Many writers have to wait until old age to see their work reprinted. Imogen Binnie, whose first novel, Nevadareleased in 2013, only had to wait nine years. Nevada was first published by Topside Press, an independent publisher run by trans publishers and primarily publishing trans literature. It became a word-of-mouth hit, generating what writer Casey Plett calls a “common response,” especially among trans and queer readers. After Topside folded in 2017, exhausting the book, fans kept Nevada alive – by discussing, recommending and distributing it through a site called Did you read Nevada? Eventually, one of those fans, publisher Jackson Howard, reach to Binnie, leading Farrar, Straus & Giroux to reissue the book this summer.
It’s easy to see why it has achieved cult status. Nevada is a pleasure to read. Its protagonist, Maria Griffiths, is a charismatic goof trapped in a job as a bookseller that she hates. Much of the book is dominated by Maria talking, usually to herself or her blog, and while her monologues are full of exaggerations and generalizations, they’re also sharp, energizing, and funny. Often they are also infuriating. In a recent profile of Binnie, writer Harron Walker describe feeling frustrated with “Maria’s myopic takes [and] accustomed to defining one’s own life as the transgender experience,” and then realizing that “Maria’s myopia is the problem.” Maria is stuck in her own existence; Nevada testifies to its blockage. It was one of the first contemporary novels to treat the story of a trans woman in a complicated and nuanced way, without relying on the transition for storytelling momentum or treating it as a guaranteed happy ending. Instead, Binnie offhandedly refers to Maria’s transition as a “very special episode” and then, overall, lets her protagonist avoid mentioning it again.
I would say that Nevada is also important for another reason: it is one of the first great booksellers. The bookstore – by which I mean working in a bookstore, as opposed to owning one – is work, and Nevada is as much about class and work as transit and gender. Of course, the two are closely related, both because money affects the transition – think, for example, that in order for Maria not to have to shave every day, she “would have to give a lot of money to a professional specialist who sticks electric needles in your face to kill hair” – and because any honest evocation of a life, real or fictional, will include class. Nevada succeeds in telling Maria’s specific story precisely because Binnie pays attention to the details and horrors of her work.
Nevada is explicit on this link. Early in the novel, in a passage where Maria criticizes that trans women are “at least as boring as everyone else”, Binnie writes, “Here’s what it’s like to be a trans woman: Maria works in a huge second-hand bookstore in lower Manhattan. It’s an awful place. The owner is this very rich, very mean woman… The managers under her have all been miserable under her for twenty or thirty (or forty or fifty) years, which means they are assholes to Maria and everyone else. The rapid progression from Maria’s general assertions about trans women to the day-to-day reality of her work makes it clear, to anyone who needed clarification, that there is no monolithic “what it is” experience. than being a trans woman”. Indeed, Maria’s tendency to make big statements is often a way for her to hide from her emotions or from the mundane realities of her life that are not at all generalizable.
In NevadaIn the first half of the book, Binnie conjures up the mundane reality of selling books in enough detail to almost lift the dust of the stash off the page. She worked as a bookseller while writing Nevada, and this experience, coupled with its fondness for nuance, sets the novel apart from the many books and films that romanticize bookstores as workplaces. Often such stories have store owners as protagonists, and they are usually less about the work of the bookstore and more about the projected future of the industry. On the other hand, in Nevada, the store owner appears only once, and her presumed interests – profit, store reputation – appear nowhere. Rather, Binnie evokes bookstore work through a cascade of employee impulses, reactions, and strategies of release that take me right back to my own days as a bookseller. Maria hides in the Irish History section when she wants to avoid people, but appreciates the minor mind-reading required when customers “want her to understand what they want for them”. She discusses drunkenness with co-workers, sneaks off for “extra bonus breaks”, turns away clients who hit on her, and brings home review copies of new releases, despite already having “so much fucking books”.
Bringing home review copies of a bookstore job is fun, in part because it feels a bit like stealing a job. The same goes for slack – a form of time theft – in Irish history. Maria does her best to revel in a mindset that boils down to “fuck the promotions and fuck the career advancements.” You’re just storing books. Yet she also wants to be “the kind of person who has too much self-esteem to stay at this job,” no matter how hard she tries not to buy into the all-American belief that a person’s job is related to his sentence.
This is a difficult myth to avoid. When Maria gets fired, halfway through the book, Binnie uses the moment to, once again, emphasize the connection between Maria’s professional life and her trans identity. While the loss of her job spurs Maria to action — it sends her on a road trip to Nevada on a somewhat unfinished quest for a better life — the scene itself is more cruel than cathartic. His manager avoids his eyes and makes sure “to write his name in a way that makes it clear that he remembers that it wasn’t always his name.” Maria had been at the store since before the transition, which means that her dead name is part of the manager’s institutional memory – and therefore, part of his power, which he displays by being a jerk.
One of Nevada‘s through lines is Maria’s many confrontations with the power of others. Often, her gender monologues are thinly veiled pep talks for dealing with, say, cisgender liberals who “want to show how much compassion they have” or “what ideas people have.” [about trans women] which were invented by, like, TV hack writers. (A happy ending here: Binnie now writes for TV.) Hacky, transphobic TV writing isn’t new, but the idea of compassion is worth dwelling on, given the common narrative that reading fiction is not only associated with empathy, but is also a worthy pastime precisely because of this connection. I imagine Maria rolling her eyes at this concept. Binnie certainly doesn’t care – which is yet another reason Nevada is as pungent and pleasant as it is. Empathy is a dignified human value, but giving it can often be more pleasurable than receiving it. Nevada does not concern the reader, that is to say, it does not concern the one who gives. It’s about Maria, who isn’t interested in anyone’s empathy – and yet she, too, is trying to show hers. In Nevada, she meets a young Walmart employee named James, whom she suspects is a trans woman; James suspects the same, but is no more interested in receiving empathy than Maria. In fact, Maria’s efforts to sympathize with James totally backfire.
What Maria wants, or says she wants, is to be seen as her “hilarious, charming, complicated weird self”. But it also clearly aspires to a certain form of solidarity. Solidarity is a union word, and Binnie often refers to the fact that Maria is unionized. In 2013, few booksellers had this option. Lately, however, there has been a wave of unionization of booksellers, spurred by the exacerbating effect of the pandemic on low pay, poor management, lack of advancement avenues and other harsh working conditions that are endemic to many bookstores, and which Binnie describes bluntly and well . While reading Nevada as an ex-bookseller makes me hope that someone who buys this novel from a real bookstore might, after finishing it, think differently from the person who called it. Are they getting a living wage? Do they have long enough breaks or do they have to sneak in for extras? Is their manager decent with them?
Questions like these are the basis of solidarity. It is impossible to truly understand what the fight for a better life means for working people – or for trans people – without first acknowledging the conditions of their lives as they are. Nevada is both a good and an important book for this very reason: Binnie allows readers to look candidly at the world Maria inhabits, with the limitations of hard, low-paid work. It’s easy, once you’ve done that, to understand how much she needs something more.