Alex DiFrancesco Captures the Fraught Magic of the In-Between

TRANSMUTATION
Stories
By Alex DiFrancesco

Alex DiFrancesco’s eclectic, absorbing first collection, “Transmutation,” captures moments of in-betweenness (often fraught, sometimes magical) that may be especially familiar to transgender people who are not legible, temporarily or purposefully, to others or themselves. In one story, a trans man wears a chest binder and can’t afford top surgery. He’s a server at a restaurant, but does not earn much because “newly bearded, ambiguously gendered people just didn’t get tipped as much as cute girls.” The protagonist’s desire to have top surgery is at odds with both his partner’s wishes and his financial situation, but what “The Ledger of the Deep” hinges on is the careful observation of how people fill their days: watching “Twin Peaks,” cooking a meal, drinking beer on a boat.

Within these direct, straightforward stories are corridors of solitude and reflection. In the opening story, “Inside My Saffron Cave,” 16-year-old Junie lives with their mother and their mother’s abusive new boyfriend. Junie hasn’t started hormones yet, though “it had been five years since I started presenting the way I felt,” they explain in between Snapchatting with their friends and going to the beach alone. Before procuring estrogen from an internet friend, Junie finds comfort in the mysterious figure of the local legend, the Storm Hag. Thankfully, in DiFrancesco’s hands, trans characters are no longer required to be self-serious, suffering, alternately tragic and heroic. Instead, they scroll on Twitter, talk to their friends on the internet and seek alternative forms of kinship.

Empathy for “runaways, escapees, the brutally damned, the unchosen, the cast out” animates several of these horror-inflected stories. “A Little Procedure,” dedicated to Rosemary Kennedy, is told from the perspective of a young woman named Lily whose privileged family forces her to undergo a lobotomy. Afterward, she is no longer “their wild, promiscuous daughter,” DiFrancesco writes, but “someone new entirely … their shrinking violet.” Writing in a detached, dry prose, DiFrancesco conjures an eerie menace with Lily, a deceptively doll-like creation with a desire for revenge.

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