Variations (Influx Press) by Juliet Jacques

Who gets to speak in a literary text, and who gets to decide who speaks? Some critics may claim that talent is the only determinant of whether a writer makes it onto the published page, although the emerging female and queer voices “discovered” from previous centuries and published to popular and critical acclaim show this cannot be true.

I think we should have that in mind while reading Juliet Jacques, whose voice and experience – as well as the voices and experiences of the characters in her latest book, Variations – have been brought into view in part thanks to the profound cultural change happening right now. Jacques’ idiosyncratic, campy voice, her tendency to draw on seemingly disparate interests in cultures considered both “high” and “low” (from avant-garde art to football), combined with her perspective as a trans woman, make for a very rare quality. I have been an avid reader of Jacques for some years, from when she first raised LGBTQ+ issues as a journalist and told her own history of transitioning in the Guardian, to her remarkable Trans: A Memoir. Appearing in 2015, the book displayed her characteristic combination of dry, self-deprecating humour and stunning erudition, but also her surprising tenderness in depicting her family’s reactions and her social surroundings.

Variations is the most mature and ambitious Jacques work to date. It’s conceived as a series of fictionalised stories, each told in a different literary form: a film script, an epistolary novel, a found diary, even a medical report. In each, a fictional character gives voice to a different side of the reality of queer life in Britain. It is, in its own way, her version of Small Lives by Pierre Michon, which told the stories of various characters from his family’s ancient history and of the peripheral figures from his hometown whose lives would have usually been considered too insignificant for literature – a servant, a hobo, a peasant priest.

In Jacques’ version, it’s a combination of class and marginalisation based on sexual orientation. “A Wo/Man of No Importance”, the story of Arthur Parr, fictitious contemporary of Oscar Wilde, is a pretext for a highly camp journey into Wilde’s trial against the Marquess of Queensberry, his fight for the respect of his queer contemporaries, and the right to live a life without labels. My favourite is “Standards of Care”, the fictionalised diary of a transgender woman called Sandy, living in Manchester, whose backstory is glam rock fandom and the development of punk culture around 1977.

Queer socialist utopia

Glam was an obvious refuge for queers, who could experiment with drag, crossdressing and identity without being necessarily spat at on the street (which happens to many of the other characters). Sandy frequents a clinic in London to be assessed for gender correction surgery. There she meets Elena and other transgender women whose devotion to music and bravery in self-expression unite them.

Culture, along with makeup and clothes, plays just as important a role in these stories as radical politics. The queerness of the characters is never their most important attribute and the period details are rigorously researched. “Exhibition”, for instance, is an epistolary story set in 1939 Blackpool, where the woman-born, man-identifying protagonist spends two months in the House of Curiosities by the seaside promenade. There, he performs a reality-TV-like show, watched from behind a glass – as a desperate ploy to make money, but also as an attempt to finally live as who he feels he is, in the face of the very society denying him his identity.

Variations must be the only book in the world to mention the mid-century social research project “Mass Observation” in the same breath as the 1970s glam rock inventors and eager crossdressers, the New York Dolls, along with countless other snippets of life and culture, a large canvas on which the pattern for a utopian socialist queer life might be inscribed. This is a touching, delightful collection from a vital voice, making you want to struggle for a different world.

This piece is from New Humanist winter 2021 edition. Subscribe today.