Our characters awake from the bad dreams of the previous chapter and enter a nightmare reality. Chapter three presents one of the essential, unavoidable moments in any fantasy story that mixes a world that lacks supernatural elements with a world where the supernatural is present and accounted for: the moment where the characters must reconcile the actual and the impossible. In the first pages, Hazel and Foxglove think they have woken into a world where the laws of the universe are closer to the laws of physics than the laws of fairy tales. Thessaly, a voyager from a rather different realm, enters their apartment and ushers them into a world of disturbing, bewildering magic.
Wanda struggles the most to reconcile herself to the new reality, and points out that Hazel and Foxglove “just fell into it. Like it was all natural as anything.” She is also the character who has most clearly had to fight assumptions about her own reality: when some people find out about her transgendered status, she ceases to be a “real” woman in their minds, and is “really” a man. The discourse of authenticity is nasty and narrow, useful only to people who possess the power to control what is or isn’t considered “real”. Whenever someone sets out to police someone else’s authenticity, there are only two possible roles: cop and criminal.
But realities of all sorts remain slippery in A Game of You, and Wanda is no more or less a real anything than the world she woke into is more or less real than The Land, or, for that matter, any of the realms of the Endless. Confronting the slipperiness of the real world outside herself causes Wanda to muse on the reality of the world inside herself. Hazel and Foxglove “fell into” the new universe with the same ease they apparently fell into their gender identities, while for Wanda, neither is easy. She says, “Maybe I’m not the woman I thought I was,” a thought apparently caused by her stereotypically “feminine” queasiness when Thessaly cut off George’s face, popped out his eyes, tore out his tongue, and nailed it up beside a poster of Barbie on the apartment wall.
Wanda not only has to deal with the woman she thinks she is, but with the woman or not-woman other people think she is. She is the least dressed of the characters in this chapter, and so Hazel, who in the previous chapter showed little knowledge of human biology, here points to Wanda’s pantied crotch and says, “You’ve got a thingie.”
A thingie?! Hazel’s brain apparently stopped gaining knowledge somewhere around age seven or eight, because she not only doesn’t seem to know the word penis, she also doesn’t seem to know, or at least want to use, common slang: cock, dick, etc. Or perhaps she doesn’t know what to call a protuberance in panties, and because it’s part of a woman, she doesn’t associate it with the words for the male organ. Wanda is a woman in Hazel’s mind, and therefore she can’t have a penis, cock, or dick. She has something less defininable. A thingie.
Wanda replies, “Hazel, didn’t anyone ever tell you that it’s not polite to draw attention to a lady’s shortcomings?” Wanda does not question her female reality in the way that someone for whom femaleness equals the absence of a penis would — she refers to herself as “a lady”, not “a supposed lady” — and yet the thingie is not a protuberance of pride for her, it is a “shortcoming”. But everybody has shortcomings. (Of course, the discourse of macho authenticity tells us that a Real Man doesn’t want to be short in either his penis or its comings.) In polite society, we don’t talk about our minor flaws, especially if they don’t interfere with other people’s lives, and there’s no reason to believe that Wanda’s thingie is getting in anybody’s way but her own (if even that).
There’s a certain irony embedded in Wanda’s diction: the statement that “it’s not polite to draw attention to a lady’s shortcomings” is the sort of thing we might expect to find in a 19th century manual of etiquette. It emits a distinct odor of obsolescence. Men, of course, are not subject to such rules, for few men are ever expected to be perfect or pure, unlike women. Under such a taxonomy, Wanda becomes a Real Woman if we are reluctant to speak of her flaws in polite society. If her flaws are open to discussion, then she is a man.
If only life were so simple! The dusty archness of Wanda’s statement conceals anger beneath irony. Anyone who does not fit into the basic standards of their culture’s gender norms must defend their identity — their subjectivity — against the objectifying gazes of people who fit more comfortably into those gender norms. The body (not the person) becomes an object of fascination. The fascination often mingles with revulsion, and revulsion leads to violence: the offender must be disciplined by enforcers who are certain they know what is Real (which is to say “natural”, which is to say “good”). Violence against transgender people is shamefully common, and even in some of the most liberal, open, and democratic societies the Earth has ever known, trans people are not equal before the law.
Wanda bears some brunt of that in this chapter. She is, after all, the least dressed of any of the women here, and so her body is the one that everyone (readers included) gets to see the most of. Her state of undress is what allows Hazel her impolite comment. It may be that Hazel routinely looks at people’s crotches, but Wanda’s lack of clothing makes it seem more forgiveable — how, after all, could Hazel miss seeing the thingie? We, too, then, may feel less guilty about our own voyeurism, a voyeurism channeled through Hazel’s.
We should feel guilty about that voyeurism, though. We have joined in objectifying Wanda, in making her genitalia more important than any other part of her at that moment. Whatever her body looks like beneath her clothing really doesn’t matter if we are not sleeping with her, or not attending to her medically, the only two circumstances where I can think of an at least vaguely legitimate need to know the details of her protuberances. And yet so many people want to know, and think, at some level, they have a right to know.
Wanda has worse things to worry about in this chapter, though, and ends up guarding Barbie while the other women go off to fight the Cuckoo. By the last page, she seems to have accepted the world’s new-to-her weirdnesses (not that she has much choice, since those weirdnesses don’t seem likely to let up). She tries to wrap it all in a story and an (inauthentic) accent, making it into a bad movie, but she doesn’t convince herself. Arguments about what is real and what isn’t aren’t much use to her right now, not when everybody’s gone off on a fantasy quest and a face nailed to the wall wants to talk with her. Whether real or an illusion, authentic or inauthentic, this is the world she has woken to, and the stakes seem high enough that she simply must deal with the universe as it is.
Matthew Cheney has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of venues, including One Story, Weird Tales, Locus, Rain Taxi, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere. A collection, Blood: Stories will be published by Black Lawrence Press in January 2016. He is the former series editor for the Best American Fantasy anthologies and currently a co-editor of the occasional online magazine The Revelator. His blog, The Mumpsimus, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. He is working toward a Ph.D. in Literature at the University of New Hampshire, where his research focuses on the work of Virginia Woolf, J.M. Coetzee, and Samuel R. Delany.