Isabel Pabán Freed’s novel School is the riotous, polyphonic story of a university. On the eve of their big, campus-wide spring party, Carnivale, their academic bubble is pierced by a video of a girl setting herself on fire on the quad. What follows is a series of vignettes, by turn hilarious and genuinely thoughtful. The campus’s preeminent drug dealer is exposed to a drug that allows her to see the bodies of the people whose labor created her phone, her clothes, the buildings around her. One person’s confrontation of a person pissing in the shower becomes a reflection on normalcy and comfort in the world. A young trans girl, Ana Turron, experiences cresting waves of dysphoria at a drag show, surrounded by archetypes of comfortable femininity. Johnny Souffle, last year’s big man on campus, returns to write a report about the “natural pulse” of the student body—and in so doing, get his student debt cleared. It’s a book rife with transness (all the above-mentioned characters are trans, or nascently trans) but one that diverges from the standard Trans Lit novels of the current moment. It is, to paraphrase the Argentinian writer Rodrigo Fresan, a novel with transness, not a novel of transness. I sat down to chat with Freed about political novels, Trans Lit, and David Foster Wallace.

Katherine Packert Burke: One of the things that was really interesting to me about School is that there are a lot of trans characters—I don’t know if every character who gets narrative focus is trans, but certainly most of them are—but I wouldn’t call it a novel that’s about capital T capital C Trans Community, so I was wondering if you could talk some about community in the novel and/or transness in the novel.

Isabel Pabán Freed: I think everyone who gets narrative focus is trans? Maybe the one who is not is the guy in the shower, he’s kind of pre-trans. I mean, I think the thing about community is, like, part of that is just a reflection of my own experience being a little removed from community. I wasn’t really openly trans until the end of college, so I kind of experienced it as an outsider, and I guess I reflected that a lot in my characters. Compared with some other trans lit, like Girlfriends by Emily Zhou or Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters—like I feel like those have more concern with trans-trans relationships, and I was kind of interested in embedding trans characters in a community that’s largely cis.

Part of what’s interesting is that transness is so naturalized in your novel, in a way where at a certain point it feels like almost anyone in the book could be trans. I mean we’re told specifically that some aren’t, and we do get a sense of discomfort from certain characters around their own transness, like Ana Turron, who’s very obviously struggling with certain things about transness—the way that encountering hot cis women who are comfortable in their body can throw you into a dysphoria spiral. But outside of those moments where it’s obvious “Oh this person is trans and encountering cis people,” part of the fun of the book is that, like, Johnny Souffle for example is this campus rockstar—this Big Man On Campus, if people still say that—but is also a trans guy. My instinct is that in books like Girlfriends and DTB there’s a clearer us-vs-them divide; with what you’re saying about not coming out till later, I can imagine a clearer sense of embattlement between the trans and cis characters around them. Not that that’s not present, but that’s not in any way the focus of the book or the focus of its characters transness. Is that intentionally trying to avoid succumbing to tropes around the way we expect trans narratives to unfold even in the contemporary trans novel?

It’s definitely deliberate. Johnny Souffle is a good example. I don’t let his transness take away from his rockstar status. Some of that is fiction; you get to do what you want, it’s your world. A lot of that is reflections of my experience of being embedded in a lot of cis community. A lot of my friends are cis, I’ve experienced a lot of situations where I’m the only trans person in the room, and that has its own kind of unique kind of isolation. And I’ve experienced the other situation, obviously, but I also wanted to make those moments in which transness is foregrounded more impactful, more dramatic. Ana Turron is a great example; her section is the most self-consciously, to me, trying to be Trans Lit. In an early draft there was a part about her reading trans forums and feeling this weird alienation, like, I’m experiencing transness and trans community largely digitally, then I’m going out to, say, a drag show and it’s not very trans, and what does that mean? That whole section took me forever to finish because I have all these anxieties about trans lit in particular. Like, I don’t want to write a story that’s just about dysphoria because I know that, to a cis audience, that reads differently. Ultimately I think it gets self-referential. Ana’s anxiety when she cries in front of everyone isn’t that she’s upset, or that she’s crying, but that people are going to use her as an example. “Now I’m representation.”

