Please Miss: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Penis
Lavery has been very lucky collecting in glowing reviews from his mates, and I am ashamed to say that I have to agree with the demented Sophie Lewis (octopus fucker and wants ‘full surrogacy now’) who testifies in the rave reviews that it is ‘hot, sick, painfully vivid’.
Susan Stryker’s review goes ‘I met Grace when she was still an egg (trans talk for folx who don’t know yet that they’re trans) and think hers is perhaps the most spectacular, fully formed hatching since Minerva sprang from the head of Zeus,’ which neatly sums up how much sense the book makes overall (i.e. no sense).
Lavery was apparently paid a huge advance and was also lured to Substack for big bucks just a year ago, deciding to leave just a few days before his contract ran out. So despite this being a pretty shiny turd, I’m telling you his publisher will never get their money back, because absolutely NO ONE will be packing this book in their suitcase for holiday reading.
The title itself, of course, is a rip-off of Dave Eggers’ memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a book I bought what seems likes an aeon ago, which I started several times and finally admitted that I was never going to finish. I did finish this one, though God knows how.
When I tell you that the only slightly interesting plot line in the book is Lavery’s personal relationship with his penis, you get an inkling of quite how bad it might be.
Chapter One – Juggalo Chicken Drink
Firstly we learn that Lavery has a shrivelled penis as a result of a shitload of oestrogen, repeatedly describing it as a being like a ‘fetus’. Since shrivelled penis status it seems that he has become irresistibly interesting to queer women, including a ‘visibly cheerful lesbian’ (LOC 100) and a non-binary woman who boasts she has a dick ‘nestled, in the pussy’ (LOC 117). Surprise surprise Lavery isn’t ready for penectomy and castration yet, but is perhaps (or perhaps not) embarrassed at describing his puny penis as a ‘clit’.
We are introduced to home life with Danny, his female ‘husband’. Lavery tells Danny a summarised version of what the reader has already learned; he has a complicated relationship with his tiny chemically attacked peen.
Then a sex scene. Danny is ‘pulled’ up by the hair and ‘pushed’ onto the bed. We’re not sure whether she enjoys this or not, and neither is Lavery.
There are two way to get Danny to open his mouth when he doesn’t want to. The first is to put my fingers over his nostrils so that he has to open his mouth to breathe.LOC 183
Then Lavery ‘placed my whole fist inside his mouth’ (LOC 191) with a comical description of Danny saying ‘mmmmmmuffmmmmoooo’. Funny innit? Erm, not really, but Lavery thinks so.
Danny and he have the type of conversations no one really has in real life, in which Danny worries that Lavery may be writing a memoir so that he can ‘access the truth of trans life’ and them discussing the nuances of ‘vaginal passivity’ (LOC 200).
The first of Lavery’s set pieces arrives in the form of him receiving a letter from someone claiming ‘I’m frightened of a clown’ (LOC 233). Essentially the prose of the fictional letter writer is Lavery’s own literary style and goes on for ages for no obvious reason. The only real reason why we know it not Lavery’s narrator voice anymore because the font style and font size change.
Lavery tells us many ‘anti-trans bigots’ (LOC 277) use the term ‘clown’ as a term of abuse and pretends (or perhaps not) to be perturbed by the thought of clowns.
Then we are back to his penis. Again. Four pages on the similarity between pigs and cocks and the ‘incompatibility of penis and dick’ (LOC 344). It’s interminably boring and whilst the spectre of Judith Butler has been present since the first sentence, she belatedly gets a mention.
In a fit of reality we have something like possibly a real recollection of him with his mother, her pretending not to smoke and him admitting that he didn’t always know that he was destined for a ‘sex change’ (LOC 389). He wrote ‘I act gay to get chicks’ on his pencil case (LOC 408), a slightly unbelievable Americanism I must say, and liked wearing dresses.
Extended references about the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man are too niche to have any appeal to a general reader, or perhaps anyone who isn’t Lavery, and one suspects that it is only padding and that there was a serious lack of an editor on the project.
Then we are back to Lavery’s penis again, but we learn a new fact; ‘sometimes, trans women take Viagra’ (LOC 519). So he tries it, but it causes an emotional breakdown in which he ‘didn’t really stop sobbing’ and describes the episode as the ‘more distressing hours in the course of my transition’ (LOC 554).
