Michael Blumlein is one of the most individual genre writers on the scene, and X,Y is one of his signature works. A product of the short-lived Dell Abyss line of the early nineties (other Abyss titles include classics like Kathe Koja’s THE CYPHER, Michael McDowell’s TOPLIN and Poppy Z. Brite’s LOST SOULS), it’s a provocative tale of a woman who awakens from an amnesiac fugue convinced she’s a man.
Blumlein’s other books include the science fiction mindbender THE MOVEMENT OF MOUNTAINS (1987), the collection THE BRAINS OF RATS (1991), and HEALER (2006), a (somewhat) more straightforward sci fi novel. All come highly recommended, demonstrating a unique imagination bolstered by unerring storytelling savvy and utterly distinctive prose. My only complaint: the above are the only books Michael Blumlein has published in a 21-year career--I’m guessing his day job, as a practicing doctor, has been keeping him busy.
Blumlein’s medical training is evident throughout X,Y, which often reads like the most deranged medical casebook ever. It comes complete with periodic nonfiction chapters illuminating the psychological underpinnings of its twisted narrative and a lengthy glossary: works referenced include Oliver Sacks’ THE MAN WHO MISTOOK HIS WIFE FOR A HAT, the journals of Charles Baudelaire, and an article titled “Sadomasochism, Sexual Excitement and Perversion.” Yes, it’s that kind of book!
It begins with topless dancer Frankie passing out in a NYC tittie bar upon hearing the whir of a siren (a nonfiction aside fills us in on the possible hows and whys of this occurrence: “Siren-associated sound penetrates the human neurologic apparatus deeply and efficiently. The changes it produces...are just beginning to be understood”). Frankie comes to with total amnesia yet convinced of one incontrovertible fact: she’s a man.
It’s here that the book has run into trouble with many readers (check out the Amazon reviews). Such a set-up, reminiscent as it is of Hollywood comedies like SWITCH or BIG, sets up quite a few promises that aren’t delivered upon by the narrative, which uses the body-switch concept as a jumping-off point. It may take multiple readings to fully accept and/or appreciate that fact, in a book whose ultimate aims are far more ambitious than seems immediately apparent. It seeks to illuminate nothing less than the polarity of male-female relations pushed to their ugliest, most twisted extremes. A far cry, in other words, from FREAKY FRIDAY.
Not that you’d be able to tell from the first third of the book, which explores in entertaining and often comedic fashion Frankie’s fumbling attempts at adjusting to life as a man in a woman’s body. She doesn’t take at all well to her old profession of topless dancer, and nor does she warm up to her live-in boyfriend Terry.
Terry is a failed doctor and all-around loser whose relationship with Frankie is based largely on sex. He can’t understand why she’s behaving in such an aloof manner, and concludes that she’s testing his love. He becomes bound and determined to prove to her that his affection is genuine. Frankie in turn comes to resent Terry, and finds increasingly unpleasant ways of torturing him, from forcing Terry to slave for her to binding his hands to literally sewing objects onto his chest to...
You get the drift. This novel (faithfully adapted into a 2004 movie) is an unwavering descent into psychosexual hell. The prose is unnervingly clinical and precise, the narrative unwaveringly focused.
Some mid-book subplots, like a proposed voodoo cure for Frankie’s problems and a
search for the man with whom she might have switched personalities (a plot
strand that goes nowhere), are frankly dispensable, serving only to slow things
down. I believe the book could be safely shorn of around 30-60 of its 340
pages. But it excels nonetheless as a model of intelligent genre fiction tailor
made for those who like their psycho-horror with a twist.