Like, have you ever had a relationship with someone where it’s not immediately apparent they have a lot of hangups about you being trans? And then they say something, like, two months into your friendship that makes you realize they have a whole complex they’ve hidden away from you?


Yeah, so I wanted to narrativize that experience. Johnny Souffle for example—his transness manifests in some of the stuff he’s thinking about, but not necessarily in how he perceives other people treating him. His whole section is a lot about self-perception. It’s not until the young trans girl character comes up to him and says, like, “You changed my life, changed how I think about transness” that his transness really becomes centered. I don’t think I could have written that scene if I’d really focused prior to that on how his transness affected his relationships with people. What might be an honest answer is that I’m a fairly oblivious person, so I meet someone and we chat and months later I’m like, Oh they said that weird thing to me because I’m trans.

Circling way back, you mentioned the fact that the novel is not exactly realistic. There are some ways that it’s extremely realistic, and other ways that it’s extremely not, but I’m curious what its relationship to the idea of the real is? That dovetails with transness—but it’s not just about gender. There’s the idea of whether the video is real or fake, or other things demonstrated to be fake. But there’s even stuff like the coolness of smoking a cigarette is established to be firmly real, and the question of real life, and real life sort of as outside of the university system and the university setting, so I’m curious—it comes up again and again in these different contexts. What is the book’s relationship to the real?

I think there’s a kind of thinking that trans people are ontologically fucked in some way—you weren’t born the way you wanted to be born, you’ll never be a “real woman.” But transness itself is great. The act of transition is beautiful and interesting and cool. It’s not really about being trans, it’s about the interplay between being trans and everything outside. So I don’t think of transness as this ontological curse, but I remember thinking that way. Part of writing the novel was trying to undo that thinking, even as I represent it (like with how Ana Turron thinks). As for the real, part of it is just the set up, to create this effect. These elite universities, particularly the ones that are geographically isolated, their own little world, are real life. Everything’s real life. But it does insulate you from some important things. I wanted to create the effect of: you think you’re in this fictional world that’s obviously fictional (everyone has food names and there’s cannibals and stuff), but then the real world punches through. And I was very interested in delusion, too. Johnny’s arc is one of, was I deluded into thinking I was a rockstar? Was everyone fucking with me? And he’s thinking these things while he’s tripping, so there’s another layer of delusion. I wanted all these layers of delusion and realness to see how they worked when put all together. To tie it back to transness, I think certain people always perceived themselves as trans, and certain people have a sort of an epiphany, like, Oh shit. I was an Oh-shit person. I thought I’d figured out a lot of stuff about myself and then I had this giant realization and things clicked pretty quickly. I wanted to create that feeling narratively, that big epiphany moment where everything collapses around you. So the structure of the book: it starts out one way, like a comic novel in stories, fairly traditional with a lot of predecessors and influences. And as the comic novel progresses, the contradictions start to tug at it, and eventually it just collapses.

Knowing the full shape of it, on reread, was more interesting because, going along the first time reading it, I expected more things to recur over the course of it. And things do, of course. There is a feeling of interconnectedness but it’s almost in this straight line to dissolution, where by the final part of the book you have a chapter about a horny lesbian crab—in the spirit of the rest of the book but very different from everything that comes before.

This is how I do think it is like a capital-T Trans novel or whatever: the arc of the book is a transition arc. It starts one way, collapses, and then what happens in the final section is this mad search for different versions. Which is what people do, I think, when they have the Oh-Shit-I’m-Trans moment. You have what—in any just world—would be the extremely exciting moment when you get to try a bunch of different versions of yourself (obviously that doesn’t always shake out the way it should). You have all these personas coming in at the end, all these dramatic monologues, brief glimpses of those different versions.

Related to Johnny’s section and what you were saying before about reality/delusion, I was wondering if you could talk some about the role of drugs in the novel? Characters seem to achieve genuine insights while on drugs in the book. They take what are basically Theory and Praxis in drug form—Tr-Y and Pr-X—which is just funny on the face of it. But how did you envision those as part of this polyphonic story you were telling?

