Lars Horn's 'Voice of the Fish' - exploring the trans experience

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday September 27, 2022
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author Lars Horn
author Lars Horn

One indication that good writing is afoot is when friends send you links to it in emails that say, in one way or another, "Get a load of this!" Before I had Lars Horn's "Voice of the Fish" (Graywolf Press) in hand, I had read two pre-publication excerpts sent to me just this way, leaving me eager for more.

The book did not disappoint despite its quizzical form. A collage of essay, travelogue, history, meditation, and aphorism, it's packaged —as is so much writing now— as a memoir. And so it begins, with "In Water Disjointed from Me," a look back at two traumas that made Horn the writer we read.

author Lars Horn (photo: Richard Allen)  

A once-upon-a-time-boy's story
With a disarming lack of self-pity, he writes of his mother, a would-be artistic photographer who devised endless ways of depicting Lars dead, the way she preferred family portraits. Two extreme examples were shooting him in a bathtub full of dead squid and putting him needlessly in a whole-body cast as a pose.

One can imagine any number of takeaways from such "formative" experiences, but Horn's is this: "The body was not to be looked at. Except when that looking made it strange. When the stilling of body undid it. Lent an enduring instability. I experience my body as an interiority that radiates."

She was, in her own words, Horn says, "never meant to be a mother, because she was queer" and the resources available to her in the UK of that time could not support her. Is there ever a writer not birthed in more than one way by their mother? As if foretelling the future, Horn's wanted them to concentrate on their homework.

In that same opening chapter, Horn recounts having torn the muscles from their right shoulder to their lower back in a weight-lifting mishap in 2014.What ensued were months of unproductive hospitalization followed by confinement to bed. "Around the same time," Horn writes, "I lost the ability to speak, read, or write."

The outcome? "I quit academia, research, a translation career. I started over."

Starting over
"Nonbinary, transmasculine — my gender exists for the most part as unseen, unworded, unintelligible," they write on the third page, both posing and dispelling the fundamental issues. "I regularly find myself trying to explain my gender in terms that will make it intelligible to another."

It's a self-appointed task the author takes up with an astonishing blend of frankness and imagination. "Since falling ill, I believe writing to be a vital act. All the more so when it comes from bodies so often marginalized or written over."

An ever-burgeoning literature about transexuality has appeared in our time. The books that are not "studies" —what Horn might group as the "I" books, and therefore more personal— tend to fall into two completely understandable categories, the trans versions of What I Did on the Weekend. (Horn's first venture into the topic was a school paper that declared, "I buried a cat.")

But, in a crude categorization, the trans "I" books have been either What Happens/Has Happened to Me as a Transperson or, somewhat less often, What It Is Like/Feels Like to Be Trans. Horn's is decidedly of the second type, and as individual as writing can be.

Something fishy
The title is not a ruse. Horn identifies with fishes, creatures of the water fluid like them, and many of their reflections are literally about fishes, their types and habits, their importance in literature and mythology, their place in religions. Rather than reading over these sections, as one is tempted to do in the more cetological chapters of "Moby-Dick," the reader soon begins to look forward to them, sheerly because they're so fascinating.

Not exclusively but frequently, Horn's thoughts are about aquaria —fishes in bondage, if you will. It's hardly surprising given that childhood bath with squids, from which their mother refused to set them free.

"Last Night, the Sea Spat My Body" re-mythologizes the real-life experience of Jeanne Villepreus-Power, a pioneer of marine biology. "Last Night, Eels Crashed from the Faucet," the last chapter, revisits the childhood bath experience and not only makes some sense of it but gives it meaning.

But the fishes that swim through these pages are largely benign and even transcendental in the meaning they give their author. Tilapia, sturgeon, salmon, and shark are spoken of with equal parts science and reverence.

Foreign travels
The longest, most down-to-earth segment of the memoir is "The Georgian Military Road." In it Horn recounts a sojourn in LGBTQ-unfriendly Russia. There are no fish in this tale, unless they slipped my grip, but Horn, who once translated Russian, gives the reader a panoply of Russian gay people, some out but mostly not. Each paragraph begins with an incantatory "The last time I spoke Russian...."

"The last time I spoke Russian I shared dinner with a closeted gay man who, at forty-nine, slept with a gun at his bedside." The final entry on the catalog is personal, revealing, and emotionally naked:

"The last time I spoke Russian I was in a relationship with a man. I presented as female, passed for cisgendered and heterosexual. In one of the world's most homophobic countries, my sexuality, always snarling to the side of me, finally caught up. Bit into this body until it showed itself, raw, bloodied. I left single."

There's not a forgettable page in this crazy quilt of prose and prose poems. But in the end it's not the ichthyology, startling and splendid as it is, that lingers in the memory. Giving the fishes voice, Horn finds a voice of their own, all their own, and it's an interiority that radiates. It leaves us all single.

'Voice of the Fish' by Lars Horn, Graywolf Press, 233 pp., $16.

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