Refuse – Elliott DeLine (CreateSpace)

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Elliott DeLine is an ambitious, witty,
self-deprecating, thoughtful writer whose debut novel Refuse could
meaningfully be compared to the work of Dennis Cooper (with far less violence),
Brett Easton Ellis (with far fewer chemical substances), David Sedaris (with
not as many belly laughs) and Leslie Feinberg (with a much less mournful
air).  Conversant with the queer
coming-of-age narrative, the disaffected-youth novel and the transgender
memoir—as well as the feminist and gender theory that each of these literary
genres has inspired—DeLine pushes back against the familiar, and safe,
conventions of these sources to produce a captivating story populated by fully
rendered, completely believable characters who, while not always likable, and
never the objects of pity, somehow manage to make an affective claim on the
reader.  With this as his debut effort,
DeLine, not yet out of college, is a writer to watch.

Refuse’s protagonist Dean—an anti-hero with more charm
than Holden Caulfield, but about the same level of ambition and social skill—is
a female-to-male transgendered college student who has an obsession with The
Smiths and a secret desire to be a famous author.  (Novel? Memoir?  You decide.) 
Alternating between first- and third-person narration, the novel opens
by introducing the reader to Dean’s internal monologue before taking the reader
into the events of Dean’s life.  This is
a brave choice on DeLine’s part.  For the
first half of the novel, I found Dean utterly unsympathetic.  Without any change in Dean’s voice, without
any grand redemptive moment, without any remarkable maturation on his part,
however, I found myself slowly but surely coming to see him struggling as best
he could to make sense of the world he occupied.  This is one of DeLine’s (sure to be
controversial) strokes of genius.  In his
novel, queer folk and their friends are no more admirable than anyone else—they
are flawed, narcissistic, immature and cruel; there is no wisdom or nobility,
just humanity and honesty, to be found in DeLine’s characters.  And, most significantly, their foibles cannot
be explained by the oppression they face at the hands of a
homo-and-trans-phobic society.  The novel
forces us to acknowledge that queer people are human beings—rather than saints
or martyrs.  As my friends and I used to
say, “Just because he’s a homophobe, doesn’t mean you’re not an asshole.”

DeLine tells a fairly familiar story.  Dean is struggling to find himself,
especially since he is a non-conforming, college-aged kid attracted to his
roommate, another FTM, who refuses to embrace his attraction to Dean, remaining
very invested in his relationship with his girlfriend.  The novel is populated with other
transgendered folk—at various stages of their journey, and various levels of
self-acceptance—as well as several gay men—some of them more palatable than
others.  It is littered with references
to music and the ways that music can save tortured souls, as well as the way
that celebrity is a deadly lure.  At a
certain point, I wondered if Refuse might be more successful if some
characters or plot elements had been trimmed. 
It began to feel a bit like Quentin Tarantino’s more recent work:  each moment was brilliantly rendered,
evidencing genius of a certain kind, but there just too many of them for the
machinery to feel like it was being controlled by a steady hand. 

But DeLine knows the ways that this
familiar story doesn’t work.  He never
parrots the “trapped in the wrong body” narrative line to explain Dean.  In fact, in the first-person sections of the
novel, Dean says any number of things about transgendered people, their
motivations and their shortcomings that are likely to infuriate some
readers.  And in the third-person
sections his words and actions often infuriate the other characters.  But, this is what makes DeLine’s novel so
fresh and so important.  As unfamiliar as
DeLine’s novel is as a coming-of-age memoir, readers will recognize Dean, even
with all his flaws—he may not be the transgender everyman, but he is the
transgender someone.

At the same time, I wondered about the
ways the novel flirts with transgender identity (if “identity” is even the
right word for its complex perspective on trans issues) as a metaphor for the
struggle to name authentic desire and purpose generally.  While there is a certain kind of political
power and insight contained in the mantra that we are all transgendered, to
move too quickly to universalism, too quickly to the tropic, is to undercut the
specific experience and concrete reality of actual human beings.  This flirtation doesn’t mar the novel as a
novel, but it is a political question that DeLine’s novel raises . . .
precisely as it tries to push back against the typical narrative conventions—and
political frames—for rendering trans lives. 
(For further efforts in this vein, I would recommend DeLine’s May 22,
2011 New York Times essay, “Stuck at the Border between the Sexes.”)

I received an electronic copy of DeLine’s
book for this review, and so I have never heard the title spoken aloud.  It contains an ambiguity that is relevant to
the story the novel tells and the characters DeLine fabricates.  Refuse.  Is this a tale about the detritus of our
social order?  The left-over, tossed
away, discarded remnant that has no value within the dominant economy?  Or, is the title an action?  Is the novel one grand gesture of negation, a
rejection of definitions of personal, professional, romantic success and
destiny that queer lives are called to embody more fully?

Elliott DeLine is a talented writer who
has something to say.  Refuse is a
remarkable start to a literary career. 
I, for one, look forward to what comes next.

Reviewed by Kent Brintnall

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