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Thomas Page McBee’s Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness and Becoming a Man is not a memoir—though, in all likelihood, it will often be characterized as such, in a testament to both the limits of cultural understandings of nonfiction and of transgender storytelling. In reality, Man Alive is a gem of creative nonfiction, and an excellent example of what distinguishes that often nebulous genre. As Lee Gutkind, one of the explicators of the form, explains on the site for his journal, Creative Nonfiction:
Creative nonfiction is like jazz—it’s a rich mix of flavors, ideas, and techniques […] The word “creative” refers to the use of literary craft, the techniques ﬁction writers, playwrights, and poets employ to present nonﬁction—factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid, dramatic manner.
Like jazz. Compelling. Vivid. Dramatic. One would be hard pressed to find better words to describe McBee’s tale. His choice of structure is at the core of these effects. The book is broken into very short chapters, a scene or two each: just enough space to explore one conversation, one memory, one encounter, and then cut off the narrative right when the reader craves more. This technique mimics the fragmented quality of McBee’s own journey toward self-realization as he suffers the post-traumatic anxieties of two pivotal events: his father’s sexual abuse of him as a child, and his near-death encounter with a mugger. As he puts it at one point, “There are the facts of what happened, but the story is in parts.”
McBee’s tale shoots forward and backwards in time, suggesting that we make sense of life’s occurrences in a less-than-linear fashion. He shows us masterfully how the narrative flow, the maintenance or disruption of a tone and feeling, and the curious resonances between things that happen years apart are most crucial to delivering a story that is somehow truer to life than a simple re-telling could ever be. He writes with constant movement, his foot pressing the proverbial accelerator to the floor; he picks words and metaphors with the eye of a poet, and with an ear for what will evoke the constant, electric flux of our animal bodies.
To pick just one of countless striking images: he describes facing the threat of another man’s approach, saying, “I’d peacock through a warzone before I’d admit to that [frightened] twitch.” In other scenes he describes how “my body spangled back to life,” of “the warble between the shape in my mind and the one in the mirror,” of “that bird feeling: a flutter in my chest,” of other men’s “sinew, their slang, their beautiful bristle,” of his own “teen-boy swagger, scars like smiles across my chest, and a body I was just beginning love” that accompanied “me and my reflection and my hungry ghosts [as] I steered my rental through the swampy South with my cap pulled low.”
McBee may jet between a past and a present, between boyhood and manhood, but the timeframes are carefully circumscribed. Much of Man Alive’s focus is within a specific period: McBee’s late twenties, a pivotal moment when his need to understand the roots of his father’s abuse, his own marriage, his acceptance that he is a man and will undergo a gender transition, and his own reckoning with the strange mercy of his mugger all come to a head. He draws on the power that builds when a writer focuses onto one of life’s pivots, rather than diluting a grander “memoir” with backstory and extraneous imagery. McBee’s writing is tightly controlled, each sentence crafted into an impact point.
As mentioned earlier, Man Alive doesn’t just offer the reader insight into the creative nonfiction genre, but into trans storytelling as well. About three-quarters of the way through the book, McBee tells us, “I could feel myself trapped in the wrong story and the right body.” This is, to say, that he’s consciously in conversation with the “transgender memoir” genre. It’s a clever reimagining of a paradigm writers have often used to make metaphorical meaning of the subjective, felt experience of being transgender: “trapped in the wrong body.” Here, McBee—and indeed, in retrospect, we realize his entire tale—is questioning why and how his body, which he has fought dearly to stay attached to after facing horrific violences, should be considered the faulty gasket.
When trying to comprehend what is happening to, and through, oneself, why not question the narratives one has been handed to make sense with?
This is an approach increasingly utilized within transgender knowledge production, one spearheaded by transgender people themselves. It brings to light questions about previous entries into the trans nonfiction canon, asking: Is it necessary, when writing a trans protagonist, to describe in detail a medical transition, to “confess” conflicted feelings of body confusion? Has it even been internalized into a communal consciousness, into something resembling a trans storytelling requirement?
Among the many other trans personal narratives published this past year, perhaps half have followed this more conventional information-and-inspiration sharing tack, and can be best described as “transition memoirs.” McBee, on the other hand, is among a growing strand of trans literature—alongside recent releases that include, to name a couple, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s The End of San Francisco (also from City Lights Publishers) and Beatriz Preciado’s Testo Junkie (Feminist Press)—that considers transition alongside, and often secondarily, to other key events. Revealing the gory details of a medical transition are often wholly beside the point or, in the case of Preciado, transformed from an object of scrutiny to its own subjectivity, its own category of analysis. It’s something that interacts complexly and illuminates other themes, but is not the narrative’s focal point.
The focus of Man Alive, rather, is held within its first sentence: “What makes a man?” Its uncertainty, its yearning, its deceptive simplicity, its focus on mythical meanings rather than physical ones, its potentially dark undertones, and its potentially liberating ones chart their course through an early adulthood that is indebted to, yet so much more, than an outward, bodily shift from “female” to male.
Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness and Becoming a Man
By Thomas Page McBee
City Lights Publishers
Paperback, 9780872866249, 172 pp.