After reading Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg I was understandably eager to read Drag King Dreams. I was somewhat disappointed in this sophomore novel which did not quite live up to the promise of Feinberg’s debut novel. I have some ideas as to why this is true but before I dig into why I didn’t like it as much I would like to look at what I did like.
The characters that people the world of the narrator/protagonist in Drag King Dreams are more fully realized. Each has hir own history and experiences and the reader eventually feels a familiarity with each one. This was not as true with Stone Butch Blues where I often found myself confused by who was who and whether one character was a femme, butch, whatever.
What I disliked most about the former novel is not as evident in this novel. Although the story begins with a murder, the story is not as melodramatic. The plot and pacing are tighter.
Over all, this is a thought provoking bit of escapism but it falls short of its greater potential of building on the clear promise of the former novel.
A minor complaint on my part is that Feinberg uses italics in an insulting manner. When using the pronomials hir and ze instead of trusting the reader to understand contextually what these words means, they are italicized with a “look at me!” obviousness. If the reader does not already know what hir and ze mean and they are not smart enough to figure it out for themselves as they read then they are not going to understand it better because the words are consistently italicized and those readers who either already know or quickly catch on are likely to find it as insulting as I did.
My next complaint is more subjective. I loved Jess, the narrator of Stone Butch Blues. I wanted to hang out with hir, get to know hir. But I did not feel any connection with Max, the narrator of Drag King Dreams. Ironically, this may be a compliment as much as it is a concern. Max is isolated, a loner, and this comes across so clearly that I, as a reader, felt no emotional connection whatsoever. I didn’t really care what happened to Max. The moments Max shares with a cousin, Heshie, especially a scene where the cousin visits Max’s apartment, were the most meaningful to me. Other characters like Ruby and Thor were more interesting and sympathetic. And this lack of sympathy kept me from immersing myself in the novel.
My largest complaint is also qualified. It felt to me as though Feinberg had an ax to grind, an agenda behind writing both of these novels but this time she wields her reason with far more aggression and far less compassion. Horrible things happen in both novels but in the former there is a more gentle overtone that actually makes the events all the more horrible. And especially as the novel sped towards its conclusion I felt that Feinberg was more interested in writing a manifesto than a novel.
And can I blame hir? More than a decade has passed from the first to the second novel and how much progress has really been made? If more and more celebrities are coming out and living more openly, that is all well and good but there are still those who are trying to change the constitution to define marriage as being between a man and a woman. If the idea of transgendered people is more accepted and acceptable then why does my spell check not recognize the word transgendered? If bisexuality is now as much a trend as it is a sexual orientation then why are there schools created for LGBT high school students to protect them from the abuse of their peers?
So is Drag King Dreams angrier than Stone Butch Blues? Yes. With reason? Absolutely yes. Have we come a long way? Yes. Yes, but we have so much further to go before we are there and while I may not be as angry as Feinberg I do feel angry and frustrated and aggrieved. But am I as moved as I was by Stone Butch Blues? No.