The term transgressive fiction emerged in a 1993 Los Angeles Times article in which critic Michael Silverblatt described texts that cross moral and sexual boundaries with little emotion, fictions of purposeful shock and discomfort meant to wake us, as readers, out of our numbness to everyday cruelty. Silverblatt posited that “American audiences are inured to violence—when the violence is entertaining. As soon as violence becomes painful and shocking (that is as soon as it transgresses against our dulled senses) our response is rage.” That’s how he described the brutality and hyperconsumerism of Chuck Palahniuk’s characters in his novels Fight Club and Invisible Monsters, and the sexual violence that Patrick Batemen so casually committs in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. Transgressive fiction—centered mostly on violence against women and voyeuristic masculine fantasies of power—is meant to shock audiences into a kind of transcendence when they are pushed up against the borders of acceptable inhumanity.
But do these classic “transgressive” texts really achieve their purported goal? We live in a world where American audiences are already so inured to predatory male violence that grabbing women by the pussy is not an offense that would disqualify someone from the presidency. The sexual assault of children trapped in cages is not the stuff of bleak risqué fiction, but of Tuesday’s news. Fight Club is the incel bible du jour, and Bret Easton Ellis is the literary darling of conservative media. In this world, we ought to reconsider and reframe transgression. And in these times, what texts practice a productive rage, rather than write white male fury onto women’s bodies?
The five texts selected here violate boundaries—some literal and physical, some social and moral—through a wider, more inclusive lens than envisioned in the ’90s. In doing so, they challenge us to rethink what it might mean for culture to be “transgressive.”
Solito, Solita: Crossing Borders with Youth Refugees from Central America—Steven Mayers and Jonathan Freedman, editors (2019)
In this collection of firsthand oral accounts of unaccompanied Central American minors who have either crossed the border into the US or were in the process of doing so when interviewed, one boy is forced to flee his home after his mother is gunned down before his eyes. When he arrives at the US border, he faces handcuffs and detention instead of safety. In another story, a mother and her young daughter escape a death squad only to face an assault by masked men during their treacherous journey. In recounting these migrants’ escapes from horror, Solito, Solita depicts monstrous violence, rape, sexual abuse, and pure terror. In other words, the book has all the traits of transgressive texts of the past, but it forces readers to face their own inurement to terror, and to question their own political complicity.
Sin Nombre—Cary Joji Fukunaga (2009)
Writer and director Cary Joji Fukunaga doesn’t shy away from the brutalities visited upon his characters as they make their way to the US border from Honduras aboard the freight train known as La Bestia. Sin Nombre also casts its eye upon truly unsympathetic characters: Mara Salvatrucha gang members who murder, rape, and rob the migrants fleeing the gang’s boundless violence. In fact, Fukunaga worked with two gang members who edited the script to ensure accuracy. The result is a film that dares to find a sliver of humanity in members of a group that official White House press releases call “animals.” You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone sympathetic to a gang whose official motto is “Rape, control, kill” and whose reign of terror has forced entire countries to the brink of collapse. From all political angles, the discomfort of such a transgression is where Sin Nombre forces a subversive confrontation with the possibility of redemption in the worst of characters.
The People in the Trees—Hanya Yanagihara (2013)
This debut novel’s characters cross geopolitical borders in the name of science (and, less explicitly, of imperialism) as, simultaneously, Yanagihara crosses genres. The narrator—a scientist imprisoned for pedophilia—conducts research that results in a landmark medical breakthrough described in prison journals edited and annotated by a former colleague, inviting questions about authorship and historical accuracy. In the dry, unemotional language of scientific observation, Dr. Norton Perina lays bare horrifying cruelty and abuse with disturbingly convincing rationality. The result is an incisive and uncomfortable look at how supposedly objective knowledge doubles as a tool of white supremacy and neocolonialism.
Boy, Snow, Bird—Helen Oyeyemi (2014)
Also breaching the boundaries of genre—in this case, of fairy tale, myth, and horror—this novel subverts “Snow White” into an eerie exploration of identity and its superficial boundaries. There is plenty of transgressive creepiness; what most strikes me are the unsettling images of blinded rats, rats eating themselves, rats with tails tangled into one massive rat king. The images serve a larger narrative about a woman who’s provoked into the role of evil stepmother, and who discovers family secrets that unravel her own mythology about herself and her past. At its core, Boy, Snow, Bird tackles the idea of passing, and delves into issues of race and gender fluidity through hyper-imaginative spookiness.
Tampa—Alissa Nutting (2012)
In perhaps one of the clearest inversions of classic transgressive fiction, Tampa’s protagonist is an insatiable and unrepentant hebephile who (very) explicitly describes her relentless pursuit of middle school boys using manipulation, coercion, and even unintentional murder to get her way. Inspired by one of the author’s former classmates, convicted sex offender Debra Lafave—who was deemed “too pretty for prison”—the novel is a depraved and voyeuristic romp that challenges gender expectations, sexual agency, and double standards by dismantling the toxic archetypes of the “lucky boy” and the “hot teacher.” Nutting shows this sexual offender for what she really is: a danger.