There are these two different ways people talk about drugs, like drugs are eye-opening (you take a psychedelic, it opens your eyes, everything is changed and you’re different) or drugs are just fun, and there’s nothing to be gained intellectually so much as just recreation. The novel falls between those. There are definitely cases of people having insights on drugs that aren’t good insights, but the reverse happens too. I wrote an essay in Gawker a while back about the novel form and this book Free Indirect by Timothy Bewes, and I compared reading novels to smoking weed in this impish theoretical way. But I do genuinely believe that. Thinking in fiction is very different from thinking in nonfiction. The argument I made there is that, because you’re thinking ironically in fiction, you can sidestep the question of whether you agree with the characters’ insights or not. Part of the bit of a novel is trying to go as far into the levels of irony as possible. There are definitely characters in there who I think have valid insights, though. Part of that is to create this tension. That’s what’s interesting to me about novels of ideas. You can set up all these pseudo-dialectical tensions by ironizing the characters’ thoughts.

But then you have Johnny Souffle—ridiculous person. The drug isn’t even trying to be allegorical, but it’s Theory. I do think some people have this relationship to theory—you discover Adorno and it rewires your head in a way that’s not unlike doing acid. I was interested in what happens if you have someone who’s not theoretically inclined, not a theory bro, and then you just blast a ton of theory into his brain in an hour and see what happens.

I’m curious about DFW’s influence on the book. I don’t know that I’d necessarily ask about this except that you’ve written about him before, but also School is the main thing I’ve read, since Infinite Jest, which reminds me of Infinite Jest. There are some important differences, but you have the sprawling, polyphonic nature; the school; the irony and ideas and everything all interlaced together. Like, whatever people think the twenty-first century successor to IJ is, this is actually it. What impact, if any, did Wallace’s work have on it?

You know I read IJ again—I don’t know how to talk about this without getting into some personal narrative stuff. I found DFW when I was in high school—someone found a copy of Consider the Lobster somewhere and I read it. I became pretty obsessed with him, read a ton of his stuff. I think the thing about rereading anything is that that’s when I get mean. Infinite Jest is a book with a lot of problems, but my main takeaway was just being impressed—in a way I maybe was when I read it the first time but more significant now. The thought of writing something three times as long as School and keeping it at IJ’s intensity is insane to me, and doing it in three years is madness.

Wallace’s work is obviously very influential stylistically for me. I like sentences like he writes, I probably use too many weird adverbs (but they’re fun, what can I say). I had a huge complex about Wallace because of dysphoria, basically, worried that people thought I was trying to be him as a young writer. I was growing my hair out for transsexual reasons but that could be easily confused with his long-haired look. I consciously set out to do a lot of things differently than he did, but stylistically I find a lot to get from Wallace. Especially he has this way of writing through problems. Like postmodernism. One obvious thing to do if you have all these problems with postmodernism is to write Not Postmodernism, write a realist novel. Which obviously he doesn’t do—he does postmodernism too and just like tunnels through to see what you get on the other side. I appreciate that way of tackling problems. That’s part of what I was trying to do in School: write through a bunch of shit and get through to the other side. But thematically, I don’t find a lot of his concerns all that interesting. Like the way he thinks about irony, for example. There’s huge debates all the time: irony versus sincerity. They’re both good, use both, it’s so simple. They help each other. It’s mind blowing that we’ve lost so much time debating these things. It’s a tool. Don’t use it all the time, use it some of the time.

Some of his concerns are interesting, though. Rereading IJ, I thought a lot about drugs, for example. Wallace takes weed seriously in a way that a lot of people don’t. I had an idea for this really cooked essay once about Pynchon and Wallace—I feel like they’re often paired together even though they’re really different—and the entryway into this difference was how they treat weed. It was a bad essay.

The other thing about Wallace is that his writing deals with general dysphoria, I think. There are moments in there that you could squint and do some egg theory and talk about gender dysphoria. But I think a prominent theme over his writing is not wanting to be yourself. You see this everywhere in his writing. Part of this is that he’s clearly incredibly smart, incredibly academic, and trying to negotiate this thing where he wants to be like a regular dude. Obviously that—trying to be someone you’re not—emotionally resonated with me as a teen and young adult, because I was dysphoric.

