There’s often a clear purpose to body swap narratives. When mother and daughter, siblings, or Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds, wake up one morning to find themselves as, well, not themselves, there’s often a clear lesson to be learned. Whether it’s a reminder that things aren’t always greener on the other side or to extend a little empathy and patience to other people, there’s almost always a clear purpose and goal to the swapping of bodies. And once said lesson is learned, said parties return to their lives changed for the better.
Which is to say that I went into Isle McElroy’s new novel People Collide, which swaps a recently married but already stagnant straight couple, with a certain set of expectations. Sure, I expected that a writer as nuanced and inventive as McElroy publish something more complex than Freaky Friday, but I still anticipated there being at least a little inkling of the usual body swap hits. Within its first few chapters, People Collide has balled up your expectations and nonchalantly tossed them in the trash.
We may begin in familiar enough territory. After three years of dating, Eli and Elizabeth, two emerging writers in their late twenties, decided to get married to ease out the logistics of Elizabeth’s new government sponsored teaching job abroad in Bulgaria. It’s a union born out of legal necessity and ultimately built upon a foundation of insecurity and envy. Or as Eli puts it: “We married to take advantage of a system. No matter how much Elizabeth loved me – and we told each other every day, deep, honest expressions of love, looking-you-in-the-eyes kinds of statements – I could never shake that I was, for her, like a supplementary arm grafted onto the center of her stomach.”
While neither have yet to break it in the literary scene, Elizabeth has landed more than a few publications in prestigious magazines and has already started fielding calls from interested agents. In contrast, Eli has a few pieces up at a no-longer-existent online publications and has spent much of the last several years working a series of odd service jobs. While there may not be outright animosity, the two are clearly at a low point as a couple, with Eli feeling particularly rudderless.
It’s a prime set up for a traditional “look how good you have it” / “maybe things on the other side aren’t easy after all” style narrative. And yet, even when Eli suddenly finds himself in the body of his wife as she’s midway through delivering a lecture to a class full of confused Bulgarian children, McElroy has naturally swerved away from our typical set up. There’s no inciting argument. No mystical McGuffin or spellcaster that has passed judgement on our protagonists. Just a sudden, inexplicable rearrangement of the universe. It’s an event that occurs out of nowhere with seemingly no purpose, no end goal, and no indication of undoing itself. Things get even more complicated when Eli learns that his own body, presumably carrying the consciousness of his wife, has disappeared, leaving him thousands of miles from home with a new life, an unfamiliar sex, a different family, and no idea of what to do besides try and find his wife/self.
People Collide never really allows the reader to feel settled. Sure, there’s something of a mystery to be solved, but McElroy isn’t interested in providing clues or teasing out reveals. There’s a randomness to the plotting of this novel that seems to suggest the swapping of bodies is really no more bizarre than any number of strange events or coincidences that happen every day of our lives. Instead, People Collide is much more interested in exploring just how two people, who are equally lost in their own ways, rebuild or fail to rebuild themselves after such a dramatic change.
The one expectation of mine going in that People Collide did meet was its nuanced approach to gender. Yes, there have been many, many books, movies, tv episodes, comic books, video games, etc. of presumably cisgendered people swapping bodies with other cisgendered people. I was rarely if ever satisfied with how these stories actually discussed gender. Often, the results felt didactic: Boys learned about periods, make-up, and misogyny, and girls learned about toxic masculinity (presumably something most of them had some understanding of beforehand). How exactly a supernatural shift like this actually affects someone’s identity was never really a discussion. The fact that a nonbinary author like Isle McElroy had decided to tell a story like this gave me hope for something a bit more, and thankfully they delivered.
There is much about Eli’s early fumbling days as Elizabeth that felt familiar to me and the early days of my own transition and the first times I could see that the world was seeing and treating me like a woman. Eli abandons hope early on of telling anyone the truth about what has happened and instead tries his best to live as his wife for as long as necessary. This of course means living convincingly as a woman, and while his first attempts are clumsy and confused, Eli begins to build an identity and presentation for himself and his new sex that proves separate from his wife. He develops his own taste in clothes, he finds himself surprisingly drawn in to the flirting and attention of men, and he finds himself discovering new depths to some of the few friendships he has made in Bulgaria. While my transition into womanhood was done intentionally and far more gradually, Eli’s story feels appropriately informed by a trans femme experience, and it ends up being an essential part of what makes People Collide work as well as it does.
That’s not to mention just how funny, emotionally complex, and sexy this novel becomes as it winds its way to its pitch perfect but appropriately open-ended conclusion. I won’t give away the specifics, but I will say that McElroy recently wrote about the art of the sex scene for a reason. A uniquely enjoyable read, People Collide most importantly does that rare but incredible thing of exploring cishet relationships by and through a queer vantage point without feeling glib, trite, or silly.
People Collide by Isle McElroy is out now.