Sunday 5 October 2014

Review of Brigid Brophy's 'In Transit' by Charles Wheeler

Author’s note: This article features heavy use of “they/them/their” as a gender-neutral pronoun. This is a) necessary, for reasons explained within, b) entirely consistent with historical use, and c) only technically incorrect by recent convention.

Brigid Brophy was never one to mince her words. Her lifetime saw her undertake staunch activism for the rights of both authors and animals, and her most famous foray into non-fiction was co-authoring the gleefully antagonistic Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without (including Moby Dick, Wuthering Heights and Hamlet, if you were wondering). But while that work may be somewhat of a throwaway gag, that same spirit of boldly confronting the status quo with mocking wit underpins the staggering literary and cultural brilliance of her 1969 novel, In Transit.

Told from the perspective of Pat O’Rooley, an introspective, awkward Irish person who forgets their gender while trapped in an airport, this “Heroi-cyclic novel” is an unforgiving deconstruction of gender roles, binary essentialism, and wider notions of identity. Pat (Evelyn Hilary, officially) experiences this crisis in the form of an engrossingly labyrinthine internal monologue, in which their thoughts move at breakneck speed and jump to conclusions from the smallest piece of evidence.

Pat’s interactions with other characters are often brief and fraught, as Pat scours every sentence, every bit of body language, every tangible action or reaction for clues. Brophy lays out a tight yet wild narrative, putting Pat through myriad trials ranging from simple social awkwardness to actual physical danger and pseudo-espionage. It’s a rollercoaster ride that is, when viewed objectively, considered and well-structured, but in the moment feels utterly out of control and even frightening. Even a chance meeting with an old friend’s husband and an unexpected appearance on a television panel show being filmed in the airport raise more questions than they answer, as Pat’s observations and assumptions contradict, mislead, and confuse.

Through this, Pat develops into a reliably unreliable narrator – we see their thought processes in explicit detail, and furthermore, we see the issues therein. Pat’s willingness to over-extrapolate conclusiveness from any clue with which they are presented is a clear shot at the frenzied binary essentialism and heteronormativity which dictates social gender and sexuality conventions – the central edict of which is that Pat, and indeed everyone, must be a boy or a girl, and that this identity is easily established from simple cues and behaviours. Brophy is having none of it, and Pat’s clawing towards one extreme or the other is a cutting parody of these attitudes which lays their sheer ridiculousness bare.

However well In Transit’s narrative is put together, though, it’s the language and physical structure of text in which Brophy’s true genius lies. Saturated with puns and wordplay, the novel does at times stray towards being offputtingly dense, but is always worth the extra effort – some passages may only reveal their virtues after a couple of reads, at which point I found myself questioning the point of sentences one can understand instantly. Where’s the fun in that?

Along with the challenging plain text, there are also plenty of stylistic quirks employed. They’re never mere bells and whistles, though – as with the more challenging passages, the effort of digging deeper pays off. Consider:

I now regretted having so cavalierly {lpeats sgeod  buyp  tthhee  bvoaalridd i t y  o f} my boardingpass.

Brophy employs this multiple-choice trick several times, along with several others – quoting operas, splitting text into multiple columns, puns with foreign words – the lasting inference being that both action and meaning are fluid, changeable, and ultimately a performance. As Pat explores their gender, grasping for any plausible truths, Brophy’s true intent is abundantly clear.

Even with the commentaries on gender norms he cultural commentary of In Transit is never more acerbic than in the novel’s closing section. The airport plays host to a revolution, started by the lesbian subculture of manual workers we meet earlier in the novel, but gradually adopted by the majority of passengers. As they give speeches, play music and make grand yet empty declarations over the PA, Pat’s crisis continues unseen. The revolution is aimless and self-congratulatory, and does nothing to solve the problems faced by Pat – in fact, it facilitates them being ignored entirely. The parallels with numerous facets of 21st century political activism are so stark that the novel would seem ahead of its time had its 2002 reissue been its initial release. For commentary from 1969 to ring so true today is as astonishing as it is upsetting – Brophy observed and criticised so much, and the world did so little.

As a work of fiction and as a work of criticism, in spirit and in execution, In Transit remains cutting-edge 45 years after its release. Brophy’s desire to pull apart accepted meanings of gender identity results in a brutal and hilarious work which lets no assumption or convention escape unexamined. It’s political art which sacrifices neither art nor politics for the sake of the other. It is balanced, challenging and absolutely vital.

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