T Cooper's Surly, Glorious Memoir About Becoming a Man
We're apparently not yet at a place in our culture where we can talk about gender identity without getting the plumbing talk out of the way immediately, so let's make this short and sweet. Novelist T Cooper (whose Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes is one of the finest novels I've read in the last decade) was born what we still consider to be a "biological" female. He knew from a very young age that he identified as male, so as soon as he was able, he became a man. This doesn't mean that he swapped his vagina out for a penis. In fact, he didn't do that at all. He took hormones. He dressed as a man. He married a woman. He uses men's restrooms. By any account that matters, especially so far as you or I are concerned, T Cooper is a heterosexual man.
But the United States is at the very beginning—still ambling up to the start line, really—when it comes to transgender acceptance. And so the plumbing talk is still necessary, because everyone still seems to think that everyone else's genitals are their business. But after years of trying to avoid the subject, Cooper has finally published a memoir about what his manhood means to him.
Real Man Adventures is not an easy book to read, because it obviously wasn't an easy book to write. Cooper seems to be writing most of it through a permanent embarrassed wince. He complains repeatedly about his discomfort with the idea of the book. "I don't really want to write about this thing of mine," he says in the first chapter, "but I think I might have to—to stop it from being a thing. If that's possible." He addresses the plumbing question in an early chapter that takes the form of a dialogue between Cooper and a representative of the US Department of State about how he could legally change the gender on his passport:
Okay, so you're telling me I need to go to Zagreb, Croatia, and spend like fifty thousand dollars on a far-from-perfect procedure that would give me essentially a limp piece of sirloin hanging between my legs for you to issue me a passport with an M on it?
It's been a while since I've read a book that felt so actively aggressive; Cooper feels mad at his readers for being curious enough to pick the book up. It's no surprise that Adventures is a memoir in shards, jumping back and forth in time and from subject to subject without any trace of a narrative arc; for a subject this big and important, Cooper presumably can't even begin to find a coherent beginning, middle, and ending. His life as a man is a complex, enormous thing that goes down to the very marrow of his humanity. So the reader has to do a little more heavy lifting than a memoir of this size usually demands.
And that's as it should be. Once you slink your way past Cooper's aggression, you begin to see the reasons for his rage. He's worried about the safety of his family—Adventures is excessively secretive for a memoir, with Cooper only acknowledging that he lives in a "red state" somewhere. He talks repeatedly of his fear of being discovered, either by a neighbor's Google search or by a broken lock on a bathroom stall in a public restroom. His confidence in the reader could literally become a matter of life and death; can you blame him a little surliness? (To be fair, Cooper's attitude does occasionally cross into irrationality, as when he complains in a footnote about how it "drives [him] insane" when trans people cite Jeffrey Eugenides's novel about a hermaphrodite, Middlesex, "as their all-time favorite," as though it's somehow ethically impure of a transgender person to find solace in a hermaphrodite's experience.)
It comes down to this: You've never read a book about this particular experience told in such a compelling voice. Cooper's prose can alternate between macho and self-doubting within the confines of a single paragraph. And the many jagged pieces of this memoir—drafts of letters to his parents; interviews with his wife, his brother, and other transmen; surveys of men about whether they sit or stand when they pee—all combine into the story of an experience that we as a nation are just starting to honor as worthy of dignity. It's a rough, occasionally haggard reading experience, but it's the first, inching step in a journey that we all need to make.