Comprehensive plot spoilers.
Kelley gave me this book. I am not always grateful for someone’s decision on how I might spend five or six hours of my time, but I enjoyed it, cared about the characters, and loved the humour. When a man is said to have shot and killed himself, I laughed uproariously- this joke is so beautifully judged- and the farce in two set pieces is deftly set up then milked just enough. The insane villain commits vile yet credible wrongs, and is humiliated beautifully.
The five or six hours were consecutive. Well, I am unemployed. I laughed until I cried, then I cried about yesterday (Tuesday). Repeatedly.
Robert loves a woman in a lesbian relationship. Ze (there’s the plot spoiler) has one magical afternoon with Sarah, then on the rebound she drunkenly invites zem to her bed and ze declines then has Regret out of Hell, ze engineers a meeting with her as she is about to get married, and finally, after her divorce and someone tells zem she loves zem, ze goes to her house.
-Do I know you?
-Of course you do. It’s me: Robert.
That is the end. We can imagine a happy outcome or not as we wish.
I do not feel my terrible desire for the unobtainable as much as I did even four months ago, and- the book is too late for me for catharsis, and too early for entertainment. But it is the transsexual storyline which gets to me. Robert shaves zer legs early in the book, but apart from that does not show any indication of transsexuality until ze visits a psychiatrist seeking transition. The immediate motivation is because ze loves Sarah, and imagines she is lesbian rather than bi. Hence Robert/Cleo’s horror on discovering she is going to get married.
Motivation for the transition is not discussed in great detail. It might be only that Love: Love as obsession, mingled with ignorance. I loathe the very idea of such love, it makes me fear and dread relationship more. It is only less insane than Marcel’s love for Albertine because the author does not get inside Robert’s head as much as Marcel in Marcel’s.
The transition is blissfully easy. One scene at the psychiatrist’s, one in the operating theatre- just describing losing consciousness, not the evisceration and inversion of the penis, removal of the testicles and creation of the orifice. Cleo passes perfectly, immediately. It feels incidental to the plot. It is a reason why Robert as Cleo can meet an old acquaintance and not be recognised, but the plot has two too many ridiculous coincidences. I bitterly resent not passing, it would make life so much easier.
Why make Robert/Cleo transsexual? To show how far ze will go in zer obsession with Sarah. There is little on zer feelings, it is not really that kind of book. Actually Coe writes that Robert is “a man who falls so deeply in love with a gay woman that he is prepared to do anything to win her affection”. Not transsexual at all, then.
This is a novel, not a moral tract, and it describes Cleo rather than forcing the reader’s judgment of her. That judgment could be disgust at her obsession or sympathy or pity, or laughter.