Lavery moved to the US in 2008. He was still married at that point, but soon divorced, and announced he was bisexual ‘which in this case meant wanting to date a lesbian’ (LOC 591).
A supposed incident with some men where he was filmed sucking off a broccoli head (LOC 617) was apparently the inciting incident to stop drinking heavily and it is implied that he used the Alcohol Anonymous 12 step programme. This leads to the next set piece, namely Lavery reimagining the story of Wilson, one of the Co-Founders of AA. Given self-help books are ripe for parody, you would think he would do a better job, but no it goes on and on and on and on and on, until he finally loses control and starts talking about people shitting and puking in the malt whiskey Wilson drinks (LOC 692) and that Wilson wants to lick and caress the boots of men (LOC 701). It isn’t remotely funny, but it is disgusting, so I’ll give him a point for that.
Back to clowns again. Lavery wants to entertain us with his fantasy of hiring four sex workers to enact a ‘scary clown scene’ (LOC 749). One was to pretend to be John Wayne Gacy the notorious ‘child rapist and murderer’ (LOC 767) who was also ‘called a “sissy” by his mother’. Another had to do the Macarena. Lavery thinks he’s being fun, playful, dangerous, scatological, but in reality it’s just eye rolling and then some. Even real clowns would be more amusing than this. Also clowns being scary is a such a worn out trope now.
Chapter Two – Finger Limes
We’re more used to the structure of the book now. This chapter begins with a long description of a minor character called Martian Girl from the film Mars Attack! The character bludgeons a male character to death which he describes as ‘the first successful action of the trans femme revolution’ (LOC 825). I’m assuming it isn’t an ironic statement. Or perhaps it is, as Lavery likes to hedge his bets.
Anyway, back to Lavery’s shrivelled willy. We now learn that although his todger is thoroughly down in the dumps, he has unlocked the door to a ‘new seam of sensation … running from right at the back part of my scrotum to a couple of inches above my asshole’ (LOC 825). It’s amazing what oestrogen can do, it really is! It can actually grow you a new erogenous zone. Danny and himself describe this area as a ‘pussy’. He can’t get at it himself, but he has photographed it and apparently happy to share it if we DM him on Twitter. (I won’t say the book is without laugh out loud moments.)
In a conversation with his doctor we learn that progesterone is also known as ‘Titty skittles’ (LOC 884) for their alleged side effect of growing breast tissue. On the other hand, progesterone increases the risk of breast cancer, and Lavery has to sign a form giving up his right to sue the clinic if that happens to him. (Strange how those on the far left completely pack up their ability to critique capitalism at such times.)
Next set piece is about a fruit called a finger lime. Again, the font style and size does most of the heavy lifting. Asides from a size 4 font being really hard to read, it’s really hard to read. The whole thing is an extended jokey metaphor about oral sex and quite tedious.
Back to another overly long cultural reference – The Little Shop of Horrors gets transed.
Another set piece. A deeply unfunny parody about the fairly risible fraudster Conrad Black. Lavery wants us to think he’s done something very dangerous – ‘my lawyer wants me to really underline the point – the following is a parody’ (LOC 1088) he carps, which ends with Black inserting a ‘fine antique cherry-wood rod’ into his own rectum.
A real (or perhaps not) recollection from his past – sex education at school. Pupils are to ask questions. Lavery asks if it is normal to fantasise about being a girl (LOC 1190). Lavery also wonders why he didn’t transition in graduate school? Especially as there was ‘professional cachet’ in being seen as ‘queer’ (LOC 1202).
Lavery believes ‘transness’ has a ‘proximity to biological models for thinking about hybridity and mutation’ or ‘hermaophrodites’ (LOC 1235) but strangely fails to write pages and pages of stuff about the scientific case for believing this. Guess describing the minutiae of yesteryear film characters only deserve such deep analysis.
Like most brainwashed people, he admits that it’s important for him to believe that he was ‘persuaded, not brainwashed,’ failing to realise that brainwashing is none other than a form of persuasion and we are back onto how amazing oestrogen is.