One of the other running threads throughout School is this idea of the work that it takes to be a person. Like the scene with the shower pisser, where there’s the other person talking about their desire to be normal, and the shower pisser describes all the work they do to be normal, to live a normal life. I feel like that thread is sort of running throughout the book. Transness, of course, is a certain amount of work, a certain amount of studying how to be a different kind of person, but I don’t want to limit it to that scope. What is the work of being a person? And how is that functioning in the novel?

It does get pretty explicit in that shower scene, and I feel like the novel as a whole is pretty concerned with normality. As far as the work of being a person goes, I’m mentally ill, right? If I don’t take care of myself, terrible things are going to happen. And the experience of that is an insecurity. You’re not secure about your life in this way where you feel, for a while, like you can’t relax. That feeling of: If I’m not constantly doing something, then the default state will be something bad. Which is something that a lot of characters in the novel are experiencing. Like Johnny Souffle. He seems like a character who’s so naturally himself, but the reveal of that section is that he doesn’t feel “good” at being bipolar. And I feel like that’s an interesting thing to explore. He seems like a character who’s so naturally himself, but his arc is in part about what happens when you lose control of that, when you start “failing.” The knee jerk reaction is, being mentally ill is a crazy thing to introduce the concept of “skill issue” into. But the reality is, if that’s an abstract concern for you, that might seem knee-jerky. But when you’re living it, you have to be good at it. It’s life or death.

I feel like that ties into the transness too. People have this weird misunderstanding where they think your other option is being cis. If you’re blocked from transitioning, it’s not like you just revert to being a cis man. None of the characters in School are normal, they’re all dealing with this thing.

To Wallace’s credit, one of the ideas that reading his work has left me with is: he’s very concerned with doing things unconsciously, not thinking. Like, This is Water, that’s kind of the whole thing. You’re running through your default thought patterns. There’s something to that. You should be thinking about stuff, you should be intentional when it comes to being a person. There’s a lot of consequences if you don’t.

A lot of tweets are spilled over the question of the novel as a political form, and whether or not novels can be political. On one side people say yes, and on the other they say it’s a bourgeois art form, never going to be free from sin, etc. But School is a very political novel. What’s your conception of novels as political and School as a political novel? Did you have any anxieties about that as you were doing it?

The whole novel is anxieties about it. [laughs] Politics and the novel, huge question. I think the question of whether novels should be political or not is not worth spilling those tweets about. It’s a premise they have, that politics makes art bad. If you think that, there’s no point in arguing. We’re not going to get anywhere trying to talk about it. I don’t think that, obviously. I’ve never heard a really compelling argument for why it’s true, just that it is true. Part of the thing I was trying to do with that Gawker essay was think through that issue. The question of should novels be political is very different from can they be. You get lost in that for a lot of years. Yeah, it’s a bourgeois form, but it’s not like philosophy was a particularly proletarian form before the nineteenth century. Isn’t that one of the more important things Marx did?

I have a very technological view of novels. To me, it’s an invention that has technologies and techniques and forms, and the idea that you couldn’t use those in some kind of socialist or communist project is ridiculous. Of course you could use it, the interesting question is how.

I started this thing, the Bartleby Initiative, to publish this book and publish this essay. I was super anxious and had to work through a lot of anxieties in this book and now that I’ve published it, I’m ready to do a very different kind of writing. I just needed to kaleidoscope my brain into a college campus and set it on fire.

It’s interesting too to read through a lens of dysphoria. School is a novel that doesn’t want to be a novel, but ultimately comes to the conclusion that it is. I tried to take those billions of anxieties and make them formal. So the novel sets itself on fire, though early on it’s directly and explicitly challenging itself. I thought we could learn something from that. [laughs] I definitely did.

I’ve been evasive because I don’t want to get bogged down in the question of if novels can be political. I think how is interesting. As for the question of should, why wouldn’t you want to? Why wouldn’t you have novels that can address things and try to change things?

If you don’t think novels should be political, just make sure you write about as good as Nabokov. Then we’ll talk.

Katherine Packert Burke is a trans writer living in Austin, TX. Her debut novel, Still Life, is forthcoming from W. W. Norton in September.

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