When I read the blurb for this book, I couldn’t resist putting in a request, because it sounded so bizarre and interesting.
And so thank you to the author, as well as Soft Skull Press via NetGalley for the review copy!
The year is 20__, and Penfield R. Henderson is in a rut. When he’s not walking dogs for cash or responding to booty calls from his B-list celebrity hookup, he’s holed up in his dingy Bushwick apartment obsessing over holograms of Aiden Chase, a fellow trans man and influencer documenting his much smoother transition into picture-perfect masculinity on the Gram. After an IRL encounter with Aiden leaves Pen feeling especially resentful, Pen enlists his roommates, the Witch and the Stoner-Hacker, to put their respective talents to use in hexing Aiden. Together, they gain access to Aiden’s social media account and post a picture of Pen’s aloe plant, Alice, tied to a curse:
Whosoever beholds the aloe will be pushed into the Shadowlands.
When the hex accidentally bypasses Aiden, sending another young trans man named Blithe to the Shadowlands (the dreaded emotional landscape through which every trans person must journey to achieve true self-actualization), the Rhiz (the quasi-benevolent big brother agency overseeing all trans matters) orders Pen and Aiden to team up and retrieve him. The two trace Blithe to a dilapidated motel in California and bring him back to New York, where they try to coax Blithe to stop speaking only in code and awkwardly try to pass on what little trans wisdom they possess. As the trio makes its way in a world that includes pitless avocados and subway cars that change color based on occupants’ collective moods but still casts judgment on anyone not perfectly straight, Pen starts to learn that sometimes a family isn’t just the people who birthed you.
“Well when you’re trans you can look back and see how every gut-sensation that told you something was off, too tight, wrong, airless, and incongruent was a beautiful curling script towards the future.”
This is the story of Penfield R. Henderson, who is a trans man who lives in New York City in the not-so-far-flung future. He’s a dog-walker, and has a secret celebrity hookup, and when he’s not busy with those, he is obsessing over Aiden Chase, who is also a trans man, and one who appears (per his Gram account) to have achieved absolute physical perfection. When he meets Aiden IRL, and gets more or less blown-off, Pen employs his roommates, the Stoner-Hacker, and the Witch to put a hex on Aiden. But the hex misses Aiden and instead hits another young trans man named Blithe and pushes him into the Shadowlands, which is (and I’m not going to be able to phrase this better than the blurb does) ‘the dreaded emotional landscape through which every trans person must journey to achieve true self-actualization’.
The Rhiz (a sort of mildly-omnipotent agency which oversees trans matters) tells Pen and Aiden that they must find Blithe and help him out of the Shadowlands. So, Aiden and Pen team up to track him down. And of course, many shenanigans are had along the way.
I liked this book, but I didn’t love it quite as much as I was expecting to. It is, just as I imagined it would be, bizarre as hell, and it took me a little while to really settle into it. That said, I still read it in a day, in just two sittings, because I found it very easy to pick up and read for hours at a time.
I didn’t find myself cheering for any one character in particular, most of the time, but sort of hoping for the best for all three of them. I enjoyed how the relationship between all three characters had evolved through their whole adventure together, and by the end, I was satisfied with how everything turned out, even if I thought the book itself ended rather abruptly.
My biggest problems were that sometimes the timeline was hard to keep track of, and often weeks or months would pass with no apparent change in anything happening. I actually have no idea how long these three spent in Pen’s tiny apartment. In terms of the book, it was maybe a third? In terms of time, I think it was several months, but I actually have no idea. Sometimes things would happen that really had no real relevance to the plot and seemed out of place. Like Pen would go out for drinks with a previously unmentioned friend, or go to the pool, or something like that and it would throw me out of the story a bit because none of it seemed to matter to things that were happening. At times, it felt like it was trying to do a little too much at once.
All told though, I thought it was unique AF and told an interesting story. I enjoyed my afternoon with it. ^_^ 3/5 stars!~