Elysium, Jennifer Marie Brissett

What a strange, ambitious book Elysium is. Per usual, specfic is where writers are doing interesting things with gender, and it’s no surprise that Elysium ended up on the honor list for last year’s James Tiptree Jr. Award, which exists specifically to honor specfic writers who do interesting things with gender.

The main characters are always Adrian(ne) and Antoine(tte), with some additional side characters, most notably Helen/Hector. Their identities are constantly shifting, so that in one moment, Adrianne is watching Antoine fall out of love with her, and in the next moment — via a shift in a computer code — Adrian is caring for Antoine, his dying lover. The constant is the loss: Adrian(ne) is perpetually trying to hold onto Antoine(tte), and always losing him/her.

If Elysium sounds confusing, well, it is a bit, particularly at the start. But Bissett has a knack for the image cluster and the callback. One storyline recalls another, even though one may take place in a Roman-inflected Handmaid’s Tale-ish gender dystopia, and the next in a prison camp where the invading aliens keep their humans. Elysium travels a long and circuitous road between a recognizable Earth and a future in which the humans have been utterly conquered (or have they?), and it’s to Bissett’s credit that she makes it feel cohesive.

THAT SAID.

In one of the storylines, Adrian has been committed to a madhouse, and fellow inmate Hector is trans. It’s problematic. Adrian, who retains some batsqueak memories of versions of his life where Hector is Helen, refers to Hector as “Helen,” for which Hector is monumentally grateful. Ultimately, Hector stays behind to hold off the zombie alien creature things (presumably to the death), in order to give Adrian and his brother Antoine time to escape. The reason why (Hector says) is “because [Adrian] saw the real me.”

Gag.

Brissett wrote a post called “In defense of Hector/Helen”, which you may read for further context. It didn’t address my particular concerns. To say Hector/Helen isn’t all trans people is disingenuous: When the only trans person in the book dies a heroic sacrificial death to save two cis characters, it plays into the “danger of a single story” that Brissett mentions.

Cis women do not write a trans character in a vacuum. There is context. There are harmful traditions. Be better.

Book Punks loved the book more than I did, while having some of the same concerns about this Hector plotline; likewise Ana of the Book Smugglers.

  • nikki

    I really loved the whole experiment structurally. Very ambitious. Very cool. Just the sort of thing that gets my brain all excited about a book intellectually. But I was likewise very underenthused by Brissett’s defense of Helen/Hector.

  • Ana @ things mean a lot

    “Cis women do not write a trans character in a vacuum. There is context. There are harmful traditions. Be better.”

    Yes, absolutely this.

  • Stefanie@SoManyBooks

    In spite of the flaw you and Nikki point out, this still seems like and interesting worthwhile book. I will definitely have to give it whirl sometime!

  • Alley

    This sounds interesting but super complicated. I’m pretty sure I’d spend a lot of time trying to figure out who is what when. Also boo to the Hector/Helen line.