Before the book starts, on a page between an extract from James Baldwin’s No Name in the Street and an Ingeborg Bachmann quote, both dealing with the concept of time, there is a list of characters, their various names, and their relationship to Ali. It is something of a relief when I know a book is about to fail. Or, more graciously, when a book admits it is about to fail, and instead of covering it up, the author moves the story headlong into this admission. The admission forges something communal that goes beyond the novel as object. This book will not be clear, tight, perfect, but I have persevered with as much as I can offer. By accepting the admission, that the author will not achieve everything they want to, I agree that I will do my best to meet them somewhere in the middle. The weight of the flaws is shared, lightened.
When I meet this admission it feels like I have the book to myself. It feels like someone has trusted me and by doing so I have been gifted additional time to understand. Sasha Marianna Salzmann is a celebrated playwright in Germany, and rather than a novel, I think of this book as a performance of failure. An extended demonstration of the limits of language. The futility of trying to explain yourself, fully, with a story. Salzmann, and her translator from the original German, Imogen Taylor, admit this from the outset. The book opens, “I don’t know where we’re going. All the others know, but I don’t.”
Beside Myself follows Ali as she travels from Berlin to Istanbul in search of her brother, Anton, who has disappeared. Their only clue is a tourist postcard sent from Istanbul with nothing written on it. While in Istanbul they meet people who want to help find Anton—a relative of a friend back home, Uncle Cemas, and the transmasculine Kato—Ali does not seem to search for their brother in as much as she is constantly finding him, most often in their own reflection and in other people’s reactions to her. The search, then, is a pretext upon which Salzmann and Ali play out deeper considerations of inherited family trauma, migration, gender, language, and the elusive certainty of identity.
Beside Myself is difficult to follow; intentionally so. While searching for Anton, Ali discovers black market testosterone and begins to transition without an endpoint in mind. Despite being the book’s protagonist, Ali is frequently absent from the book’s many generational narratives. In Moscow, Chernivtsi, and Odessa, her grandparents meet, fall in love, study, drink, divorce, emigrate to Berlin. In Berlin, Anton and Ali grow up together with a closeness that fuses their identities. Also in Berlin, her father falls from a balcony. In Istanbul, Ali is caught up in the occupation of Gezi Park. Across all these narratives and places, Ali tries to piece together a history that makes sense of themselves and their causeless trauma.
There is, very often, too much going on in this book. And yet, the more you read the harder it is to look away; the harder it is to say enough, the weight is too much. It’s messy and spans generations and continents and in everything it’s failing to articulate it feels like everything I am failing to articulate. Nothing is explained by a sentence and rarely even by a scene, things only make any semblance of sense when a chapter closes and even then, the sense is illusory, lost as you turn the page. So what is it that Salzmann has done? She has attempted something doomed, knowing it will fail, and offered the failure to me as a reader.
When I read books I think about myself and sometimes when I speak to other writers about these reactions they can feel selfish and silly. Silly, because I am not noticing the intricacies of craft, or I am noticing them but I am not teasing them out, I am not working to understand them. I have to admit, what I work to understand most is a book’s emotional effect on me. This might be a very millennial queer response. It is, I think, what we are most successfully accused of being – a bit self-absorbed. It is still relatively new to be queer and allowed spaces and time and colleagues in queerness to develop a language for our experience. To work out what it is like to be queer, and how it differs from heteronormative expectations of a life. And the language we are developing is rarely perfect and does not fit for everyone in the same way that not every heteronormative narrative fits every heterosexual. Not everyone can or wants to get married, have two children, and own a house. But while these expectations are still oppressive for the heterosexual people who do not adhere to them, the mere presence of an aspirational expectation, as opposed to a denigrating expectation, simultaneously releases an amount of pressure. They know what they’re ‘supposed’ to be and they will work out something that deviates from that. Sometimes as a queer person, I struggle even to know what I am supposed to be. It felt good to come out as trans, I had worked out I wasn’t straight (didn’t want the husband, kids, house) but once that had been established I found myself without touchstones. I could try to compare myself to heteronormativity and work out where I was different, but such a comparison, even as something to differentiate myself from, was so irrelevant the comparison had become obsolete. I could not push off against it anymore. I could only look at it and think ‘that is certainly a hard stone’.
There is a scene in the book where Ali is at a party in Berlin and she sees a boy, Elyas, across the room. Ali and Elyas are both wearing “well-fitting shirts. The other guests [are] a mass of fluorescent polyester tops, pink singlets, black leather open-toed shoes, faded trucker caps over unkempt hair, yellow faces with red lips, orange lips, black lips, glittery lips.” Over the course of the party they edge incrementally across the walls they are both standing against. “They headed towards one another, slowly, not purposefully – they had no purpose; they didn’t know what they wanted of each other, not the usual, that was for sure.” They wordlessly close the distance between them, but as their shoulders are about to touch a girl throws herself between them and the moment is lost.
They find each other again later, hiding under a bed in someone’s room. The moment is charged between them and they want to kiss or touch but they understand the connection between them is not sexual or romantic, it is something else; it is simply enormous. They don’t know what to do with it if not turn it physical. It is the failure of what is already known to inform the present. The consummation of the truth that not every queer connection is a sexualised one. It is the realisation that there is much left to discover about what it means to be humans together. Ali and Elyas are two complementary types of queer amid many other types of queer, all thrown together, corralled into a party in Berlin, regardless of what they have in common. “They lay there breathing, uncertain whether or not to kiss; their needs were so different, but they didn’t really know what else to do. Kissing would definitely have been easier than not.”
