In this Uncanny Juxtaposition:
Mandelo, Lee. Summer Sons. New York: Tordotcom Publishing, 2021.
Nova, Nicholas and Disnovation.org. A Bestiary of the Anthropocene. Eindhoven: Onomatopee Press, 2021.
In 2000, Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer coined the term “Anthropocene” to describe the central role that mankind has played in altering planetary geology and ecology. It has become an increasingly hip buzzword in the arts and humanities, from Young Adult (YA) author John Green’s 2021 The Anthropocene Reviewed; to the photographs, film installations, and interactive technologies of The Anthropocene Project from the Canadian collective of Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal, and Nicholas de Pencier; to the 2021 Routledge anthology The Anthropocene: Approaches and Contexts for Literature and the Humanities; to Grimes’s 2020 album Miss Anthropocene (with all its attendant imperceptions of irony, given her relationship with Elon Musk). Critical race and decolonial scholars have updated the terminology—the Capitalocene from Jason W. Moore, the Chthulucene from Donna Haraway, the Plantationocene from Janae Davis. But to this day, the linkages between the Anthropocene and transness have remained largely unexplored.
Read together, Lee Mandelo’s Southern queer gothic novel Summer Sons (Tordotcom, 2021) and Nicholas Nova and Disnovation.org’s A Bestiary of the Anthropocene (Onomatopee, 2021) fill in this critical void, centering transness as a way of revising, and resisting, the Anthropocene. Mandelo’s debut novel dedicates its narrative to unexpected border crossings: from intermingling an Appalachian street-racing crew with the rigid hierarchies of the academy, to blending a pervasively horny form of desire with deadening fear, to erasing the boundaries between the living and the dead. Summer Sons therefore presents us with a complex and often otherworldly exploration of 21st century transness. Nova’s Bestiary is comprised of hand-drawn illustrations of the so-called “hybrid creatures of our time,” recalling simultaneously the fantastical bestiaries of medieval Europe, Victorian-era botanical manuals, and contemporary analyses of our current moment within geologic time. Fundamentally concerned with visualizing the bioplasticity that our “post-natural” era mandates for survival, the Bestiary’s illustrations of plastic-eating caterpillars, artificial snow, and rat bombs caution readers about the growing artificiality of our world. Summer Sons helps illuminate the expansion of what transness can (and should) mean and the uses to which transness can be put in the historical present that A Bestiary of the Anthropoceneseeks to navigate. Mandelo’s form of transness, both in its narrative and its stylistic refusal to respect genre divisions, posits transness as a methodology, a tactic for survival. Nova adopts this methodology, blending aesthetic modalities to present us with a compendium of the uses to which humanity has put transness, both for our survival and toward our own destruction.
In Mandelo’s Summer Sons, graduate student Andrew moves to Nashville after the suspicious apparent suicide of his childhood best friend/adoptive brother Eddie. The two share an unspoken but powerful attraction, made more complicated by their shared inheritance of a curse that grants them the ability to commune with the dead. With help from Eddie’s roommate, Riley, and Riley’s cousin, the seductively dangerous Sam Halse, Andrew investigates Eddie’s death, diving into the vastly divergent worlds of academic intrigue, street racing, and homosocial bonding that Eddie simultaneously inhabited. Andrew discovers that Eddie was murdered by his thesis advisor, Dr. Jane Troth, who stole Eddie’s power to control death so she could save her dying husband. But in addition to laying Eddie and his cursed lineage to rest, Andrew comes to terms with his true feelings for Eddie and finds a mutual attraction with Sam.
Nicholas Nova’s A Bestiary of the Anthropocene draws from the dual genres of the medieval bestiary and its scientific successor, the biological catalogue, to document and classify the hybrid entities that have emerged during the most recent years of the Age of Man. Nova intermingles living creatures such as the Plastic-Eating Caterpillar (55) with nonliving artifacts like Barbed Wire (123), as well as objects like the Tamagotchi (97) that acquire a simulation of life by virtue of their relationship with humans, to emphasize the metamorphoses that capitalism and human expansion have wrought on the non-human world. Alongside line drawings and descriptions of these entries, Nova includes brief essays from additional contributors who ruminate on the relevance of a medieval genre in our contemporary literary landscape, humankind’s reliance on nonliving materials, and the growing artificiality of our planet.
