Gretchen Felker-Martin, “Manhunt” (2022) – This book has made quite a splash! It’s a post-apocalyptic horror novel where the three most prominent characters are all trans (two trans women and one trans man) who have to make their way in a world ravaged by “T-Rex,” a disease which causes anyone with enough testosterone to turn into ravaging mindless mutants. A lot of the reviews of this book put their emphasis on the bloodiness and violence in it. Surely, a story where two of the main characters hunt zombified men and cut their testes off to extract the estrogen they need for them and other trans women to avoid turning into said zombies (I’m enough of a dummy about endocrinology I didn’t even know you got estrogen from testes! Learning!) can be said to be pretty choice as far as violence is concerned. I’m a dude who doesn’t quail from written, or most visual, depictions of violence, especially violence in the heat of combat, so that didn’t bother me too much. Body horror does gross me out more, and Felker-Martin, herself a trans woman, does fine work with the particulars of the T-Rex disease, the semi-conscious cancers, the way it deforms men (and trans women who cannot get what they need in time).
Considerably more interesting to me than the blood-and-guts horror elements are the political and interpersonal horrors of the world Felker-Martin makes. She says she wanted to dramatize – she uses the word “melodrama” as a compliment – what trans women face in the world, the ways their bodies can turn against them in visceral, horrifying ways, and the ways others seek to harm them. With the others, there’s a quite strict gender line in terms of how the cis express that sadism: men are mindless mutants who rape, kill, cannibalize- you can almost feel bad for them, they just can’t help themselves. Women, for their part, have chosen to imitate pre-T-Rex men, their exclusions, their hierarchies, their militaries and religions, their secret police, and aim all of that towards trans women. The real villains in the piece are TERFs, Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists, who form fascist militias who look to make themselves queens of the wasteland. Felker-Martin, in the fine tradition of Sun Tzu (and Tony Soprano’s reading of same!), has found the most choleric opponent of all time, the online “gender critical” types, and has irritated the shit out of them. They’re mad, folks! I’m not sure if we’ve heard about the book from the other type of woman Felker-Martin paints in vivid, spiteful (in the most complimentary sense of the word) colors, rich, vaguely-progressive, kind of Elizabeth Holmes-style girl-boss types, but they probably don’t read the same social media feeds that TERFs do.
For most of the book we follow Beth and Fran, a pair of trans women who used to know each other in high school, and who now wander the New England countryside trying to survive. Beth is a big tough former jock type who’s handy with a bow, Fran is a pretty, petite gal with the medical training to help keep them alive and find the stuff they need. The body horror can be gross, the horror of being hunted is tough, but really, the grimmest stuff for me was the inter-trans interpersonal stuff, the fraught relationship between working-class Beth, who cannot pass as a cis woman, and the more middle-class Fran, who can. Everybody talks about doing the right thing, being there for each other, respecting each other’s identities until the chips come down, and then it turns into gender essentialism, heartbreak, people getting brained by falling air conditioners, and other things no one wants to think about. Things get more complicated still when Robbie, a trans man who’s been wandering around sniping rampaging cis men, and Indira, a cis woman who’s their friend and a skilled scientist (she turns the balls into estrogen), enter the picture. It’s “found family” but not in the lame Joss Whedon sense- it has all of the claustrophobia and barely-suppressed despair of real found family, found under the circumstances such families are generally found: a struggle for survival. People pair off, off and on, in ways that make some happy and some less so, all in the context of this awful situation.
On the run from the TERFs, led by an enforcer with a bad habit of sleeping with trans sex workers, the foursome take a job with a “bunker brat,” the aforementioned girl-boss, who took her family money and built a GOOP-ified survival bunker into the New Hampshire hillsides. Naturally, the bunker turns out to suck pretty bad, but equally naturally, it also dangles the sorts of promises that such setups do to get people involved- money, safety, acceptance (for some). In the end, the characters need to battle both the bunker brats and the TERF militia for survival and for a potential future where they could thrive.
So… this is “taking the eagles to Mordor” level criticism, but my cis self did wonder the whole time… Beth and Fran are worried that if they don’t get enough estrogen, they will get T-Rex and face a fate worse than death. They’re trans women. Why don’t they remove their testes? Fran is at least partially motivated to do some bad things when the bunker brat holds out genital replacement surgery to her. Removing testes is a lot easier, people did it all the time back when before antibiotics etc. We learn that at least some people do that, and that the TERFs actually make boys who are young enough not to have enough testosterone to get T-Rex either get castrated or get killed. I figure that’s a hint- that the TERFs do it, they create a kind of caste of jannissaries out of emasculated boys, so it’s probably bad. I’m not sure I get why? I’m a cis man. I want to have my male genitalia. If it were a choice between not having them and still having them but becoming a disgusting mindless zombie, I’d choose the former! I’d straight up Thomas Aquinas the situation. But then again if I have to live in a shitty post-apocalyptic world, I’d probably just choose a quick death before either…
So, we run into the limits of experience, here. I do not know what it’s like to be trans. And I try to learn about it without asking a bunch of specific, prying questions, so, I tend to learn things in kind of an indirect way, among other things by trying to listen to trans people (and other people with radically different life experiences) in my life. I wonder if that’s what makes people mad about Felker-Martin’s work- an unapologetically trans voice, one that conjures a world where trans people are at the center, not marginal figures for pathos or diversity points, and not needing to over-perform — to avoid tweaking the irritable, for instance, or to answer every question a dumb cis dude reader might come up with — to establish validity. It doesn’t make me mad- I like to see it. Some of what comes with it leaves me wondering, but that’s not too bad, and it’s an inevitable companion of the limits of experiential knowledge.
We also run into the limits of horror, or, horror and me. I’m not a big horror guy! Like anime, video games, and numerous other cultural touchstones of the people around me, horror and me passed like ships in the night. At the end of the day, any type of writing is selling something. Nonfiction tends to sell a thesis. Fiction tends to sell feelings. Probably, due to a mixture of scaredy-cat-ness and pedantry, I often don’t buy the feeling of horror, at least not in a thrilling way. I’m a reasonably smart boy, dealing with this stuff at a remove, so I can say stuff like, “well, plenty of eunuchs got along just fine back in the day, I’d just lop my balls off!” A bit like a golden age scifi hero of instrumental rationality (except their authors usually were anything but- you figure a Heinlein hero would torch galaxies rather than slip that girdle over his oat tote), and ultimately just as out of tune with what anybody wants to hear… but, here I sit.
But that’s not to say that nothing in books scares me. Maybe this is trite, but the interpersonal (and, to an extent, the political/social collapse stuff) is scary, and Felker-Martin does as well with that as the writers whose stuff in that vein makes up part of my personal canon. Felker-Martin loves melodrama more than John Kennedy Toole, Charles Portis, James Cain, Doris Lessing, and other favorites of mine who explored the impossibilities and imprisonments of communication, desire, the condition of being human with other humans… but then again, Toole and Cain surely weren’t strangers to a more grand guignol style of emotional failure and cruelty… anyway! A fine, compelling work, even if it’s a genre the offerings of which I’m less receptive to than others. ****’