“A few years ago, I became a man in the city.”
“Future Feeling” by Joss Lake is a science fiction novel following the redemptive journey of a trans man who is guided by a mysterious queer organization called the Rhiz.
The book’s title fully encompasses the author’s interpretation of a possible future, narrated with the correlating emotion at the forefront: What could it be like to be trans in the future? Which thoughts racing through Pen’s head are influenced by this society’s rules? Who are queer people allowed to be here, and how does it make them feel? The world of the novel closely resembles ours, but the beauty of an organization like the Rhiz existing feels entirely utopian and sublime: The organization’s representatives appear out of nowhere, hold a wisdom beyond expectations, pay for surgeries and offer health insurance for the queer community. The novel is fantastical in one sense, mundane in others, and in all senses entirely queer and unique in its exploration of transness.
The three main characters are all trans men, and the story’s overarching position is that every transition needs to be felt and truly journeyed through. From a character who transitioned in isolation to one who posts daily updates on the beauty of his transness, “Future Feeling” allows the full range of trans experience to shine. The narrator is Pen, a “melancholic, dog-walking trans guy” prone to extensive monologues. I seriously enjoyed the push-and-pull of fascination and disgust he feels toward another character, someone living what he perceives to be a dreamlike state of gender, transition and social media celebrity status. Pen needed a guide and beacon of hope during his transition, but he also feels resentment because his life did not end up the way social media promises.
Essentially, “Future Feeling” is about how ushering a fellow trans person through their full transition experience is a journey in itself. This relatable storyline is made enigmatic by the backing of the Rhiz, a somewhat idyllic billionaire-funded organization led by queer elders and equipped with hologram technology that watches over the well-being of the LGBTQ+ community.
“Future Feeling” portrays many of the in-between moments of transitioning that are uniquely euphoric, frustrating and desperate: from Pen announcing to his yoga instructor that he can’t do the boat pose properly because he bound his chest for 10 years, to when he recognizes bartenders who used to ignore him before he was on hormone therapy, to the court’s outrageous request that Pen’s name change petition be more elaborate and dramatic. Society turns something personal and meaningful into a performance piece on the ups and downs of transness: “Give us something juicy. Trans is juicy.”
Lake reveals Pen’s internal debates on when to choose gender normativity, familiar to any trans person: “I wanted to transition enough to ‘male’ that I could reunite with certain girlhood parts and not have to explain myself.” He struggles with feeling protective of women in his life, but “not in a patriarchal way, I hope.” And, upon Pen’s regular visits to the sauna, he even acknowledges the clear comfort of “no longer (being) worried about someone noticing my lack of thick schlong.”
The story also serves as an invitation to trans and gender-questioning people. Pen is a protagonist who will meet you where you are, as long as you’ll meet him where he is, too — in spirit and attitude, in fitting rooms where the curtain only half closes and in both positive and negative feelings, such as resentment toward people who transitioned with more support than he had.
The tech inside the “Future Feeling” world is fascinating; there are toys like pheromone crayons and fashion items as a result of the defunding of NASA. When enough people are looking at a photo posted online, technology is activated that brings a hologram of the image into your actual, real-world space. In a subway, bio-meters read emotional levels through seats and turn the entire car a particular color, signaling the overall mood of the area. Rich people install grass-sensors that send out tickets when a dog urinates on a patch of their lawn. And, most memorably, pitless avocados Pen simply bites into!
The most extraordinary aspects, however, are when Lake shows the realism in “Future Feeling.” A particular moment that has a hold on my heart is when a young trans man, adopted from China by white American parents, confesses that his biological parents gave him up under China’s past one-child policy. In a haze of grief and distress, he begs Pen to call the Rhiz and “Tell them. To tell my parents. That they gave me up. But I am. A boy.” It’s an absolutely heart-breaking landscape shift, crushing in its revelations and all the questions it brings up — all the not-fictional people for whom this has an impact.
I found the writing style enthralling, captivating, at times even overwhelming in its clarity. Lake’s prose reminded me of Augusten Burroughs and David Kingston Yeh, who also both write about queer men living chaotic and wildly vivid lives. The prose seamlessly switches between poetic, self-aware, philosophical musings and silly-but-realistic comments like, “She soothed me if I got sunburned at the gay beach.” I was often laughing out loud at the juxtaposition. The story is also filled with fantastic, text-like language; Pen regularly uses terms like “str8,” “tho” and “obvs.”
Could this be read in one sitting? Probably, but I found the emotional weight of the many lives, regrets and desires too potent to do so. It felt best to take some time in between to process where the characters were at. In fact, I plan on visiting “Future Feeling” again as I develop my understanding, expressions and perceptions of gender.
You can read an interview with Joss Lake here.
Andrea Marks-Joseph is a South African freelance writer of color. She can be found at stargirlriots.com.
Read more of the June 9-15, 2021 issue.