When I think about “good” queer representation, I think about bad. I think about bad behavior, bad relationships, bad choices, bad words. I like art about queer people fucking up (and also art about queer people fucking). My friend Drew says it well in her Top 10 Television Shows post from 2020:
“When people ask me what kind of work I make/want to make, I say I want to tell stories about queer fuck ups who are trying their best. Because queer people are people! And ‘good’ representation means seeing the scope of that humanity on screen.”
Here are some books I’ve read in the past year about queer liars, cheaters, assholes, and chaos demons. The stories here are good, because the people are complex and real. It isn’t all hard edges either. There’s softness and sweetness to be found burrowed in these pages. These characters are all messy, fascinating, real humans.
Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
This was easily one of my favorite books I read about 2021, and I revel in the messiness of all of its characters. Again, I will quote Drew here! From her fantastic review of a fantastic book:
Torrey Peters writes about bad trans women. She writes about trans women who fuck people over, fuck themselves over, fuck other trans women over. She writes about trans women who are judgmental and self-pitying and want love so bad they’ll create a world of destruction.
You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat
You might be thinking to yourself: You Exist Too Much? More like, Kayla, you recommend this book too much! To which, I say this: Can you ever really recommend a funny and poignant novel with a chaotic queer DJ protagonist TOO MUCH? Methinks not! Here’s some of what Arafat said of the narrator in her interview with Autostraddle:
The starting point for the story and the character was thinking about somebody who would set their sights on something unattainable – a woman who set her sights on unattainable women. And this became an almost safer way to love. It spoke to her shame around being gay or being bi, her choices colored by this internalized homophobia.
Stray City by Chelsea Johnson
In this 2019 novel, protagonist Andrea Morales — who identifies as a lesbian — ends up sleeping with a straight cis dude in the wake of a breakup, gets pregnant, and decides to have the baby. As Vanessa wrote in her review:
It’s a book that could fairly be met with skepticism from a queer audience. But Johnson handles the plot with care, never letting her characters become boring or dangerous stereotypes; rather, she builds a world where people are flawed but have the capacity to change, and tells a seemingly familiar narrative in a way that’s both surprising and comforting.
Skye Falling by Mia McKenzie
If messy queer protagonists are indeed your jam, you have simply GOT to read Skye Falling. The protagonist Skye is contacted by a 12-year-old girl who turns out to be…”her egg” aka the result of an egg donation Skye did in her twenties when she was broke. To make matters even messier, a woman Skye just attempted to hit on IS THE GIRL’S AUNT. The book is funny but also thoughtful in its explorations of identity, family, and relationships.
Beebo Brinker by Ann Bannon
I was absolutely late to the game on Ann Bannon pulp classics, and Beebo Brinker — while being the last installment of the Beebo Brinker series to come out but also the series’ prequel — is a great starting point. Midwestern dyke Beebo herself has her messy days for sure, but hell knows no emotional terrorist quite like Venus Bogardus, the closeted movie star Beebo becomes entangled with in this 50s-set pulp novel.
The Subtweet by Vivek Shraya
This list would surely not be complete without a book that touches on messy friendship! The Subtweet is a layered novel about the many complexities of friendship between women. It incorporates the internet in meaningful and realistic ways, and both of its main characters are so richly drawn. Again, you should read Drew’s words on it.
A World Between by Emily Hashimoto
Directly inspired by the iconically chaotic heterosexual couple that has a special place in my heart (Harry/Sally of When Harry Met Sally), A World Between is a romantic-comedy suffused with the messiness of real life. In it, the central couple gets together, breaks up, comes together again. They change; the relationship changes. Their love story is all over the place, as so many are in life.
Plus: Three bonus recommendations!
If this list spoke to your messy-queer-character-loving soul, I’ve also got three bonus recommendations for you! These three books focus more on gay and queer men, but they all spoke to me on a deep level. First up is Memorial by Bryan Washington, about two men in a relationship who are constantly making choices that will have you saying WHAT!!!! Self-destructive behaviors, detailed food scenes, and portrayals of a deeply complicated relationship kept me hooked throughout this book. If you’re familiar with Washington’s work at all, you know he kills it when it comes to writing sex and food. There’s literal mess in this book and emotional mess, too.
