All around the sparkling lake, queers are pairing off to fuck. “This is what things should be like,” one of Manning’s narrators muses to themselves in “Chewbacca and Clyde,” as they stretch back and open their legs for a new friend. “All of us here, together, enjoying each other with ease.” It’s the second-to-last day of a gay backpacking trip, a utopic image that speaks to what’s possible when queers successfully name and negotiate their desires. That sense of possibility ends brutally when the narrator returns home and describes the scene to Meredith, their femme partner of ten years. Non-monogamy has never been discussed, much less prohibited, but Meredith immediately falls to the ground sobbing then vomits into the toilet.
“We still don’t have any rules… We can get through this, because there’s nothing telling us that this has to end,” the narrator protests to Meredith later in the story. The couple stands in front of the mirror dressed as the story’s titular characters, old Halloween costumes that once disrupted their typical butch-femme dynamic. It’s a tragicomic gesture that confuses the relationship’s radical potential with a subversion of gender roles. Meredith doesn’t buy it; she tears the Chewbacca costume in two as she forces herself free. Finally, she asks that dreaded, all-too-familiar question: “So I’m not queer enough?”
In their debut collection We Had No Rules, Manning makes a rare, generous offer to the queer community: to hold us accountable. These eleven first-person stories interrogate the logic of queers who chase the glimmer of potential connection but refuse to actively combat the hegemonic systems entrenched within. In the exceptional “The Wallaby,” an older, divorced lesbian prepares a shipping container to live on a plot of land next to a farm. As she builds, she realizes “that some systems– the water main, the electrical grid– are just waiting for you.” It’s an apt metaphor that illustrates the queer assimilationist’s lack of creativity; rather than dream up new expressions of commitment, we get married and usher ourselves further into a state of political complacency. Thinking of her ex-wife, the narrator later laments, “My idea of love had tapped into the systems that were already waiting for me.”
Rarely do Manning’s characters transcend the systems waiting for them. They are selfish and self-conscious, fearful and avoidant, and have done little to unpack their oppressive tendencies, even the internalized ones. In the first paragraph of “Gay Tale,” a newly out lesbian admits “A lot of lesbians are scary and weird. I don’t even like the word.” She goes on to explain her own clumsy sexual awakening, rife with meta-commentary. It spills over to the narrator’s dialogue with Rachel, her first ever woman. “All the queers are reading, worried that you’re going to end the story getting back with a man,” Rachel says. “My friends told me not to come over and talk to you because you’re probably bi, but I have nothing against that.” The narrator grows claustrophobic at the reader’s expectations, alternating between pandering and resentment until she ultimately gives up and ends the story, albeit “before the sex scene.” Manning expertly captures the fizzing, frantic anxiety of someone beginning to come to terms with what she wants from other people.
Every story in We Had No Rules is told in first-person; it’s a strategic choice that allows the reader complete access to each character’s innermost, taboo thoughts. Queers can be quick to abandon each other when someone in our community causes harm or demonstrates ignorance, which often creates a culture of silence and shame around acknowledging prejudice or fault. Manning’s characters, however, have nowhere to hide; we watch as misogyny, racism and transphobia infect their choices with disconcerting facility. White queers rent apartments in gentrified neighborhoods and mascs treat femmes like shit. At the same time, we’re exposed to deliciously raw admissions of lust and longing that you won’t overhear at your local queer cafe. In “Ninety Days,” a femme recounts her previous attempts to masc up for approval and confesses “it wasn’t until I came out that I denied myself in any way.”
Still, moments of connection do bloom in We Had No Rules, however sparingly. In an interesting twist, many such moments center animals. In “Professor M,” a butch professor cheats on their wife with a student. The wife swiftly leaves them, but, in a surprising act of mercy, gifts the professor their family dog, the only creature whose needs they care to meet. After patronizing a younger femme they’re sleeping with, the narrator of “The Wallaby” walks over to the farm to see Dandy, a baby wallaby, and allows him to bite their hands as he becomes “more aggressive, more joyous.” These inter species interactions are inherently removed from scripts of sexuality and gender, therefore proving to the narrators that, just when they think they’ve rendered themselves incapable of love, connection is still possible through simple devotion or kindness.
Manning’s meticulous treatment of queer inner life traces the insidious forces that bar us from the queer utopia we imagine. They are as much character studies as cautionary tales: Before reading this collection, I assumed that the phrase “we had no rules” might appear in the mouth of a proud queer waxing poetic on the promise of group sex or polyamory. Instead the phrase appeared as an accusation, a complaint or something like an elegy. Quickly, my own naivete revealed itself to me: every relationship, not to mention community, forms its own set of rules, expectations and boundaries that we must actively embrace or reject. To ignore this reality is to let systems of oppression pull our love with puppet strings.