Sex Goblin Charlie Markbreiter

Flora, fauna, fun with form: a new book by Lauren Cook.

Sex Goblin, by Lauren Cook, Nightboat Books, 174 pages, $17.95

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The miffed and determined young aardvark stands facing a closed door. “Arthur’s room,” says a piece of yellow paper. “D. W. not allowed.” D. W. (since we are, of course, in the animated world of Arthur, the ’90s kid’s TV show), puts her hands on her hips. “That sign can’t stop me,” she tells us, “because I can’t read.”

According to the lore, this image, a meme for over a decade, expresses “persistence in the face of better judgment.” More recently, however, this subtext has been jettisoned in favor of text. When we say we can’t read, what we mean is we can’t read. That is, we read all the time. As smartphone access is required for even the most menial jobs, and roughly half of all Americans identify as content-creators, we are deluged with language production and consumption. But this uptick in quantity unfortunately corresponds with a decrease in quality: declining literacy rates (even before the pandemic, most American students were unable to read at their grade level); declining media literacy (as newsrooms are gutted by venture capitalists).

Writers, who must be read in order to survive, have generally responded to this cultural schism—recently schematized by Anna Kornbluh as the rift between form and immediacy—by either embracing a first-person approach, which values authenticity, reliability, and mundanity (you can’t read, but neither can I), or by embracing craft (I can read better than you). However, as Lauren Cook reminds us through his virtuosic deployment of first-person narrative and literary craftsmanship in Sex Goblin, his new book of vignettes and aphorisms, this is a false choice.

The first piece in Sex Goblin goes as follows:

If I had a recital of sorts
If it was important to me and I asked you to
come, would you come?
Would you drive. 2, 3–no, 4 hours? Would you
drive 4 hours to come see me play?

While typos are an accident, leaving them in—especially in a book that goes through multiple rounds of editing, proofreading, and layout design—is not; instead, a deliberate stylistic choice creates the aura of naturalness. Like TikTokkers recording front-facing videos while eating in their cars, the run-on sentences in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, or the lopsided edges in a Queer(™) mullet, amateur styling is the point. Ever since lockdown made us all be online all the time, idealized, yassified visuals reflect scamminess more than efficiency. A first-person POV may be messy, and partial, but at least it tells its own version of reality instead of lying on behalf of everyone. “I am not right nor offering truth,” Cook tells us in another vignette. “We all mostly experience the range of emotions. I am just articulating in the way that makes sense to me.”

While Cook sometimes uses the autofictional “I,” he just as frequently speaks in the first-person voice of Sex Goblin’s many “characters.” In some cases, this slippage is obvious. “It is time to hike. I hike semi-frequently,” says someone who could be Cook—until he slips off a boulder, splatting into the pine-needle earth. “My exposed bones. My visible muscles and fat layers.” Before dying (or not?), all the blood rushes to his dick. “And I began to stroke my cock, which somehow survived. That somehow was stronger after falling.” That it’s funny almost hides that it’s impressive, that we’ve gone from autofiction dupe to gory slapstick to mangled symbology.

In addition to genre-play, Sex Goblin’s commitment to craft emanates from the way Cook weaves his extensive, practical knowledge of flora and fauna throughout the text. He reminds us that “the flower is not the brain of a plant.” In another passage, he points out that some plants benefit from being picked, which facilitates pollination, while others die on the spot. In some cases, as with the hiking example above, biology serves both a narrative and symbolic function, thematizing capitalist individualism (“the flower has been cut clean off the tree with a sharp knife and taken”) or Descartian mind-body dualism (foregrounded via the common assumption that the flower is a plant’s “brain”). In other cases, the aim is pure information-sharing, which Cook does without overwhelming or boring the reader. “The Darwin spider’s silk is supposedly the toughest biological material ever studied. Everyone is obsessed with it because the fiber is ten times stronger than Kevlar which is what they use to make bulletproof vests.” Like any good teacher, Cook presents information in a way that’s fun and accessible.

If you’ve accrued this kind of knowledge base amid the trash and ignorance we’re deluged with, it’s easy to become an elitist. Within this framework, you are skilled because you are tasteful, hardworking, and clever; if others are not, it’s because they are lazy, pea-brained, gauche. Like all gatekeeper-logic, this individualizing framework obscures the structural factors (underfunded public schools, student debt, attention spans destroyed by the internet) that govern access to knowledge in the first place. Cook, in contrast, shares about plants not to show off, but because he likes to learn, and knows that we do, too.

Arguably, however, Sex Goblin’s greatest formal achievement—both in terms of the first-person perspective and the work as a whole—is that the book manages to be “about” transness despite the fact that transness doesn’t come up once. There is a precedent for this: Jackie Ess’s Darryl (2021), a Trans Lit classic whose protagonist may not even be transgender. As with Ess, Cook’s transness isn’t hidden; the author bio on the back cover describes him as a “transsexual naturalist.” But the closest he comes to mentioning it via the text itself occurs in a section on fake poppers narrated by an employee of PWD, or “PAC-WEST DISTRIBUTING NV LLC which is the company that manufactures Rush.” After explaining how to identify bootleg poppers, the employee tells us that, “ironically enough, PWD sued a company called AFAB industries (lol).” Even this reference is an inside joke, aimed specifically at trans readers who will correlate “AFAB industries” with “Assigned Female at Birth” (AFAB). While the term can be used descriptively, it is often also used as a slur for trans men, or as a way to exclude trans femmes (e.g., trans housing ads that are “AFAB only”). To cis readers without this context, however, it just comes off as a poppers joke. While Cook alludes to transness here, he still takes pains to shield trans people from the cis gaze––all the while incorporating his own personal AFAB experience into an elaborate gag.

If the 2014 TIME “tipping point” marked an era of hypervisibility only to accidentally hearken a decade of backlash, then where are we now? As books with trans protagonists are banned from public libraries, complaints that you are “only” allowed to talk about transness feel retro—and white, bourgeois. Whose life was “only” defined by transness in the first place? Talking about how you can’t talk about transness becomes another way of only talking about being trans. That is: hypervisibility is annoying (and, for TBIPOC and trans women, often downright dangerous), but casting it as trans liberation’s main target perpetuates the nostalgic fantasy that our biggest enemy right now is rainbow capitalism, not the ascendant global fascist movement with a virulent anti-trans wing. As with the false choice between form and immediacy, Sex Goblin gives us another way out.

Charlie Markbreiter’s first book, Gossip Girl Fanfic Novella, was published by Kenning Editions in November, 2022. He is a PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center, and organizes with Writers Against the War on Gaza (WAWOG).

Flora, fauna, fun with form: a new book by Lauren Cook.
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