A Self-Conscious Queen

In the dressing room of the “Lipstick Lounge,” the Lady Javana “straighten[s] her wig” and “dab[s] lipstick from her teeth.” Lady Javana, we’re informed, is neither a man nor a woman, nor “a boy in a dress” nor “a female impersonator” (“what female wears glitter on her eyelids, pink beehives and six-inch heels?”—Quite a few do, as a matter of fact, but never mind).

No, in her own overdetermined estimation, Lady Javana is a queen. I’ve italicized the word since the author goes to such great lengths to emphasize it.

Which points to what I feel is wrong with this opening. Rather than present us with a character, instead the bulk of this first page is taken up with a series of terms and metaphors by which Javana either identifies his/her self, or that he/she refutes. What starts out promisingly as an evocative, concrete scene (“She had to plaster down those eyebrows with the glue stick, beat her face with the powder, chisel new features . . . with foundation and blush”) in which the particular (drag queen putting on makeup) stands for the general, breaks down into an exercise in denotation, such that, by the end of the page, what we’ve read feels more like a jacket blurb than a scene.

It’s a shame, since the writing is strong:

Lady Javana—who spent most of her days as Joseph Ryan Gainer, library assistant—hated the tired metaphor of the caterpillar and the butterfly, but could not dispute its relevance. Because the holometabolism of the butterfly was a complex transition. It was sticky, confusing and savage.

As prose this can’t be faulted, but the issue here isn’t so much whether or not the metaphor of the caterpillar transforming into a butterfly aptly conveys the experience of a drag queen. The metaphor may or may not be apt; but the harping on it here conveys a self-consciousness that would seem to apply more to the author’s fascination with his subject than to the character in question. Though hatched from its “self-mutilating” chrysalis, this butterfly never takes flight: like a lepidopterist’s specimen, it’s been pinned to the page and pasted with labels.

Butterflies don’t go around self-consciously inventorying their butterfly-ness. Nor do readers of fiction especially want labels, and if they do want them they prefer their own. Nor do readers want judgments imposed by the author on a character or by characters on themselves. What readers want is experience evoked concretely through action, dialogue, or through a character’s internal responses to particular events, challenges and situations—illuminated, perhaps, by a sympathetic or worldly narrator, and possibly by the character’s own reflections, but not sewn up and boiled down into shrunken headed judgments and epithets.

Here, the only behavior exhibited aside from the application of lipstick and eye-glitter is the character’s self-conscious pursuit of a label for him/herself. Even accepting that this pursuit is real—that is, belonging to the character and not to an author overly fixated on the presumed novelty of his subject—still, it’s hard to imagine such self-conscious soul-searching taking place, as suggested here, on a regular basis for any duration. Surely this queen doesn’t spend his/her days (or nights) mulling over what to call himself? If so, one wants to say to him/her, “Get over it, already.” Perhaps folded somewhere into the meat of the story such reflections wouldn’t be so out-of-place. But as an opening gambit they misfire.

What’s sacrificed here for the sake of a story about someone “being a queen,” is a better story about a man—a librarian—who just happens to be one.

About Peter Selgin

Peter Selgin is the author of Drowning Lessons, winner of the 2007 Flannery O’Connor Award for Fiction, Life Goes to the Movies, a novel, two books on the craft of fiction, and several children’s books. His memoir, Confessions of a Left-Handed Man, was short-listed for the William Saroyan International Prize. His latest novel, The Water Master, won the William Faulkner Society Prize, selected by Random House Senior Editor Will Murphy. His work has won the Missouri Review Editors’ Prize, the Dana Award, six Best American Essay notable essay citations, and two selections for the Best American series. A second memoir, The Inventors, is forthcoming from Hawthorne Books in April of 2016. He teaches at Antioch University’s MFA program and is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia College & State University.
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3 Responses to A Self-Conscious Queen

  1. ajoconnell says:

    Thank you, Peter. I really appreciate your taking the time to write a critique.

    This is a really important thing for me to know, because I’ve written three beginnings for this novel, and now I know that this isn’t necessarily the best choice.

    Also, good god, what a shock to see myself categorized under “judgmental narrators.” Yikes. I will have to re-read my work more closely to see if that’s an ongoing thing.

  2. Peter Selgin says:

    The category doesn’t fit you or your work, exactly; in your piece,the protagonist serves as his/her own judge by self-consciously assessing her status-quo. Yet the decision to have her do so on the first page is entirely the author’s.

  3. Shelley says:

    There are a few very interesting ideas you have on this first page that I think could be very useful for the development of your main character, Lady Javana, if you explored them more. If anything, you’ve packed far too much into one page. For example, the self-mutilation that takes place inside a chrysalis. Since Lady Java is clearly aware of this, as she read it in a library, this implies a sense of masochism that could be very critical to understanding why she cross-dresses, yet at the bottom of the page, you say it’s because she wants to be a queen. So which is it? Or does she enjoy the masochistic transformation that takes place from man to queen? If there’s no pleasure in the self-mutilation, however sublime the result may be, why mention it?

    The other example I referred to earlier is the comparison between glamour and clamor. While it is fun that the words rhyme, “clamor” implies loud noise or commotion, whereas the sentences following this comparison give a sense of composed struggle. If you want to keep the comparison between glamour and clamor, I recommend starting the story with an incident, perhaps Joseph Ryan Gainer’s first encounter with cross-dressing. This would not only follow through with the comparison, but ground the start of your story in both space and time, as opposed to the summary of this character’s quotidian actions and thoughts which you start with now. Starting your story with a concrete experience will only help your beautiful descriptions of this unusual character (I especially like your description of the face as “faceted” at the bottom of the page). Good luck!

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