Xby Davey Davis
The letter X is the most clumsy minx in the alphabet: a treasure, a number, the person we once loved; a porn, a warning, the gender mark beyond F or M; and now the title of a queer, near-future noir by Davey Davis.
In “X” (the novel), X (the character) is a bit of all these things, a “femdom nightmare” and the obsessive object of Davis’s non-binary narrator (who spends most of the novel unnamed).
After an intense sadomasochistic one-night stand at a Brooklyn warehouse party, the narrator fixes on X as a distraction—or perhaps a chance at salvation—as the world slides further and further into fascism. A mysterious government agency encourages unwanted people to “export” or voluntarily leave the country. First, they went after “non-white immigrants, those on the no-fly list, well-known commies and antifa, Jews and Muslims, black-brown left-wing organizers”; now they hunt down “drug users, sex changers and lots and lots of poor people.” X has received her export papers and the narrator has (maximum) one month to find her. The hunt serves as a distraction from the narrator’s bleak everyday life: a dead-end job they hate, a recent ex-girlfriend they can’t forget, and a looming certainty that they, like all their friends, will soon have to export. As the clock ticks, these realities trickle deeper into the story, no matter how much the narrator tries to ignore them.
Like Davis’ first novel, “The Earthquake Room”, “X” is lyrical and non-linear, with sentences that feel like sliced obsidian: dark, sharp and shiny. Here, however, the voice is less poetic and succinct, like the chatter of a hard-boiled detective from a classic movie. This is a queer noir world, full of inexplicable violence, an encyclopedia of sexual deviance and a deeply flawed, distrustful and unreliable anti-hero. Sometimes Davis’ style goes too far, distorting sentences into awkward shapes (“Soon I could identify where every pain came from, like a studied butterfly its pins, were it alive to know”), but the overall effect is masterly, a perfect combination of style and subject.
Like so many of us today, Davis’s narrator has been turned (in part) into a civilian detective through the relentless true-crime-ification of entertainment. Throughout the novel, their obsession with sex and death has a pop culture counterpoint in a chatty podcast in which two women breathlessly discuss horrific murders in front of an audience of millions. Not all readers will personally identify with the novel’s stories of sexual waterboarding, but many will recognize the experience of devouring, judging, and enjoying the worst (and often last) days of one’s life for entertainment. With TV, movies, podcasts, etc., watching death is now a booming business – our modern Colosseum. Time and again, “X” shows us how sex and death are intertwined for many people, not just BDSM queers of the future.
Indeed, the darkest parts of “X” aren’t scenes from snuff movies or future fascism; they are what the novel suggests about our present. We are not reading a distant or improbable future. Sometimes the novel feels like next week’s message, such as when the narrator opines that “we didn’t even realize how good we had it back when it was just skyrocketing unemployment and crumbling civil rights.” “X” documents a dystopia that has only just arrived, suggesting there may have been a time when we could have taken a different path.
That moment? It is now. Utilities. Utilities.
“X” will leave you, the same way it leaves its narrator, wondering: What are you ignoring? What can’t you admit to yourself? And is it too late, or have you just given up?
Hugh Ryan is the author of When Brooklyn Was Queer and The Women’s House of Detention.
X, by Davey Davis | 268 pages | slingshot | Paper, $16.95