This review is going to be rather spoilery. That’s partly because it is quite difficult to talk about a book as experimental as Elysium without going into detail about how that book works; and partly because I need to talk about the way gender is treated in the book. Those of you who don’t want to be spoiled, go and read the book now.
Jennifer Marie Brissett is Jamaican by ancestry, a Londoner by birth, and currently lives in New York. She’s a graduate of the prestigious Stonecoast creative writing program, and consequently had the likes of Elizabeth Hand, James Patrick Kelly and Jeff Ford reading her book. They all loved it. Well, actually, they all raved about it. And yet, to quote from Liz’s review, “It’s really quite difficult for me to believe it’s a first novel”.
The sorts of words that most come to mind with reference to Elysium are “ambitious” and “audacious”. Debut writers just don’t do that sort of thing. It’s like watching some unknown turn up on the high board at the Olympic diving pool and pull off dives of such stylistic complexity that even recognised gold medal contenders would not attempt them. Now of course many readers don’t want stylistic complexity from their fiction, which is doubtless one reason why the book is published by Aqueduct rather than some big-name mainstream press, but for those of us who appreciate writing talent this is a rare treat.
Elysium is a science fiction novel set in the future of a great city that we eventually understand to be New York, though I don’t know it well enough to have spotted the clues. There is clearly something going very wrong, because every so often during the book the city suffers a software crash and the current narrative ends, throwing us out of the story. When we return, the software is running again, but the environment has changed. The only constants are the central characters.
Adrianne/Adrian and Antoinette/Antoine are lovers; they are siblings; they are parent and child. Sometimes they are male; sometimes female. Many variations of relationships are explored, as are many variations of the city in which they live. One narrative is set in a world where the Roman Empire still exists; one in a concentration camp on an alien planet.
The reasons why the software keeps malfunctioning, and why it keeps focusing on two very special people, are eventually explained in a satisfying manner. The former I don’t need to explain; the latter is part of the origin of the book.
Brissett has been up front in explaining that the book was inspired by the real-life love affair of Hadrian and Antinous. One was Emperor of Rome, the other a pretty and intelligent Greek boy who caught the eye of the great man. Antinous died in 130 CE during a visit to Egypt, aged just nineteen. There is some suspicion that he was murdered by jealous courtiers. Hadrian was so distraught that he spent much of the rest of his life creating memorials to his lost love. Antinous became famous as the ideal of boyish beauty, and was still known as such in 1408 when Donatello used images of the lad as his model for a statue of another famous boy, the Biblical David.
So, a love so great that its memory is preserved for over a thousand years. There is a story worth telling.
While the classical allusions are ambitious and literary, it is the variation that has caught most readers’ eyes. Hadrian and Antinous were both male. We do finally learn who the original characters in the story are, but for most for the book we don’t even know that there are originals. Adrian & Adrianne, Antoine & Antoinette, they switch in and out of existence seemingly at random. Only their love for each other remains constant.
Naturally this has led people to claim that the book does innovative things with gender and sexuality. Clearly it messes with readers’ heads in a delightful way, but what exactly is it saying about gender? As this is a particular interest of mine, I wanted to look deeper.
The thing that occurred to me very early on in reading the book was that the gender performance of the characters was always normative. That is, when a character had a male name, he behaved like a man; when she had a female name she behaved liked a woman. If we didn’t know what names they had, we could discern from their behavior what gender they were supposed to be. I wanted to know, if they were the same people, how this worked.
One possible explanation was the software. That is, if these people were actually only software constructs then their behavior could have been coded to produce the expected patterns depending on the name. Also, as we get further into the book, it becomes obvious that these characters are not always the same person, in which case they are not actually switching gender. In neither case is anything particularly innovative about gender being said.
There is one area, however, where something different is done. There is a third pair of characters in the story: Helen/Hector (presumably named after two key characters from the Iliad). They play the role of best friend and, occasionally, illicit lover. In an early section Adrian is dying, and Antoine takes time off from nursing him to carry on an affair with Hector.
In a later section, Hector is introduced as follows:
He wore ill-fitting Daisy Dukes with thick unshaven legs and held a hairbrush.
“Hey honey. What you doing?” He pointed to Adrianne with his brush, then smoothed it over his shoulder-length hair that was tousled even though he constantly brushed it.
“Daisy Dukes” is an American term for cut-off demin shorts (after the character Daisy from Dukes of Hazzard, who wore them a lot).
You can see what is going on here, can’t you? Hector is a classic stereotype of a trans woman — irredeemably ugly and masculine in appearance no matter how hard she tries to be feminine. Later in the book she is pathetically grateful to be recognized as Helen by Adrianne. (That’s as a result of software bleed-through between realities, nothing to do with her). Yes, of course there are people like that. The stereotype would not exist if there weren’t. But it is a terribly tired cliché, and by no means as prevalent as it once was now that people are able to transition much younger. Cis writers need to do better. They need to stop imagining trans people as pathetic travesties. This is not doing something innovative with gender, it is lazy and insulting.
Which is a shame, because otherwise Elysium is a really great book. Gender isn’t the only thing it plays with. Very casually, at one point, Brissett drops in the fact that the survivors in the post-apocalyptic world that she has created are predominantly brown-skinned. I enjoyed the book very much, and will look out for whatever Brissett does next. I suspect that she’s going to get a huge amount of critical acclaim.
For more information about Jennifer Marie Brissett, see the SF Encyclopedia.
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