By Isaac Fellman
Once a concert pianist, Solomon Katz, the main character in Isaac Fellman’s new novel, “Dead Collections,” now applies his classically trained patience for tedium to archival work. He spends his days sorting materials beneath the Historical Society of Northern California. It’s a solitary, nocturnal job, but entombment works for Sol. Because, in addition to being an archivist and a transgender man, Sol is a vampire.
It’s tempting to slot into the most obvious groove of interpretation with “Dead Collections”: that vampirism is a metaphor for being trans. After all, Isaac Fellman’s author bio states that he is also a transmasculine archivist in San Francisco. Sol is sustained by blood transfusions that read like a cross between chemotherapy and hormone replacement therapy (and he receives blood exclusively from male donors). He had only just come out as trans when he was turned into a vampire, so now he’s frozen in the first phases of transition, with his face just past “early-T puffiness.” And he has shunted himself into a different closet: Almost no one knows he’s a vampire.
But Sol’s story is much messier, much funnier and a lot more interesting than a one-to-one allegory, especially once he meets the sincere, luminescent Elsie. Elsie’s late wife, Tracy Britton, created “Feet of Clay,” a ’90s sci-fi show that was a catalyst for Sol’s gender and sexuality discovery. Elsie visits Sol’s office to donate Tracy’s personal papers from her, and within pages the two have fallen into a complicated, unglamorous, delicious affair. The story that unfolds around them is equal parts romance and mystery, as Sol reignites his will from him to live through Elsie while the archive’s collections begin to rapidly decay.
Fellman knows exactly to whom he’s writing: the Elsies and Sols of the world, grown-up queer nerds who perhaps once identified as cisgender despite fixing on characters with what can only be described as gender envy. People who know you can find yourself in fiction, but you can find even more of yourself in what you make of it. Elsie and Sol became experts on queer transfiguration through fandom and transformative fanworks. Fellman’s playful but deliberate approach to form, his deft way of presenting his own canon and then transfiguring it on the page, would feel familiar to them.
Some chapters take the form of archival materials: scripts, show bibles, emails and ephemeral, bite-size passages. In a series of late-1990s forum posts, Sol and Elsie recover a tense online exchange they once had as strangers in the “Feet of Clay” fandom, when they both thought they were cis lesbians but couldn’t agree on an ethical approach to queer fanwork. One of Fellman’s simplest but most effective form experiments is a matter-of-fact pronoun switch: When Elsie and Sol have gender-exploratory sex, the narration transmutes Elsie’s pronouns from “she” to “he” until his de ella orgasm, a textual revelation of gender euphoria.
In another set of old forum posts, a much younger Sol concludes, in a frustrated flood of meta-analysis, that there was never any metaphor behind the shape-shifting alien race in “Feet of Clay.” Maybe the same is true for Sol’s vampirism. Maybe the most meaningful thing is how readers interpret the canon, and how they can transform it.
Sol, in a flashback, recalls his first time presenting as a man, at a sci-fi convention in cosplay as his favorite “Clay” character. “I felt like a different person — not Shalk, of course, that would be childish, but strong and secret,” he remembers. Years later, in the archives, he takes his first drink of blood during sex with Elsie and hears his voice from her lower for the first time since vampirism arrested his transition from him.
“Dead Collections” suggests that this is the potential of both fiction and love for a trans person. Both can be a mirror or a door or a crack in an egg, and in both, there’s room for transformation and self-expansion. Both can be experienced as an experimentation in one’s own form: gender. Gender can be the graceless act of discovery and affirmation, the ugly vitality of blood, the patient organizing and reshaping of something that’s never before been heard to correctly.
In fact, if one idea holds the weight of this thoughtful, acerbic, bracingly hopeful book, it’s that everything is gender, except gender, which is everything else.