As a grad student Lavery wrote a short story called Cummy Simon Gets His Cum-Uppance, and the full text of the story is included. Here are the first few lines:
‘You can piss in my robot’s mouth any time you like, Roger,’ giggled Sandwich, spitting a gobbet of salty Swedish licorice into my face, and twittering about.
‘Thanks, I’ll pass,’ I retorted drily, approximating the kind of feigned, casual worldliness that enables my readers to feel similarly sexy and sociopathic.LOC 1286
Perfectly summing up the quality of the prose and an example of how Lavery sometimes like to think of himself – world weary and ironic.
Then a fictional dream, in which Lavery meets Susan Stryker in a grounds of a school for ‘Transsexual Youngsters’. Mentioning Stryker I imagine helped gain a favourable review from him since he edits the TSQ. Stryker acts all teenager-ish saying stuff like huh, cool and whatever and they walk together to the the ‘ancient library of transsexual culture’ (LOC 1391). Like I say, laugh out loud moments.
Chapter Three – Up Here, It’s Me, Hog-Eye
Most people would just say ‘shit eating grin,’ not Lavery though, no. No, for Lavery it’s a ‘coprophagic smirk’. It’s amazing what a thesaurus can do for prose.
Another very long interlude in which Oscar Wilde’s Salome is discussed between two characters. It’s dead boring. And another clown letter too. This time we learn that the writer of the clown letter grew up in the West Midlands (can you tell who it is yet?).
Then a story that Lavery has tweeted about I think, in which he claims that his mum threatened him with a knife and he begged her to put the knife away (LOC 1794). As the story continues we learn that he doesn’t really believe she was brandishing the knife at him, they just happened to be having an argument whilst she chopped onions. The oppression! The violence!
Chapter Four – Splooge Archive
Something strange happens in Chapter Four, when we are almost halfway through the book, Lavery starts telling us his life story, at the point when all but the most keen would have given up. He’s talking about his medical transition of course. Though given he claims to have a been drunkard you would expect to hear more details about the transition from alcohol dependence to teetotaler. In reality it sounds like Lavery has simply swapped booze for estradiol.
The thorny topic of toilets is raised and Lavery wants us to know that ‘going to the bathroom is kind of sexy’ (LOC 2015) and sometimes he even wants to let people think that ‘YES I am a piss guzzler, even the sound of it in the next stall get my dead dick hard’.
On a bad day, however, Lavery is simply beside himself that he didn’t transition earlier, although he admits that the stories of his life thus far he has been ‘unquestionably a boy’ and ‘bullied like a boy’ (LOC 2034). Mum’s response to his transition is pretty positive, telling him that she’s glad he is ‘finally doing something about this’ (LOC 2059), yet Lavery opines that he reckons she’s on the side of Germaine Greer really (LOC 2068).
A conversation with an ex-girlfriend is reimagined in three different ways – a bit repetitive but at least the prose makes sense. Recollections include Lavery telling us ‘I used to have such a big dick! I was so proud of it.’ (LOC 2226). No attempt is made to explain how this view fits into his subsequent claim to have gender dysphoria.
Then we are told the coming together of he and Danny. At first Danny found him ‘utterly appealing as a sexual prospect’, but it appears that they bonded over the idea of transness. The transness is defined in an ethereal way. There are no hard and fast examples of gender dysphoria, simply lots of transformative utterances, like ‘a force emanating from inside’ and bilge about chakras. Lavery chose his new name because ‘grace is the thing you don’t choose’ (LOC 2347).
Lavery receives another clown letter and goes into a whole diversion about ‘smoking is cool’, which we guess really means ‘transition is cool’. He tells us that he seen people made ‘brittle and anxious’ (LOC 2420) on hormone treatment and he felt apprehensive because he enjoyed having erections. When he visits the gender identity clinic to get his hormones he describes a familiar story – that hormones are prescribed at his first consultation to discuss the same, despite him having clear anxiety about infertility. Danny had started hormones just a few weeks earlier and was on the phone negotiating her own transition memoir at the time of the consultation. After he starts the pills he has positive experiences.