Beside Myself is attempting so many narratives at once that, inevitably, things are left out. Nothing is fully explained. Every narrative is obscured. Late in the book, Ali talks to her mother Valya in their mother’s kitchen. Valya begins to explain, at last, her version of the family history. But, in the middle of her narrative, Ali gets a migraine and floats out of her body, watching the conversation from above, straining for presence. They catch snippets of information but even here, when the history is being told chronologically by one of the characters involved, the narrative breaks down, becomes unclear.
I tried to imagine the picture those eighties women must have had of Moscow, but saw only swings buries deep in snow, their rusty frame sticking up into a sky criss-crossed with white streaks. What a shame, I thought, that I can’t imagine more. I was having trouble thinking straight.
What this book tells us about the loss of heteronormative expectations is that even if we’re following a different path, we need something resembling a guide. The guide can be useful even if it is something we’re moving away from, even if the guide is behind us rather than in front. When Kato asks Ali why she wants to start testosterone therapy, they tell us:
I hadn’t prepared an explanation. I didn’t have a speech ready, or a confession – not even a vaguely worded wish. Something in me had spoken and I followed the words that flew out of me like birds, assuming they knew where they were going. Migratory birds have compasses in their beaks that take their bearings from the earth’s magnetic field; they know things with their eyes shut; they know everything as long as nobody breaks their beaks. So I trusted them. I let them fly and followed them and decided it must be right, more right than anything I could have come up with if I’d sat down and racked my brain for words.
The magnetic field provides something to move through; invisible but instructive all the same. To me, what identity writing does, what queer writing does (even when imperfect!), is attempt to raise the field. To summon something tangible, physical, and crucially, something reliable.
Hearing people talk of the world as if they could rely on it always makes me feel lonely and helpless. They speak of being sure about things; they tell you how something was or even how it’s going to be, and it always makes me acutely aware of how little I know about what might happen next. I don’t even know what I’ll be addressed as when I go to buy cigarettes.
The book refers constantly to the limits of expressing ourselves in words. Instead, the book’s central family only ever approach understanding through closeness, and presence. By demonstrating, not saying, Beside Myself instructs us to close distances, to be as close as possible, to sit next to someone while they explain themselves, even if you can’t comprehend what they are telling you with exactness. Anton’s disappearance sets off the push and pull of closeness and understanding between Ali’s singular identity and their family identity:
I watched my grandparents moving slowly around the room, twiddling the knob on the radiator, opening and shutting the curtains, putting their hands on each other’s shoulders. Now that they’d opened up to me, arguing in front of me about the possible interpretations of their lives, muddling their way through the various phases and stages, I felt that I owed it to them to say something about myself – not sidetrack them again by talking about books. I wanted to tell them a bit about what I’d done in Istanbul, how I’d tried to find Anton. And about the stubble on my face….These polite, reserved people I’d grown up with had revealed something of themselves; these people I’d seen cry over politics and social security payments had forged a path for me, and now, with their broad, open faces and piercing anxious eyes, they sat naked before om, making me feel I was hiding behind their beliefs about who I was.
At the end of last year, me, the person writing this review, visited my grandma in Sydney. It was the first time I had seen her since starting testosterone therapy. I have changed, only in small ways, but in ways I felt certain someone who had held me as a baby would notice. I have never told my Grandma that I identify as trans non-binary and to be honest I don’t think I ever will. It does not seem necessary and I feel no compulsion to explain why, only to say that it is not out of fear. I was nervous when I stood at the dining hall door of her nursing home and waited for her to come over to me. This was a few weeks before Christmas and there was a stall where she was buying something. When she had handed money over and took her purchase she made her way towards me, then she touched my face and said, “Hello darlin’ gosh you’re beautiful, here’s a gift for you, pet”, and she handed me her purchase, which was a tea towel with a lot of dogs printed on it. Later, on Boxing Day, she flicked through a photo album and asked me, “is this you?” It was a photo from Christmas Day 2002 of my older brother, shirtless, wearing a silver chain, short hair, black-and-white satin boxer shorts. It looked like me now, as I write this.
Ali recognises something similar in her own grandparents:
I’d returned from the Bosporous as a version of myself they didn’t know and didn’t question – or if they had, they hadn’t ever let it show. They treated me like something familiar in a different disguise…Or maybe I really was still the granddaughter they knew; maybe I looked no different to them. Close relatives always store a younger version of you in their memories, superimposing it on the aging, changing body that visits them once a month, once every six months.
The book is not an impressive novel, the language is not always successfully poetic and the structure is not tight or quick. But as a work operating within the burgeoning mode of ‘identity’ it is exciting and enriching. Identity writing can often be messy, unrefined, does not achieve or exceed the expectations of conventional modes, but it is not without value. It fails often, in order to fill a void. To lay ground, or raise a field. As a work that uses narrative to demonstrate the limits of narrative, it is fascinating. Beside Myself is a book that requires work but it is work worth being lost in.
Oliver Reeson is an essayist and screenwriter. They co-created and wrote Homecoming Queens, a web series commissioned by SBS about chronic illness in your 20s.