The Poetry Project

Darryl by Jackie Ess

Review by Stephen Ira

Who is Jackie Ess, author of Darryl, and who is that novel’s eponymous protagonist? Ess herself is what I might call a burgeoning cult literary figure, armed with an unmistakable lyric deadpan and a taste for provocative subject matter. Sometimes that voice is ventriloquized into a figure like Darryl, this novel’s protagonist: a fairly ordinary guy who wants other guys to fuck his wife. It’s his fetish, and that fetish is deeply important to him. (“You know what absolutely sucks in 2017?” he points out plaintively. “People are scared to talk about the cuckolding lifestyle because they think it’s right wing.”) As with Ess’s various other personae (she’s published under quite a few pseudonyms over the years), Darryl’s is balanced precariously between the languid and the intensive, between a desire to poke and prod at orthodoxy and a blanket good faith so unshakeable that it’s almost scary. “[W]e cuckolds are the only sexual orientation that’s about the truth,” he earnestly declares. “Everybody else is about performance, pleasure, recognition.” Elsewhere, with equal earnestness, Darryl can recognize that this notion of truth and “meritocracy in the bedroom,” where cuckolded betas take up their “natural place,” might not be “very feminist”—but the last thing he’d ever do would be to wink at his own foolishness. Or rather, Darryl is fond of self-mockery, because he’s a fun guy—but Ess would never. There’s no wink here, though Darryl is a relentlessly funny book. There’s just different kinds of truth.

If you used to hang around a certain scene, you may recognize this brand of deadpan—Ess was a founding member of the Bay Area Trans Poets workshop, and Darryl’s cover sports a blurb by our mutual friend and colleague Torrey Peters, whose current and richly deserved mainstream success for her novel Detransition, Baby is owed in no small part to the east coast branch of that same trans lit scene. “Trans lit” gets its moment in the sun in Darryl through the character of Oothoon, the protagonist’s trans woman poet online friend. “I think these people sort of live in hell,” he observes with Ess’s trademark desultory frankness, “fighting over scraps, over nothing. The house was disgusting. I offered to do the dishes after lunch and quickly went over the counters with some vinegar, I felt like maybe that was passive aggressive, but what can I do? [...] Apparently everybody is abusing everybody else. I didn’t follow the details.” After all, who would want to? As Ess pointed out to me over email about Oothoon, “The story isn’t about her, and that’s important.”

Still, it’s when I read things like this that a chord is plucked in my heart, my little heart, the transsexual heart I had to take off Twitter after she got hit by one too many trans microcommunity’s foul balls. It makes me think of the rage that blew through Twitter upon Trans Studies Quarterly’s publication last year of a pseudonymous piece by a self-styled “transamorous man”—what you or I might call a chaser. The piece was a kind of plea for tolerance from various worlds, both queer and straight, that see chasers as perverse. As you can tell by the pejorative, these aren’t necessarily popular guys among the chased, and there are plenty of good reasons for that. TSQ ended up curating a whole series of essays about the controversy. The whole thing dragged on for like a year, with much of the anti-chaser criticism focusing on the cisgender identity of the piece’s author.

As all this was going on, the pseudonymous author seemed to appear, now revealing his real identity—a sweet, earnest, Australian called Cliff Cannon. He first appeared on a podcast cohosted by some trans woman intellectuals (both in on the joke), then on Twitter. He seemed bemused and saddened by the anger he’d provoked, eager to make things right, and endlessly optimistic about the possibility for good relations between cis and trans people. He did things like tweet at trans scholar McKenzie Wark, “You know this song, luv?” with a link to Stevie Nicks’s “Leather and Lace.” He expounded upon what Ess recently described to me as “his theory that the platonic ideal of female beauty lies somewhere between Modigliani's paintings and contemporary trans women.” Why was Ess explaining this to me? Well, because, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, Cannon was not the writer of the aforementioned TSQ piece—Cannon was Jackie. In the end, she unmasked by having Cliff confess that for some time, like Rachel Dolezal or Jessica Krug, he’d been pretending to be a black trans woman online, and that woman...was Jackie Ess.

“Cliff's account was [...] one of the only places I've engaged explicitly with trans theory in a long time,” Ess writes me, “in the form of line-by-line critiques of the TSQ response pieces. There's a method to what I'm doing here, of burning my ‘pass’ to speak on certain things out of lived experience.” (As to Cliff’s theory of the platonic ideal of female beauty, she remarks wryly, “I feel like that on a good day.”) Like Darryl, Cliff is a pretty cerebral straight white man determined to think his way out of the problem of power, and like Darryl, that effort takes the form of developing a kind of marginal identity for himself on the basis of his stigmatized desires. But, “I think both Darryl and Cliff fall into some pretty serious errors through their tendency to justify and explain themselves,” Ess writes me. She goes on:

“[T]hey are trying to sort of restore this position that they could only have through a kind of ignorance and privilege, or through utopia. It's the same error anyone makes when they use the word ‘normalize,’ you know. Sometimes the discomfort reflects an objective condition which we have only recently become aware of or put down our denial of. And we make this demand, ‘make me feel like I felt before.’ Or if we're a little sharper, which Darryl and Cliff both are, we say ‘I will achieve the feeling I had before, because I am going to redeem it, I am going to explain it, I am going to understand it.’ But there's no prize, at least not as they imagine it. When you let go of that perhaps it's possible to generate fewer gender essays. Just for CO2 reasons we should try to have fewer.”

If that doesn’t make you want to read Darryl, I guess you just have different problems than I do. “[These characters] are trying to get their relationship to desire Right in a way that would guarantee it against judgment and against anxiety,” Ess writes to me, and so am I. “I think neither of them have quite understood yet that there are no guarantees like that for anyone.”

Darryl is unmissable. It’s so unmissable I almost want to tell you its unexpected ending—but I won’t. Ess is working on another novel now, one that touches on neo-burlesque, psychedelics, racial passing, and perfume, and you’d better hurry up to devour Darryl before that one comes out. You might get caught blindfolded, staring at a locked bedroom door, while inside, someone’s reading the copy of this smoking hot novel that should have been intended for you—denying you all that pleasure, all those delightful words.

#264 — Spring 2021