When my editor asked me about cover ideas for my forthcoming memoir, Fairest, I told her that I was open to anything—except an image of my face. My book is in large part about my negotiations with appearance as a whitepassing trans woman, so I was aware that this caveat would be a design challenge. The request was instinctive. Trans women are regularly subjected to enormous scrutiny and objectification when it comes to our looks; people constantly speculate about and comment on not only our attractiveness but the nature of our transitions. I didn’t want to encourage potential readers to engage in this type of evaluation. But having acted on intuition, I found myself wondering how exactly trans women have been depicted on memoir covers over time. I began browsing online libraries, bookstores, and blogs to find trans memoirs published by American trade presses, some of which I’d already read. I ended up surveying nearly two dozen transfeminine memoirs written between 1964 and the present, an exercise that confirmed what I’d suspected: for decades, trans women’s bodies have been deployed as spectacle on the covers of these authors’ own books, which are meant to be vehicles for our thoughts and ideas.
In The Decline of the Novel, Joseph Bottum puts words to something every reader of fiction has long sensed in his bones: The novel is dying, if not dead; fiction is no longer a useful means of grappling with reality.
“For almost three hundred years,” he begins, “the novel was a major art form, perhaps the major art form, of the modern world—the device by which we tried to explain ourselves to ourselves.” The novel represented a maturation of storytelling—the adulthood of fiction, taking the reader into the interior of the human person. Now, the form is on its deathbed. Lingering readers are seeking in it something other—diversion, entertainment—than what the readers of Jane Austen or the Brontes, Dickens or Kafka, were seeking back in the day.
There’s a possibility that Shakespeare developed immunity to the plague because of his exposure when he was an infant, but that speculation began only centuries later and only because the plague was a constant nuisance to Shakespeare. “Plague was the single most powerful force shaping his life and those of his contemporaries,” wrote Jonathan Bate, one of his many biographers. The plague was naturally a taboo subject for much of Shakespeare’s writing career. Even when it was the only thing on anybody’s mind, nobody could bring himself to speak about it. Londoners went to the city’s playhouses so they could temporarily escape their dread of the plague. A play about the plague had the appeal of watching a movie about a plane crash while 35,000 feet in the air.
But the plague was also Shakespeare’s secret weapon. He didn’t ignore it. He took advantage of it.
While loss, yearning, fear of death and an overwhelming sense of waste are part of the human condition, they can sometimes be faced more easily with the help of poetry. As Burnside writes, poetry “nourishes us, it contributes to our grieving and our healing processes, it gives focus to our loves and to our fears, allowing us to sing them, at the back of our minds, in a deliberate and disciplined transformation of noise into music, of grief into acceptance, of anger at pointless destruction into a determination to save at least something of what remains.”
But before setting out on the culinary adventure to end them all, I thought it only proper that I investigate the real last meals of the condemned — that I put some bitter meat on the bare bones of the game.
One thing soon became clear. While more than 50 nations have the death penalty and continue to use it, only the United States appears to have acquired a highly developed literature on its culinary aspect, both popular and scholarly: There are countless accounts of orders for fried chicken and burgers, for tubs of ice cream and chocolate-chip cookies; for the food of a great childhood day out, ordered by men — and it is mostly men — about to be executed by the state.
By the end, it’s clear that no matter how educated Xavier’s mother is, no matter how promising his future is, no matter how many years the residents of Oak Knoll have lived together in harmony, it is still possible for a privileged white newcomer to cast Xavier as a dangerous black man. This is where the similarities between “A Rose for Miss Emily” and “A Good Neighborhood” end. While Faulkner’s story veers off into the traditional grotesquerie of Southern Gothic literature, Fowler’s culminates with injustices that are painfully easy to imagine because they continue to be a part of our contemporary lived experience.
I have seen a face with a thousand countenances, and a face that was but a single countenance as if held in a mould.