When I was asked to read Matthew Cheney's Blood: Stories as part of the Our Queer Planet season, I was elated—I've long been captured by short stories, and suffer a form of Stockholm Syndrome for bleak tales with queer themes. Cheney's collection arrives at an important moment: both because major publishers are reining in literary queer works in favour of cash-rich and doggedly heterosexual commercial fiction, and, as the horrific events in Florida this June have so brutally demonstrated, queers still live an existence which is culturally and politically marginalised. With cultural prevalence so central to our collective political outlooks, it is no exaggeration to say that queer fiction can save queer lives.
Yet on reading I quickly found myself confused that Blood: Stories had been chosen for review, as the initial clutch of tales were—on the face of it—focused on straight existence and hetero families. The first, "How to Play with Dolls", is among the shortest in the entire collection, featuring a girl who turns her doll house into an abusive insane asylum, providing a brief snapshot which falls somewhere between amusing and horrifying. The second tale ("Blood") quickly delves into the latter, with a deeply unsettling account of a right-wing survivalist father's violence and paranoia, alongside the ultimate tyranny he enacts over his children. The next stories continue with a delicate flow of language and an engaging pace, with the tone realistic and bleak: the horrors are simultaneously unique and mundane, offering creative tragedies against a backdrop of rural and suburban familiarity. It is difficult to avoid an intense yet futile empathy for their inhabitants.
These initial tales feature little overt homo- or bi-romantic content ("Lonesome Road" does feature a queer character, though the protagonist is straight), with queerphobic language being more prevalent than actual queers. However, if you're critically disposed against heteronormative society, you may have noticed a pattern among them: together they form a continual castigation of the loneliness, terror, and abuse of male power perpetuated by a sexist straight society. Though male desire is the primary cause of the suffering inherent to these tales, not even the men are fulfilled. Each finds themselves chained to their miserable part, and the only relief comes from alternatives to heterosexuality—usually in the form of touching nonsexual friendships. Yet with Blood refusing any hope to shine through its murky atmosphere, these bonds prove ultimately powerless. "Bring me with you," one man begs his departing friend, shortly before his own suicide.
Having finished these first ten stories, I was still left wondering if the queer references would be oblique, and that it might be the narration—with all its critiques and assumptions—which forms Blood's queer voice. Yet together these tales form the first part of a collection which can be divided into three distinct territories. Having been lulled into a sense of self-satisfaction, seeing a nod to a queer reader at the destruction of so many aspects of the straight world, I was then betrayed by the narrative. As I quickly discovered, this next section was formed around queer misery.
Though there are hints of sexual fluidity toward the end of the first portion, it is only with "New Practical Physics" that overtly queer characters really come to the fore—in the form of unhappy cohabiting partners Miguel and Ben. With Miguel's brutal assault on Neill—his partner's student—the story demonstrates the same male violence inherent to many of those earlier, yet from a different angle: one of self-loathing and racism. Ethnic, queer, and class identities collide in a fascinatingly intersectional tale, and it's one without any firm resolution or answers, other than demonstrating the intricacies and complexities of oppression and identity. The bleak moral ambiguities and the addictive, fluid writing style of the earlier stories are carried over to a male-male relationship, and it works extremely well. Even social insurrection cannot save Cheney's characters:
Neill's doing the typical I'll-rebel-against-the-entire-world-by-dying-my-hair-pink-and-wearing-make-up-and-lots-of-political-buttons schtick that so many gay kids seem compelled to do before they settle down into a boring middle class life like everybody else. Ben never really went through that phase, and he enjoys seeing other people do it.
This particular quote is characteristic of both Cheney's sense of futility yet also his lack of condemnation and judgement, in a tone somehow both powerful and impassive. Yet the story which left the largest imprint on my increasingly battered sense of self-worth is found at the very centre of the collection, immediately following "New Particle Physics".
"The Last Elegy" follows Andrea, a trans woman who undergoes the world's first known gender reassignment surgery. Andrea is based on the real-life figure of Dora Richter, yet this is never overtly mentioned—passing references to renowned German sexologist Magnus Hirschfield place the tale in Berlin, yet without my knowledge of my adopted city's past I would have remained unaware of the fact: it's a clever, subtle reference for those aware of this important chapter in our history, serving to forge a greater bond between the author and queer readers. Alongside this sense of solidarity, "The Last Elegy" examines the conflict between its homosexual narrator and the trans Andrea, forming a historical proto-commentary on the relationships between different, at times conflicting, queer identities. Particularly well-written, I could fill this review with quotes from this one story.
[Andrea] stood up, and a flock of birds that had gathered around our bench took flight, rising toward the grey sky, startling me, and for one tiny moment I thought [she] had shattered.
Another captures the spirit of Cheney's entire collection:
In the little stories I wrote about them, every person on the street was somehow lost and somehow lonely.
Neither of these quotes reach the pathos of the final line, the simple beauty of which flooded me with tears—which was unfortunate considering I was reading this remarkable tale on a busy transatlantic flight.
