X is a novel uniquely suited to our times: a queer noir, a pulverisingly sexy dystopia, an urgent call to arms, with a protagonist who masturbates to Dennis Cooper. They talk to Neil D.A. Stewart about Brooklyn, outlaw literature and subversive spaces
Neil: Hi Davey, this is Neil in London. Where are you right now and what can you see?
Davey: I’m on my couch in New York, running a fever. On the coffee table is a beautiful vase made by Zach Ozma that my girlfriend, Jade, gave me. The vase says The Intolerable Spectacle of Powerlessness.
N: The New York of X is a noirish dystopia, which chimes very presciently with the real and growing problems at street level in the post-Covid Manhattan. What is the future for the city? Can it ever bounce back from the Giuliani and Bloomberg-era social cleansing and the effects of the pandemic?
D: I began writing X in earnest the same month I moved to Brooklyn from the Bay Area, the year before Covid. I’ve been here almost four years at this point, but I can’t pretend to be anything like an expert, much less a real New Yorker. If there is any question of a return to a normal that never existed, I suspect its answer involves the country and the world as much as it does this beautiful city.
N: Relatedly, one scene in X depicts a Stonewall-like gay bar that has gone from site of transgression and revolution to tourist trap. Does the New York of 2022 offer any spaces that are still truly underground?
D: Leather, gay, dance music, and sex-working spaces would count, I suppose. My friends working to build networks for mutual aid, abolition, and harm reduction would fit, as well. Criminalisation of life seems to trend upward every day: that creates the conditions for the underground, and the art that emerges from it.
N: I laughed aloud at the text’s nod to Dennis Cooper, which reads as an in-joke that nonetheless situates the reader, the narrator and the book itself. It made me consider the way I had to hunt down Cooper’s novels in the UK in the late 1990s. Has mainstream attention eroded the sense of “outlaw literature”? Where do you feel X fits in with that tradition, if you recognise that at all?
D: I think the fact that X could sell to a “legitimate” publisher like Catapult belies any notion of its being “outlaw”. If you can find it at the Strand, how verboten could it be? That being said, a revival of encrypted forms of communication and analog forms of media—a motif of X inspired by violent whorephobic legislation like FOSTA/SESTA—as a response to internet privatisation, censorship of trans and CRT thought, and skyrocketing precarity generates “outlaw literature”. The trouble is writing, sharing, and accessing it safely.
N: More broadly, has the atomisation and diversification of culture in the 2020s meant that “counterculture” doesn’t really function anymore? X was reviewed in the New York Times: it’s a big deal. Is there a “mainstream” still to kick against?
D: It’s nice to think of it as a big deal, but I don’t think that it is. Still, even five years ago, I doubt that someone like me could have attained this level of, I suppose, attention, for a book like this one; just using the pronouns I do was grounds for intellectual dismissal until very recently, and I and my characters are still regularly misgendered in the process of all this (which is never not fascinating to me).
A tiny space has been made for transsexuals like me thanks to other trans writers – particularly trans women, like Torrey Peters, Morgan M. Page, and Jackie Ess – as well as the aspects of my identity that are most easily commodified by notions of what acceptable/bankable queerness is (my whiteness, my apparent masculinity, the fact that I’m well-educated, etc.). While people of all kinds have been very welcoming of X, it has not escaped my notice that almost every review, interview, or event has happened because a queer, or especially a trans, person got me in the room. I think the difference now is that “counterculture’s” commodification is algorithmic, which makes it more sophisticated, effective, and insidious.
N: X draws inspiration from the S&M scene. Rick Owens found inspiration for fashion there, Robert Mapplethorpe for art. What is the appeal for artists?
D: First, to speak for myself: X is not autobiographical by any means, but it takes place in a dramatisation of a world that is mine. I like it and the people in it, though I’m looking forward to my next book, which is about a straight man and has zero trans characters.
For that reason, it is more interesting, sexy, exciting, and beautiful than anything that a straight culture could produce
I think it’s understandable that straight artists (and I use straight here in the old way, which doesn’t necessarily mean heterosexual, but rather legal, on the level, normal) would be drawn to S&M and/or leather, the latter of which is gay and always has been. For that reason, it is more interesting, sexy, exciting, and beautiful than anything that a straight culture could produce. Why wouldn’t they be interested in us? And to the extent that they’re involved as patrons, voyeurs, chasers, closet-cases, and tricks, straight people have a role to play in this world, too.
As for gay and queer artists, while we can get in the weeds about S&M’s commodification by our own (a huge interest of mine), the fact of that matter is that sexual perversion is so ingrained in the history of 20th-century queerness that it’s the rule, not the exception. The exception would be the assimilationist gays, who want to join up with the straightness that white supremacy produces. I see gay artists visiting S&M for inspiration to be tapping into a tradition that is partially theirs, too. We are all perverts and sodomites. The slippage between proper leather, S&M, kinky sex, and gay sex is constant and considerable.
N: What books are on your desk/nightstand just now?
D: Funeral Rites, Jean Genet. Brother Alive, Zain Khalid. How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures, Sabs Imbler. Palo Alto, Malcolm Harris. C
X by Davey Davis is published by Cipher Press (UK) and Catapult (US)