On his family history, we learn that he was bought up by his mother and his grandmother, the latter apparently hated lesbians, hence the reason why he is transsexual (LOC 2523), which doesn’t make sense at all. This is repeated again in the next chapter, just in case you think he was joking about it.
Lavery reckons following commencement of pills that ‘My hormones call to other women’s hormones’ (LOC 2523) and that he is able to make deeper connections with women, including a pregnant colleague and two ‘dykes who wanted to fuck both of us’.
Chapter Five – True Love Ways
Wah – wah – wah, why do so many British women hate meeeee? Lavery wails at the beginning of the penultimate chapter. They’re just like Brexiteers, he cries. He mentions that the Left has critiqued ‘commercial solutions to structural problems’ (i.e. medical and surgical transition) but I can’t remember any leading figure on the left in the UK actually saying this. Maybe I missed it. Of course Lavery can’t spare a paragraph or two on exploring this idea or rebutting it.
People saying stuff online has lead to Lavery being spat on in real life (not by a gender critical feminist I suspect, but he doesn’t go into any detail).
And then we are back on musing about the relationship between two cultural references the reader probably hasn’t heard of.
Finally the missing Father is discussed, since until this point Lavery avoids mentioning anything about him. He might have been a priest or on the other hand, he might have been an alcoholic. He also takes the liberty of discussing things about his mother probably best left out of the public domain.
Next the transmisogyny of – wait for it – Austin Powers, with a thorough analytic breakdown of what ‘that ain’t no woman; it’s a man, man!’ really meant.
An observation about Lavery’s cultural references: they all seem to be relevant to someone who grew up ten years earlier than he himself is supposed to have done, this occurred to me many times throughout, but none more so when it is claimed that he thought a lot about the Jamie Bulger case when he was about ‘seven or eight’ (LOC 2829). Bulger was murdered in 1993 and 7 or 8 seems way too young to have had any real interest or be exposed to the news of Bulger’s murder. Or know who Tom, Barbara, Margo and Jerry were (LOC 3668).
With the constant switch and change of narrative voices I wondered whether the style was trying to replicate the current vogue for multiple personality syndrome amongst teens.
Lavery also experiences a major fit of what sounds like professional jealousy towards Robert Webb, in which Webb is viciously castigated for admitting he was once very uncomfortable with masculinity and having voiced concerns about transition for children who might simply be confused. Not only that, Webb was once was very successful, but now isn’t on the telly anymore, Lavery enjoys telling us.
Brave words from Lavery when Webb’s biography published back in 2018 continues to do well. Also the reason why Webb has disappeared from our screens is because he has a major heart condition, so Lavery’s several page diatribe seems, well, a bit mean spirited.
Chapter Six – In Which The Clown Metaphor Is Finally Explained At Length
Absolutely huge groan. No one gives a shit about your crappy clown metaphor man.
It’s definitely the worse chapter, in which we get a 3D experience of what it must be like to be one of Lavery’s students. Get a load of this.
The Dickensian baroque is to capital what the Lyotardian post-modern is to modernism: an effect whose emergence, bizarrely, conditioned the very structure it was supposed to supersede.LOC 3165
This goes on for several pages and then just when we think it’s finished we are told there is a relationship between ‘Dickensian waxiness and the genre of pornography’ (LOC 3226), which again goes on for several more pages.
He then takes a metaphorical axe to the British panel show which he describes as ‘sadistic’ (LOC 3381) and argues that class structure oppresses feminists, queers and the proletariat (LOC 3396) which is somehow typified in the British panel show. In revenge of the British panel show he describes a pornographic sex-up of QI, in which Victoria Coren and Stephen Fry anally enter ‘Robert Webb’s homelier companion’. Alan Davies gets ‘face fucked’. You somehow get the feeling Lavery would jump – nay, leap – at the chance of appearing on a British panel show but understands, somehow, that he will never be that mainstream and isn’t that happy about it.
The metaphor thing by the way, was that the clown letters were being written by himself to himself. Or summink. I really don’t know.
For some reason there is a playlist, a bibliography and an index in case you urgently need to reappraise yourself what Lavery thought about Powers, Austin, pre-bourgeois baroque, or penis enlargers. It’s a very bad book.
Grace Lavery has read my review and asked for this important update to the text, which I’m only too glad to correct.
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