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"Mes de los Muertos"

Review in Haiku: Trans-Sister Radio

By Katrina Stonoff

Daughter chronicles
the sex change operation
of mother's boyfriend.

Chris Bohjalian is one of my favorite authors: I adored Midwives and Water Witches especially. And since one of the characters in my current Work-in-Progress is a cross dresser, I was particularly interested in the topic.

So Trans-Sister Radio was an obvious hit, right?

Yeah, that's what I thought too. At least, before I started it.

But first, let me tell you what worked. His gender dysphoric character, Dana, is interesting, complex, and genuine. The struggles she goes through with her girlfriend Alison are heart-breaking. Bohjalian's language skills are, as always, impeccable. And ...

Well. That's about it. Frankly, my favorite part Trans-Sister Radio was the list of transgender books in the "Acknowledgments."

Here's what didn't work for me.

First, I was 66 pages into it before he finally got to the primary conflict. Bohjalian made a typical beginner's mistake: he started the story too early. The primary conflict here is the tension Dana's sex change causes in his relationships, but he doesn't even tell his girlfriend he's gender dysphoric until Chapter 7.

Oh, sure, you could say that simply being gender dysphoric is a conflict, and that's true, but it isn't a story. A story is when you focus on one specific conflict (with maybe two or three sub-conflicts to give it texture) and discuss how that conflict develops, gets worse and then either gets better or destroys the character completely.

Second, the whole National Public Radio (NPR)'s All Things Considered shtick seemed contrived and hokey to me. It felt like Bohjalian came up with this kick-ass title (and face it, Trans-Sister Radio IS a great title), and then had to find a way to fit a story around it.

The book is in first person, primarily told from the point of view of four different characters: Dana, Alison, Alison's ex-husband Will, and Carly (Alison and Will's college-age daughter). Four POV characters is pushing it for me -- it's hard to be sympathetic with all of them -- but it's doable.

However, before and after every chapter, there is a segment that purports to be a transcript from an episode of NPR's All Things Considered program. Bohjalian even uses names familiar from the show, like Linda Werheimer.

But radio works as radio. It isn't intended to be read, and radio transcripts (minus the ambient sound and vocal inflection) are flat and without power.

That's assuming there was power to begin with. But these aren't real transcripts, e.g. written transcriptions of an oral medium produced by experienced professionals. These are written (not spoken) by a novelist -- one who is highly skilled at writing fiction, but not an experienced radio producer or reporter. And that's how they read.

Nor am I convinced that the All Things Considered staff would approve a five-segment series where a 19-year-old radio newbie interviews her parents about a highly volatile, emotionally charged issue like sex changing (oh, yeah, that certainly inspires trust that the reporter is unbiased and objective). So there's a big credibility gap here.

And it doesn't get better. We enter the story, and Dana tells us in lascivious detail exactly how he camouflages his ... um ... male parts while she's "in transition" (dressing as a female, pre-operative). Yes, the pronouns get a little awkward here. I realize it is she when she's dressed, but during the process of dressing, when Dana is actively tying back the giveaway bulge, is it she yet?

Dana tells us exactly how he broke the news to his girlfriend that he'd soon be sporting a brand new (and painful) vagina, but at no point does he tell us how he feels about it. I assume he's nervous, that he's scared she'll leave, that he's terrified at the idea of facing the surgery alone (though certainly willing, and even excited about it). I assume he is torn, that he doesn't want to lose this woman with whom he's fallen in love (such bad timing!), that perhaps he even has second thoughts. Since Bohjalian presents their relationship as True Love (more or less), I assume he hopes she'll stay with him, that she'll love him whether he's a man or woman, that he longs to be accepted by her as the woman he really is.

But I don't know for sure because Dana, despite the first person POV, never tells us. Instead, the reader gets treated (yes, that was sardonic) to a blow-by-blow description of exactly how a penis becomes a vagina.

Midwives was a passionate book, and I had the sense the author was passionate about the characters. Trans-Sister Radio feels forced, and I can almost hear the author's internal monologue, "Hmmm. I need to be starting another book. What's a controversial topic, something people feel really strongly about? Hey! I know. Sex change surgery. Maybe I can write a novel about somebody who has a sex change."

The problem is, issue-driven stories rarely work for me. For one thing, they are usually polemic. But primarily, if the characters aren't driving the story, the story rarely comes alive.

To Bohjalian's credit, I don't believe Trans-Sister Radio is a polemic. But it does feel a little voyeuristic.

I'm interested in how it feels to go through a conflict, what a person experiences emotionally. I'm a lot less interested in the nuts and bolts details of the change. And if I'm staring at a tranny, I don't want to do it like you'd stare at a gruesome car accident on the highway.

I want it to be because she looks fantastic or because I'm wondering where she got that stunning dress and trying to get up the nerve to ask her.

Article © Katrina Stonoff. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-06-02
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