What do you get when you stir together some classical literature, the experience of transmasculine transition, a strict religious upbringing, and a razor-sharp wit capable of seeing and skewering the absurdity of life in pitch-perfect language?
Well, you get this book.
I have been a fan and follower of Daniel M. Lavery since the days of The Toast, the now-defunct (sob) website that he co-founded with Nicole Cliffe, where he regularly wrote such articles as “Every Meal in Wuthering Heights Ranked in Order of Sadness,” and “Women Who Are Dating Peacocks in Western Art History.” These articles still make me cry with laughter.
And so I came to Something That May Shock and Discredit You knowing two things already: that I was going to love it, and that it was going to be sad.
I was right on both counts. Don’t get me wrong—Daniel M. Lavery has not lost his comedic touch. Indeed, there were several chapters in this book that had me in stitches. The thing is though, that unlike the articles mentioned above, the subject matter here is very intimate, and very painful. The personal essays in this collection describe Lavery’s experiences of and thoughts about transition, all while contending with an extremely religious family and upbringing.
Chapter 1 is entitled “When You Were Younger and You Got Home Early and You Were the First One Home and No One Else Was Out on the Street, Did You Ever Worry That the Rapture Had Happened without You? I Did.” (The chapter titles are just one of the joys of this book—more about that in a moment.) This introduction gives us a pretty good idea of what kind of book we are about to be immersed in. It’s personal, it’s funny, and its humour is signalling a deeply felt experience that is troubled and questioning.
There are descriptions throughout these essays of Lavery’s thought processes as he grapples with the questions of trans identity, of whether or not to take testosterone, of the loss of familial ties, and of the discourse surrounding transition as well as/versus the experience of it. As I keep mentioning, these are often hilarious (for example, the chapters “The Stages of Not Going on T” and “How I Intend to Comport Myself When I Have Abs Someday”). They are also incredibly thoughtful and moving. Lavery ponders the anti-trans discourse of so-called “rapid onset gender dysphoria” and the peculiar experience of being the recipient of some variation of the phrase “It feels like someone died.”
– Chapter 16, Pirates at the Funeral: “It Feels Like Someone Died,” but Someone Actually Didn’t
On the one hand, here is death: stagnant, permanent, immobilized, silent, unvarying, inactive, formless, characterless, shrinking, constrictive, irreversible. On the other hand, here is transition: active, forceful, adaptable, energetic, animated, expansive, full of possibility, capacious, comprehensive, vital, ambitious. Loss may be a part of the project of transition, but hardly the primary or initializing force.”
The book also dips and swirls into biblical stories and Christian parables, Ancient Greek myths and drama, and contemporary pop culture, deconstructing all of these things to find their relevance and meaning to Lavery’s life and his way of understanding the world. There are essays about figures as varied as Marcus Aurelius; Jacob and Esau; Captain James T. Kirk; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; Columbo; Mary, Martha and Jesus; Athena; and the cast of Golden Girls. If this book had a Dramatis Personae it would be one hell of a list. You might think that such a wild variety of characters would make for a chaotic book, but you would be wrong. Everything is held tightly together by Lavery’s distinctive voice and his clear commitment to living fully, questioning everything, and understanding deeply. It’s a remarkable book for the scope of its vulnerability, and because Daniel M. Lavery manages to show you his heart—at times joyful, at times wounded—and make you laugh along the way.
Finally, I can’t conclude this review without a shout out to the chapter titles. As you will have seen already, they are LONG and they are AMAZING. Here are a few more for your reading enjoyment:
Jacob and the Angel Wrasslin’ Till Noon at Least
Captain James T. Kirk Is a Beautiful Lesbian, and I’m Not Sure Exactly How to Explain That
“I Love Your Vibe,” and Other Things I’ve Said to Men
It’s Hard to Feel Sad Reading Hans Christian Andersen Because It’s Just Another Story About a Bummed-Out Candlestick That Loves a Broom and Dies
To conclude, Something That May Shock and Discredit You is a laugh-out-loud, cry-out-loud investigation and celebration of life, and all of the messiness that it entails. If you like your humour absurd and your authors smart, then definitely check this one out.
– Chapter 21, Destry Rides Again, or Jimmy Stewart Has a Body and So Do I
But at any rate, I’ve developed a different sort of relationship to uncertainty, one where I no longer consider avoiding change to be the highest good. I may have various changing thoughts and opinions and reactions to myself—my body, my future, my past, the things I want, the things I fear, the things I want to want—but having tested one uncertain theory, I flinch less at the prospect of others.”
P.S. I’ve just discovered that you can subscribe to Daniel M. Lavery’s newsletter The Chatner on Substack. Needless to say, I subscribed instantly, and I can already tell you that it is well worth it.