot alternates between the lead trio determining the best way to carry out their atypical family plans in the present and the turns of Ames and Reese’s relationship in the past. While the latter is a meaningful element of the story, there are times when it detracts from the pregnancy at the core of it all and the difficult questions that the characters tackle in regard to co-parenting the baby.
Detransitioning is a process that bristles with stereotypes and misconceptions, a subject that has been “treated as the purview of conversion therapists and tabloid headlines: He Was a Man, Then a Woman, Then Back to a Man!” If you have second thoughts about transitioning, opponents will be champing at the bit to utilize you as proof that trans people deserve to be invalidated and to frame their experiences as a disease or an experiment. This is why it’s so crucial that Peters handles the depiction of detransitioning with empathy and gravitas instead of sentimentality and sanctimony. She shows readers the exhaustion of support and energy that the trans community suffers in the face of transphobia. To that end, Ames is an essential part of the narrative. When Katrina asks him if he got sick of being trans, he explains, “I got sick of living as trans. I got to a point where I thought I didn’t need to put up with the bullshit of gender in order to satisfy my sense of myself. I am trans, but I don’t need to dotrans.” The novel defines the boundary between the trans wants and objectives in Ames’s heart and the tangible steps he has to take to achieve them and outwardly identify as trans. It isn’t a denouncement or a betrayal of trans people when he decides doing trans is too tiring and unsatisfactory for him, since Peters deeply humanizes him and helps us realize he’s a multifaceted character whose self-perception of his gender, his gender expression, and his body is as sincere, intricate, and fluid as any other part of his life. Straight-cis people appropriating queerness is another concept I found to be compelling, examined primarily through Katrina, who refers to the sentiment with which her divorce left her as “the Ennui of Heterosexuality” and tries to draw appeal from the the queerness of the family she’s making with Ames and Reese.
Readers can easily bond and sympathize with the complicated characters, even in their most vexatious and unsavory moments. Ames can be quite callous towards Reese and Katrina, Reese cheats on multiple partners and pursues affairs with just as many married men, and Katrina vents her inebriated ire by outing Ames’s erstwhile trans life at a corporate dinner. Imperfect as they are, they’re living and breathing characters who enhance the narrative with their endearing and textured realism.
The novel includes a reference to juvenile elephants in South Africa who had to be put down after going on murderous rampages that saw them decimating local villages and raping and slaughtering numerous rhinoceroses. The reason for their seemingly arbitrary brutality? According to a study that Ames read, they were grieving their elders, who had been killed by humans. Without the care and protection of their families, the orphaned elephants felt there was no better way to channel their anguish than by unleashing havoc on the land around them. Ames parallels those elephants with trans women: “We are fifteen thousand pounds of muscle and bone forged from rage and trauma, armed with ivory spears and faces unique in nature, living in grasslands where any of the ubiquitous humans may or may not be a poacher. With our strength, we can destroy each other with ease. But we are a lost generation. We have no elders, no stable groups, no one to teach us to countenance pain.” This is a thought-provoking idea, theorizing that the trans community can be heavily influenced by their environment because they don’t have predecessors from which to take guidance. A bright, resilient, and courageous people, they need to be able to rely on themselves and each other while repelling hatred, ignorance, and fallacies from detractors, and wrestling with politics, race, gender, sexuality, class, religion, education, and other societal dynamics that shape their chaotic lives. Cis people could apply this more broadly to their own lives as well.
Detransition, Baby is a memorable debut novel muscled with the author’s passionate and precise voice. The keenly reflective and painfully human material will enthrall you whether you’re a trans woman, a cis woman, or anyone who just wants some enlightenment on life.
All my love and prayers go to you, readers. Stay healthy and stay strong.
Windup score: 95/100