The first thing prospective readers should know about T Cooper’s new book is that, although Cooper writes about the experience of being born a woman and living as a man, Real Man Adventures (McSweeney’s) is not the standard “trans narrative we know from TV and films,” says Cooper. For one thing: it’s not a memoir.
That’s because Cooper—author of the novels Some of the Parts, Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes, and, most recently, the illustrated The Beaufort Diaries, about a polar bear who goes Hollywood (the book itself went Hollywood, becoming a short film with David Duchovny)—doesn’t think “a 39-year-old needs to sit down and tell the story of his life.” Nor does he think it’s possible, even in a memoir, to tell the whole story, simply because there is no one complete story.
Instead, the book, which he started working on when he realized that he’d been “kind of dancing around” the topic for a while, is an episodic patchwork of styles and perspectives that, he says, came about organically. It originated as an article for the Believer and grew as he kept writing, stopping every so often to ask himself, “Am I done? Do I feel too exposed?” If both answers were “no,” he kept going. The result is “a nonfiction book about masculinity with autobiographical elements.”
Really? Really. And who better to talk about how masculinity is defined and expressed than someone who’s made his way into what Cooper calls the “Man Club,” knowing he could be cast out as an interloper at any time. Cooper’s take on masculinity is that all of us—male or female, trans or cis (as trans people call those who stay in the gender column they were born into)—take it for granted, fail to question it, and thus are “complicit” with it.
Cooper’s discomfort with the idea of a master narrative that’s “jammed down our throats” shows in his inclusion of multiple voices. He interviews his wife and brother, other trans people and their parents, and an entertainer known as ReDICKulous, whose claim to fame is an enormous penis. Why ReDICKulous? Because, Cooper says, when it comes to defining manhood, most people are “pretty biological in their thinking,” that is, they think “you can’t be a man without a penis.” Which is not only a problem for soldiers who get hit in the wrong place by an IED, it also means “the man with the big tool” has “the unspoken power position.” All this biological thinking is part of why Cooper and other trans people grapple with how open to be.
Still, readers who pick up the book hoping to get the skinny on what it’s like to transition from being seen as a woman (regardless of whether that’s how you feel about yourself) to being seen (usually) as a man (regardless of whether you have all the body parts we tend to think are requisite) won’t be disappointed. For one thing, Cooper provides lots of details about what he faces as a trans man. Like, for instance, the fact that before he could have his passport renewed, he had to prove to the Department of State that he’d had “complete sexual reassignment surgery.” Or that, despite his lovely wife and the two lovely daughters he acquired when he married her, he wonders what could happen if his daughters’ friends’ parents find out that the guy supervising play dates wasn’t born a guy. And then there are the fears that come with encounters with unfamiliar doctors and truck stop bathrooms.
There’s a good bit of fear and anger in the book, a collection of interviews, mini-autobiographies, letters, essays, and memoirlike segments, but that first Believer article “came out funny,” and so does much of Real Man Adventures. As Cooper writes through what he calls “this thing of mine,” he conveys the dual reality of not having “the luxury of just being a guy” and a life in which he’s not thinking about “what do I as a trans person want to do for my 40th birthday” or wondering about his “next trans project.” Whatever that project is, and however trans it is or isn’t, Real Man Adventures will make you think about masculinity, visibility, and what and when you disclose—and to whom. With all that, who needs “Eat Pray, Trans,” as Cooper shorthands the book he didn’t want to write.