Also,100 Boyfriends by Brontez Purnell. This collection of stories (some linked, some not) focuses on queer Black men and has great humor, place writing, and relationships dynamics (and yes, pretty much all of those relationships are CHAOTIC). It’s a bouncy, fun read about fucking up and, yes, fucking!
And lastly, I Know You Know Who I Am by Peter Kispert. In a nutshell? This story collection is about liars. Every narrator is unreliable — from a man whose lie about an imaginary best friend he made up to impress a guy spins so out of control he has to hire a stranger to play said friend to a man who lies about being an experienced hunter. There are strange turns and consequences. The whole collection is a wonderful exploration of deception and manipulation (even of the self).
Have you read any books with wild, frustrating, difficult queer characters lately? I want to know about them!
Just the title ‘100 Boyfriends” reminded me of “99 Erics” by Julia Serano, which has tremendous chaotic energy.
Ooo thank you!
I loved Hex by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight (which I found through an Autostraddle article!) about a poison-researching grad student with an ill-advised gay crush on her research advisor and her messy entanglements with other students. It’s dark and hilarious.
Yes that was me who recommended Hex haha!! I almost also put it on this list lol I love it so much
i’m of the opinion that one can NEVER overrecommend you exist too much – if that book was too much, it’s in the best possible way.
restricting myself to only a couple titles, olivia from leah johnson’s rise to the sun is a heartbreaking ya chaos lesbian (i won’t try to outdo carmen here, since her writing on this book is brilliant), as is aideen from ciara smyth’s (underrated imo) not my problem – snarky lesbian heroine gets up to wacky hijinks as a reluctant fixer at her stuffy irish high school and develops a crush on an uptight little miss perfect, on the one hand while dealing with an alcoholic mom, poverty, and the breakdown of her one reliable friendship on the other.
also, the title character of robin talley’s the love curse of melody mcintyre has everything under control as the best stage manager her high school drama program has ever seen – but her love life, alas, is the definition of chaotic bisexual.
and one adult pick, sammie from kristen arnett’s with teeth isn’t chaotic necessarily, but she’s a goddamn apathetic mess and one of the most interesting low-key terrible characters i’ve read in a while.
and yay books! thanks kayla :)
hahahaha yes With Teeth definitely fits this theme imo!! I just felt weird recommending my own gf’s book 😜
BADASS QUEER WOMAN LITERARY POWER COUPLE?! how did i not realize this? so much brilliance and good writing in one household!🤗
Hahahhaa omg 🥰
Love this! Motivating me to move my You Exist Too Much up the TBR. (And also, another moment of jealousy about how the US copy of detransition baby is so, so, SO much better than the UK one. I bought it here (and loved it) so it got its laurels rather than waiting….but it is Not Great)
I log my reading in a spreadsheet every year and look back at any themes that come up, things that I’m reading a lot of, and the theme for this year was self-pitying protagonists who are unlikeable characters and/or unreliable narrators. Not all of them were queer women but quite a few! Thank you for these recommendations, Kayla. I loved Detransition, Baby this year and forgot that You Exist Too Much has been buried on my to-read list. Going to request it from the library this week!
My favorite books about chaotic queers that I read this year were mostly due to their great narrative voices –
After Delores by Sarah Schulman – unnamed hot mess protagonist gets broken up with and does not take it well. She fantasizes about murder, galavants around with a gun, and then gets tangled up in solving a murder that the police don’t care about
We Play Ourselves by Jen Silverman – messy theater bisexual gets drawn into helping a filmmaker make a movie about teen girls and their fight club
Cassandra at the Wedding – from 1962 so we know she is queer because she tells us in a coded way about relationships she has had, but the focus is her relationship with her family. She goes home to her sisters wedding and absolutely fucks everything up because she is depressed
Bunny by Mona Awad – really fucking weird!! I loved the ride because I truly never knew what was going to happen next. It is not as textually queer as the others, but the author definitely knows her character is queer.