Though conveying considerably queer scenarios, characters, and themes, the stories themselves are far from affirming. Blood sees queer identity as but one aspect of the often hopeless, considerably lonely world it presents. As a queer polyamorous author myself, this strongly counters my own personal instincts: my personal life and writing have been devoted to the cause of spreading positive awareness of alternative forms of love and relationships. Optimism and positivity have remained central to my own presentation of queer lives, even when combined with fear and despair. Cheney feels no such need. Each queer union is as hopeless as its heterosexual and straight counterparts. There is neither judgement nor condemnation, yet at the same time there is an equal lack of celebration or hopefulness. And I loved it.
In some senses this falls into clichéd tropes surrounding queer lives: that happiness is ever beyond our reach; that we are creatures merely of injustice and tragedy. In other texts (not to mention television shows and movies) this is something which continues to grate: without a future, queers are robbed of any potential political impact. Straight audiences can shrug or even weep at our ill-deserved fates, whilst remaining glad that they are not us. For the most part, their existence means more than suffering and premature ends. Yet Cheney avoids the queer reader's consternation by placing his hetero characters in the same rusted, leaking boat. They, too, are to suffer, and the despair is egalitarian in its omnipresence.
The third "section" of Blood begins with its lone speculative fiction tale, "Expositions". A dark Atwood-style vision, "Expositions" carries queer themes into the future—and it's something I truly appreciated. Too often speculative and science fiction writers present a world devoid of anything other than pure heterosexuality, and when other orientations are included, they remain at the margins whilst utilising the same standards or orientation we see today. Cheney extrapolates on our society's increasing sexual fluidity and presents a plausible direction—one where some have preferences toward one gender, but most seem to disregard such antiquated limitations on sexual pleasure. Such far-sightedness still remains all-too-rare in the genre, and it was gratifying to see it addressed. Again the tale is intersectional, examining the relationships between gender, race, and class.
"So are you guys all, like, fucking each other?"
"Tod and I sometimes do," said Femi, a black guy with, George thought, a soccer player's body. "He's queer, and I'm sort of like, whatever."
Yet despite the fascinating social portrayals, "Expositions" sees the beginning of a downward swing in the overall quality of the collection. The story quickly disintegrates, and whilst previous pages saw some skirting of the fourth wall, Cheney now assaults it with a sledgehammer—to no effective purpose. Sadly this trend is continued through the remainder of the collection, which seem altogether insistent on reminding the reader that the world they are drawn into is fictional.
From this point Blood shifts genre, and enters the realm of fantasy. Though one or two stories from the first section contain fantasy elements ("The Exile" in particular), the third part sees the formerly character-driven fables increasingly guided by arbitrary swings in the plot and rapid shifts in the setting. Though at first the anarchic anachronisms Cheney presents are funny (the worlds featuring modern televisions, yet remaining strangely Medieval with a telling not unlike Chaucer), these outlandish settings quickly blur into one another, and coupled with the insistent fourth-wall-pummelling, begin to grow tiring. More importantly, this style of writing is now well-worn, particularly by prominent authors such as David Mitchell and Jeanette Winterson, and features in innumerable literary novels and short stories from first decade of this century. Sadly, Cheney adds little to an already exhausted style.
I'm reluctant to single out any stories from the collection's final portion, as each blurred into the next without leaving a strong impression. However, "The Art of Comedy" appears to have been written around a series of eighteenth-century etchings, an experiment which renders even less cohesion than the stories surrounding it. The queer elements remain, yet without a stable or compelling series of locales and subjects, they are robbed of any power.
There is much to love in this collection. The implicit social critiques on isolation, poverty, and queerphobia are simultaneously horrifying and subtle. At no point does Cheney indulge in explicit political moralising, instead introducing the reader to the results of multiple forms of inequality, in a truly intersectional manner. At a time when the queer world is coming together in celebration of our loves and identities, Cheney reminds us of the need to mourn, and the importance of seeing our own flaws—particularly in comparison to heterosexual society.
These thoughtful critiques are carried throughout the entirety of Blood: Stories, and it would be a truly remarkable work if its storytelling remained as even as its philosophising. Sadly, the surreal, fantastical stories in the third region of the work are nothing original, and their detached, distracted plots detract from any social observations. Regardless, Blood remains a compelling addition to queer literature, and is worth obtaining for the earlier tales alone—not to mention Cheney's articulate voice which remains relentlessly devoid of both judgement and hope. It is an experience both hollowing and enriching, and one worthwhile for queers and nonqueers alike.
Redfern is a writer and polyamory rights campaigner, armed with a doctorate in queer literature. They are author to novels The Giddy Death of the Gays & the Strange Demise of Straights (finalist for the 2016 Bisexual Book Awards) and Forget Yourself. Redfern currently divides their time between Britain and Berlin, where they live with their two partners. Read more at redjon.com.