TRANS-SISTER RADIO (2001)
* * ½
As many know, I periodically revisit older novels and see how well they hold up. The recent hoopla over the sex reassignment surgery (SRS) of former Olympian Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner led me back to Chris Bohjalian's Trans-Sister Radio, a tale of Dana Stevens, who went Jenner's route. How does it fare fourteen years later? Short answer: our social and intellectual horizon is light years beyond that of 2001.
Before looking at the book, let me partially take Bohjalian off the hook. Gender identity is now viewed across a broad spectrum Bohjalian would not have considered at the time. The evolution of thinking about transgendered people has followed the historic script of other social awareness issues: quiet early adopters, relative silence, a handful of high-profile cases that spark opposition and backlash, and finally, some degree of acceptance of difference. Over time, those once considered odd or perverse are resurrected as "pioneers," those who follow become "brave," and slowly social barriers crumble. History is replete with examples of sex dysphoria––those who feel they were born the wrong sex. In 1921, a German known only as Dora R is believed to be the first transgendered individual to undergo SRS. Denmark's Lile Elbe transitioned from male to female in 1923. The came Virginia Wolff's Orlando (1928), but relatively few thought about such matters until 1951, when American Christine Jorgensen revealed that she had undergone SRS. Still, when Gore Vidal featured a transgendered character in his 1968 novel Myra Breckenridge, many tarred the book as pornographic. A few other novels appeared here and there, but few made more than a ripple outside of the LGBT community until Bohjalian's book.
Trans-Sister Sister is not a great novel; it's at best an easy read that appeals most to those versed in the sometimes-nasty pettiness of small-town life, not those looking for a serious work on sexual and gender identity. The story unfolds in the Addison County, Vermont town of Bartlett and centers on a broken family. Allison Banks lives in a grand old house in the middle of town where she and her ex-husband Will raised their daughter, Carly, a high school senior about to go off to Bennington College. Allison is a popular elementary school teacher, Carly is bright (and tolerant), and Will the president of a National Public Radio affiliate. He's also an emotionally challenged sad sack in the midst of messing up his second marriage. Forty-two-year-old Allison has had a series of post-Will relationships, none of which has gone well, until she meets 35-year-old Dana Stevens, a tenured film and lit professor who works in Burlington. The fireworks fly, but Dana has a secret: he can't wait to lose the penis that has brought Allison so much pleasure. He sees himself as a lesbian trapped in a heterosexual male's body.
The book's drama focuses on questions of identity, bigotry, and desire. Allison falls hard for Dana, but considers herself heterosexual, an identity crisis when Dana's hormonal therapy kicks in, breasts grow, and features soften. A bigger crisis: some Bartlett residents are so scandalized that they declare Allison unfit to teach their children. It doesn't help that her principal, Glenn Frazier, is among the doubters. Why, he wonders, would she want to rub the community's noses in her lifestyle? Can't she at least move away from the center of town? The book details the lynch mob mentality, follows Dana through SRS, and deals with Allison's post-op decisions. Is she actually a lesbian? Pleas for tolerance come first through Carly—a budding radio journalist who rather too conveniently accepts Dana as a sort of pseudo sister–and through Will who green lights an NPR feature on the Bartlett melodrama.
Okay—lots of problems. The story is way too pat, Allison exhibits "cougar" symptoms, the last 10% of the book is contrived, and each resolution of a major issue is reasoned in an NPR liberal sort of way. Dana is an underdeveloped character of whom we learn little beyond the fact that he wishes to be she. I know from firsthand experience that rural Vermonters can be a cantankerous lot, but Bohjalian's portrait of Bartlett is a bit heavy on pitchfork morality imagery.
On the plus side, I know Vermonters like Allison who refuse to be bullied by small-minded people. The novel, though no literary marvel, moves at a crisp pace and those who know Addison County will endlessly speculate which town was the model for Bartlett—conservative, around two thousand people, and an easy drive to Middlebury or Burlington. (My vote goes to either Starksboro or Monkton.)
Is the book dated? Yes. In 2001, Bohjalian pretty much viewed gender and sex alike as binaries—male or female, with transgender or bisexuality as temporary spaces until one figured out if it was A or B. There was very little discussion back then of terms such as agender, bigender, cisgender, pangender, or polygender. That said, Bohjalian's handling of Dana's ultimate identity transition would anger many modern readers. It is indeed problematic now, but rather than being angry, consider that the book's initial impact could be compared to how the 1993 movie Philadelphia mainstreamed AIDS for those only beginning to consider it as anything other than a gay curse. Trans-Sister Radio stands as a reminder how far society has come in a short period of time. Call it a non-vintage museum piece.