I almost put After Delores on the list LOL!! Same wavelength
Oh, I really loved Detransition, Baby and Skye Falling as well! Also a big fan of Kispert’s short stories, as well as Bryan Washington’s works. As a book that isn’t out yet, I recommend Acts of Service for messy queerness, as well as Little Rabbit. These Violent Delights is about gay men, and has been out for a few years, but definitely fits the messy bill imo.
Ooo looking forward to these new ones!
i love every single book on this list but am especially here for the beebo brinker shout-out! <3
lol you definitely influenced that one!!!!
Love this list theme! I’ve read two of these and many of the others are on my wishlist on bookshop.org
It’s been a while since I read Rose of No Man’s Land by Michelle Tea but I remember it as being very chaotic!
Oh yes that’s a great one!
Some more wonderful messy queer characters are found in:
– These curious pleasures (Sloane Britain, pulp in its glory),
– Pizza Girl (Jean Kyoung Frazier),
– Mostly Dead Things (Kristin Arnett) and The Broken Earth Trilogy (N.K. Jemisin)
YES pizza girl! And yes I love Mostly Dead Things too 😇
Second for Pizza Girl. Frazier was a college friend of a friend as well!
Hello Kayla! I love this little list you compromised. You remain to be one of my favorite bookworms of Autostraddle:)
ahhh thank you! hoping to do some more book lists
I read Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor last month and I can’t stop thinking about it, it is just so good – and such a perfect level of queer chaos.
I’ve just started Detransition, Baby, loving it so far, and thank you for this list so now I know what to read next!
Chaos queers are absolutely my jam, the messier the better, so thank you for this!
I noticed that since my burnout I have zero tolerance for angst.
With that caveat, I found the character Harrow in Gideon the Ninth and its sequel Harrow the Ninth to be pretty chaotic. Not sure if it fits the list but I felt compelled to talk about these books, they just blew me away.
I’m willing to try the titles in this list, because who knows I might find the right kind of weirdo for my little bruised heart !
That series was what first came to my mind when I saw the article title! I read those books over a year ago and still think about them constantly. Harrow has such a special place in my heart as a religiously traumatized little weirdo, and Gideon is one of my favorite characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction. The books chock full of chaotic queer character with some of the coolest world building and character arcs I’ve ever encountered in fiction. I could wax poetic about the series for ages but I’ll stop, it’s just always fun to find another fan!
(Being vague to avoid spoilers here…) Harrow’s actions between the first and second books that lead to the second book’s peculiar narration? Some of the most chaotic shit I’ve ever read. When you finally get the full story and it’s like OH SHE DID THAT? TO HERSELF? wild
Totally wild. Immensely weird sh*t. Tamsyn Muir is just the best writer I’ve ever read. Ever. If she had a dude’s name… people would be rending their garments over the sheer brilliance of those books. Wow I didn’t think I had that in me, feels good to say it though.
I loved Stray City
You Exist Too Much is so, so, so good.
Fiebre Tropical is chaotic queer YA, but for YA haters it’s not super YA (I say as a YA hater lol). It’s got a sad ending.
Milk Fed has a chaotic bisexual protagonist. Her thoughts are extrmely wild and I loved it.
La Bastarda has a lot of queer chaos happening too.
Adding all of these to the TBR list. I LOVED Paul takes the form of a mortal girl (possibly my fave read last year), Memorial and Pizza Girl too. As well as anything by Michelle Tea for chaotic energy, I really loved Little Fish by Casey Plett – I think after seeing a recommendation here.
Plugging Zig Zags by former AS EIC Kamala Puligandla here too!
Honestly, as a trans person, I was really put off that the book with trans characters that received the most attention had a title that led with Detransition, especially when detransitioning is consistently used to restrict access to medical transitions. Not to say that we shouldn’t have books with chaotic trans characters or “bad trans women.” More that I wasn’t surprised that the most celebrated trans book last year in a book world that is primarily cis, had detransitioning as a major plot point. I’m glad we’ve reached the point that there are diverse trans characters and we aren’t only getting one type of trans story (aka coming out plot) and I want all the books and stories to get published. But I still flinch every time I see this title.
The forum that you share is fantastic and has a lot of significance; run 3 I really hope that it will become more widespread.