Summer Sons and the Bestiary manifest overt transness in both style and content. Mandelo’s novel transcends genre constraints as an action-film inspired novel simultaneously queer, Gothic, and Southern. It features a multifaceted landscape of queer desire, from Andrew and Eddie’s latent (and occasionally not-so-latent) attraction to Andrew’s final acceptance of his same-sex longing for Sam. Furthermore, Andrew learns that Riley is a trans man through visual and tactile, rather than verbal, means: “The long, angry red scars under his pectorals were unexpected. Andrew stopped his hand halfway while reaching out to touch, to trace them with his fingers like he had with his eyes” (99). At a party with Riley’s boyfriend Ethan, Andrew observes “Ethan’s smooth, well-shaved cheek pressed to his—same height, same build, same” (158), but, when visited by Eddie’s spirit, Andrew insists, “It isn’t him. It isn’t really him” (69), with Eddie’s name never mentioned and the pronoun left ambiguous. His hauntings, furthermore, depend upon wholly embodied connections; whereas Riley senses spectral resonances with a more traditional form of clairvoyance, Andrew experiences his ghostly visits almost like a possession. In the first visitation he experiences upon arriving in Nashville, “Freezing pressure crushed his lungs…. His bones throbbed under his muscles, wracked with another shudder that torqued him against the seat. His right hand scrabbled at the divider; superimposed over his limp left arm was a headache-inducing vision of a skeletal limb dripping brackish blood” (11). Andrew’s hauntings bond living and dead in an inventively trans form of bioplasticity, such that Andrew remains aware of the borders of his own skin and mind while concurrently unable to peel his body away from the unembodied spectral control.
Nova similarly plays with genre, presenting as a cohesive compendium a Middle Ages-style bestiary in the style of an Enlightenment-era scientific encyclopedia without compromising either the fable-like qualities of the bestiary or the encyclopedia’s biological accuracy. However, Nova’s bestiary differs from its generic predecessors in one striking way. “The texts in bestiaries generally consist of two parts,” notes Pierre-Olivier Dittmar in a contribution to Bestiary, “a description of physical and behavioral peculiarities, then a discussion of these traits that draw out a moral meaning for human use” (161). The Bestiary’s descriptions, however, “guide and question the reader, giving one space to draw moral conclusions” (161). The entry for the military dolphin, for example, describes US and Soviet experimentation during the Cold War with marine life’s echolocation as a strategy for probing the seafloor for mines, concluding with the stress-related illnesses to which dolphins used in military operations become prone. The description for radioactive mushrooms notes that the Tricholoma matsutake (133) survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, while the Afsluitdijk (“Enclosing Dam”) (41) entry mentions the sea barrier and causeway’s potential for generating renewable energy.
What’s more, both Mandelo and Nova propose new forms of transness that cross not only gender constructs but also the artificial distinctions between the living and the non- or once-living. While transhumanism has been thoroughly explored in sci-fi from Philip K. Dick to Octavia Butler and Stanley Kubrick, Mandelo and Nova intermingle species, entities, forms, and organisms symbiotically, such that the combination of, for example, human and machine in a single body allows both to enhance each other’s functionality without erasing either individual form. Like any typical Millennial, Eddie has merged his memory with his digital presence, rendering him a kind of disembodied intelligence in the afterlife: “On the laptop [Andrew] pulled up Eddie’s derelict Facebook; on the? phone, Instagram. Each digital record told a separate story” (79). Later, Andrew’s fusion with Eddie’s car during a street race grants him a kind of joy and connection that he otherwise lacks: “He felt his own heartbeat and the car’s lurch off the line, pinning his stomach to his spine with sweet vertigo” (135). And his ability to experience Eddie’s memories of his own murder enables Andrew to access information that would otherwise remain forgotten: “Images smashed through him, reeling like film stock and pulling like muscle memory” (239). Despite Andrew’s insistence that “it was a haunt, and haunts didn’t go around feeding clues to the living left behind” (144), the haunt, by fusing with Andrew and manipulating his body and mind, gives Andrew all the pieces to the puzzle of Eddie’s murder. Transness, then, whether with cyberspace, machines, or ghosts, physically alters the bodies of both beings and lends each the abilities of the other.
