In my review of Seraphina I explained how having a specialist interest can lead you to read a book very differently from most people, and can even ruin your enjoyment of a book that the author probably intended to appeal to you. Pantomime is a case in point. I’m sure that Laura Lam went into it with the best intentions. Sadly, for me, it didn’t work. Here I am to explain why.
Once again spoiler warnings apply.
Pantomime is a book about an intersex character, except it isn’t really. Our central character is Iphigenia Laurus, though ze prefers to go by Gene, and adopts the name Micah Grey after running away from home. I’m going to use the gender-neutral pronoun throughout because although Gene/Micah appears to identify as male through most of the book it isn’t clear whether this is going to be where ze will end up. In any case, ze probably isn’t human, so our rules don’t apply.
The world of Pantomime is a classic decayed civilization. Once there was a high tech society with space travel and perhaps visiting aliens. Now there is only steampunk. Gene, it turns out, is a Kedi, one of the possibly alien creatures that used to inhabit the world. Kedi are hermaphrodite (a word I can use with reference to these aliens because they are indeed fully dual-sexed). Apparently ze has been given to the Laurus family to raise, in return for a substantial sum of money. Mr. & Mrs. Laurus may be intending to cheat on the mysterious Doctor Pozzi, because they want to get their daughter “cured” so that she can marry. The threat of surgery is what eventually drives Gene to run away.
So far so good. Unwanted and forced surgery is a major issue in intersex rights. I’m pleased to see the UN has now come out in support of the campaigners. The rest of the book is less supportive. In some cases it exploits Gene’s otherness for entertainment purposes.
For example, we don’t find out about Gene’s body until quite late in the book. We are led to believe that we are reading a story about a tomboy girl. It isn’t until the end of chapter 8 that we get the Big Reveal. And it happens in a scene of disastrously failed intimacy, which is absolutely the worst way that sort of thing can come out.
Later Gene runs away from home and joins a circus. Yes, a circus. In her Big Idea post on John Scalzi’s Whatever, Lam says:
the big idea is that every character in my book at some point feels like an outsider, or a freak, but they can also find a place they call home, if they can find the courage to take it.
That may be true eventually, but it isn’t yet true for Gene, now Micah. The circus does indeed have its fair share of freaks. They are put on display. Most of them are fake freaks. Micah dare not tell anyone that ze is a freak, because being put on display is the last thing ze wants. In any case, ze is a real freak, the sort that even most of the circus folk would be freaked out by. Because Micah is unable to tell the truth, even amongst other freaks, the circus setting emphasizes hir freakishness.
So Micah attempts to pass as male. For the most part this is fairly successful, despite the obvious issue of having to bind breasts. Quite how this works when one is wearing an aerialist costume as part of a trapeze act, I’m not sure, but I was prepared to suspend disbelief at this point. Micah even manages to get a girlfriend, and of course ze dare not say anything about bodies. You can see that it is all going to end in tears, and of course it does.
The final nail in the coffin is how Micah’s story comes to grief. As you might guess from the cover, the circus decides to put on a pantomime, and Micah is asked to play a female role. The book is structured like a farce. Well it is called “pantomime”, a form of theatre in which many of the characters cross-dress for humorous effect.
Now from one point of view this is a perfectly reasonable portrayal of what life is like for intersex people. They do often hide their bodies. They do often live in stealth. Sometimes they get found out, and everyone reacts with horror. The same is also true of trans people. But that is just one possible narrative. It doesn’t have to be like that. In Seraphina I felt that Rachel Hartman had done a good job of exploring the issues around stealth, and had shown that things didn’t have to end badly. In contrast I felt that Lam had not only swallowed and regurgitated the standard narrative of the “deceptive” trans/intersex person, I felt that she was deliberately teasing her readers to expect this as a means of providing drama. And that’s why I felt the book was exploitative.
There is, of course, craft at work here. One of the ways in which an entertainer manages an audience is to create expectation before delivering. Lam is pretty good at doing this. But I could see her doing it, and I could see that Gene/Micah’s othereness was the subject of all this creation of anticipation. This is not how you write a supportive book about someone who is other.
I should also come back to the fact that Gene/Micah is not a human intersex person, ze is a super-powered alien. Real intersex people don’t have super powers. Just as Aliette de Bodard got annoyed with the super-powered mixed-race people in Seraphina, so I got annoyed with Pantomime.
As I said at the beginning, I don’t think that Lam deliberately set out to demean intersex people. I think she’s just working from within a cultural paradigm that expects them to be deceptive and tragic. It can be hard to shake that sort of conditioning. I should also note that the book is an impressive first novel that left me wanting to know more about the world. It has a beautiful cover too. The big issue for most readers will be that it is very clear that there will be a sequel. You will be left wanting to know what happens next. I’m left wanting to know whether Gene/Micah stops being a tragic hero(ine) and starts to interact honestly with the world. I hope ze does.
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