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Sexy, Ambitious Novel “Any Other City” Explores Transition and Transformation

Any Other City is another ambitious novel from Hazel Jane Plante, author of Lambda Award-winning Little Blue Encyclopedia (For Vivian), which was one of my favorite books of 2019. Any Other City a tender, sexy, revealing character study exploring transformation, transition, and time — both in narrative and in structure. I appreciate an ambitious, unorthodox, “dare to be great” type of novel, which Any Other City is. But there’s always a risk that the gambit doesn’t pay off.

Styled as the provocative mid-life memoir of Tracy St. Cyr, leader of rock band Static Saints, the novel takes place in an unnamed non-American city — in my head, it was somewhere like Berlin — where Tracy spends two short but significant periods of her life.

The first occurs before Tracy’s gender transition, when she runs to The City after getting rejected from art school to try and become an artist anyway. She meets friends, artists, musicians, and a mentor, all of whom are trans women, who open her mind and confuse her, gender-wise. She is dumped when she returns home.

The second takes place many years later, post-transition and her band’s success, when Tracy returns to The City after another major breakup to lick her wounds and hopefully recapture the creative magic of that first visit. She returns as a different person in a city transformed by the passage of time, just as she has been. In both cases, the transformation is only partial — while much has changed, much has remained. She searches for remnants of her earlier time in the city, largely in vain, but does manage to unearth a powerful undercurrent of creativity that once again inspires her.

So far, this sounds compelling and fun in summary, and it is. But Tracy has decided that each half of her memoir will be addressed directly to a specific ex-lover. This seems like an interesting idea — and I’ve written many a personal essay with this exact conceit — but in my opinion, it doesn’t always work in this novel. One example: Tracy describes sex with the exes in question and with people she meets in The City in detail. It’s actually extremely hot, and I don’t remember ever reading such sexy queer sex. But … would anyone write these kinds of sex scenes in a letter to their ex?

I just couldn’t find a compelling reason to structure the narrative in this way. It possibly could have made sense if Tracy were obsessed with these exes and was desperately trying to make sense of what happened between them. But Tracy frequently, and in my opinion rightfully, meanders away from addressing her words to the exes directly and simply tells anecdotes of her experiences in the city. It feels disjointed.

Did this novel have to be structured as a memoir at all? If so, did it have to be split into two parts in a somewhat obvious Side A / Side B format? If so, did each part have to be directed at one of Tracy’s exes? Hazel Jane Plante seemed to anticipate these questions, because she doubles down on her choices by making an extremely bold narrative and structural choice that explicitly lampshades them with a meta-narrative flourish. I personally did not feel like this added to the experience, but I wonder if I would have minded these choices if she hadn’t called so much attention to them.

Now, it’s entirely possible that I just didn’t get it. I’m sad about what I felt like were unnecessary flourishes not because I didn’t like this novel, but because I very much did. I loved and connected with Tracy as a character, and I thought the sex was extremely hot, and I thought her journey was extremely compelling.

And I loved Plante’s debut because of its bold structural choices. It was strange and quirky and played with the novel form in an interesting and meaningful way. When we remember lost loved ones, we often remember the things they loved, and exploring those things can be a way to connect with them posthumously. Reading Little Blue felt like sifting through a box of ephemera in your now-departed friend’s house and trying to decide what’s important enough to keep, and what has to be trashed. But you want to keep everything, because you want to remember everything. No detail is too small. For that reason, the “gimmick” of Little Blue made sense. Any Other City’s just didn’t seem to.

Throughout the book, I kept wishing Plante had just written a “conventional” novel. The story is interesting enough, and the characters are compelling enough, and Plante is talented enough. She has a powerful ability, for example, to write fiction that feels intimately lived in. Throughout Little Blue and Any Other City both, I consistently stopped reading to look up band names, song titles, food items, museums, brands, and other little environmental fragments of detail to discover whether they were fictional — they weren’t always, but I never could tell when. I’ve never read fiction that felt so grounded in reality yet of its own time and place.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a story about a trans woman that explored her pre-transition self and thinking, that addressed the reality that many of us spend years resisting the ostensibly dangerous allure of transsexualism. I saw an uncomfortable amount of my own pre-transition thoughts reflected in Young Tracy’s. Also, despite charting Tracy’s transition to a degree, it isn’t about her transition. Her journey — finding a way to understand and express herself, figuring out how to love imperfect people and be loved as one, reckoning with the passage of time and the irretrievability of the past — is universal.

This is why I still recommend Any Other City; I believe Tracy’s world is worth spending time in. I just personally wish I’d have gotten the opportunity to experience that world without the meta-narrative or unorthodox choices, as they didn’t seem to land for me — while I can easily see how, for another reader, they’d be a big part of the fun.


Any Other City by Hazel Jane Plante is out now.

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Abeni Jones

Abeni Jones is a trans woman of color artist, educator, writer, and designer living in the Bay Area, CA.

Abeni has written 90 articles for us.

2 Comments

  1. Ok I just read Little Blue Encyclopedia (For Vivian) and really enjoyed it so I’m gonna come back to this book review after I read this one!! Exciting to see it’s great too

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