Nova highlights Anthropocene-era creatures with similarly synergetic capabilities. One contributor describes the “art of combinations” as “aimed primarily at recomposing the commons in an odd world. It is an art of symbiosis, a common thrust toward phusis, or the ‘self-giving-of-a-common form’” (169). The entries in the Bestiary exemplify this common thrust toward alliance. Artificial reefs for instance, can be used to control erosion, provide new habitats for marine life, alter human industrial routes, and improve conditions for recreational surfing (37). Animal prosthetics restore comfort and mobility to non-human amputees (67). And glacial erratics serve, among more utilitarian purposes, as objects of veneration and spirituality for human societies that have imbued them with religious and social purposes (23). Symbiosis and alliance certainly do not define every entry in the Bestiary. Some of Nova’s “beasts” exist solely for the benefit of their human creators (the Crittercam that gives biologists a unique glimpse into animal spaces ) or for the deepening of postindustrial capitalism (the Decapitated Mountaintop that serves as a visual reminder of the coal industry’s disregard for ecological devastation ). But, in line with Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern, Nova “demonstrate[s] the futility of the separation between humans and non-humans” (169). The inclusion of Homo sapienitself as a beast of the Anthropocene perhaps best illustrates the coherence with which the natural and the artificial intermingle in the Age of Man.
In both Mandelo and Nova, this intermingling is ethically ambiguous, both blessing and curse. Riley describes the curse itself, the legacy that rendered Andrew’s body a trans one, as “not actually a curse in the ‘all bad, no good, oops you made a mistake’ sense, but more like a magical inheritance that comes with a price” (316). But the curse is also what solves the case and enables Andrew to move on. Nova’s “beasts” are also comprised of both curses and blessings, albeit of an ambivalent sort: cloud seeding, for example, can increase precipitation and dissipate fog, but has also sparked conspiracy theories about governmental weather manipulation (149). And the Roomba, with its uncannily sentient behavior and hacking vulnerabilities, exemplifies the simultaneous ambiguity and potentiality of transness, necessitating that we “follow in the ensuing labyrinth the multiple interfaces between these orders” (172).
By navigating this labyrinth, the Anthropocene as a guiding principle in Summer Sons and the Bestiary becomes defined by its necessary reinterpretation of trans potentialities. Media representations of transness have often depicted trans bodies as monstrous or bestial: villains from Frankenstein’s Monster to Dressed to Kill’s Dr. Robert Elliot and The Silence of the Lambs’ Buffalo Bill. Mandelo and Nova push back against the trans body-as-monster trope by recentering embodiment as the crux of transness and celebrating trans embodiment as a uniquely adept asset for navigating the Anthropocene. Transness, for Mandelo and Nova, functions not as a metaphor or an abstract concept, but rather as the touchstone of twenty-first century physicality. Both works, Mandelo’s novel in particular, actually seem to be reappropriating the narrative of the trans body as a “beast,” proposing that hybridity and fluidity, whether in terms of sex, gender, or environmental, represents precisely the kind of bioplasticity that is necessary to survive the contemporary historical present. Michel Lussault argues that the Anthropocene “incites us to consider (as much, if not above all) what will happen ‘after’ what has taken place ‘before’” (217). Summer Sons and the Bestiary engage in that consideration while refusing to distinguish between “before” and “after,” presenting transness as a form of political revolt for navigating the Anthropocene.