While reading “Something That May Shock and Discredit You,” you will feel as though you are holding a novelty from an unsung world in your hands. Daniel M. Lavery’s collection of personal essays and “cultural interludes” is in a genre of its own, but claiming that this book is unconventional isn’t quite right. The pages are original but still at times concerned with convention, especially when it comes time to unpack how conventions affect us as creators, as queer people, as humans.
Early on, Lavery jests about the temptation to write a serious, all too on-the-nose transmasculine memoir. It’s safe to say that “Something That May Shock and Discredit You,” genuine as it is in its presentation of a specific transmasculine experience, is anything but on the nose. Through individualized commentary on both popular and high art, Lavery lays himself out in pieces and puts them back together, one quippy chapter after another.
It is as much a celebration and contemplation of the ways culture inevitably permeates every aspect of our lives as it is a memoir-adjacent work of literature. On these pages, Jacob and Esau and Arthurian legend carry the sDaniel M. Lavery’s ‘Something That May Shock and Discredit You’ is a visionary joyrideame weight as Captain James T. Kirk and “The Golden Girls.” Lavery asks: How can we understand ourselves through the creations of others? His answer to this inquiry leads to meditations on subjects such as transmasculine resonance in the story of Jacob and Duckie from “Pretty in Pink” being a lesbian. His lines of thought are not so much interpretations as they are declarations — declarations that these judgments are veritable scriptures driving forth this personal narrative.
But it isn’t all just personal narrative. At times Lavery slips into what he calls “cultural interludes,” riffing off well-known aspects of culture such as religion, Greek mythology and the Romantic poets. This keenness about the Romantics shows itself on the book’s cover, which displays Théodore Géricault’s portrait of Lord Byron. In one of these interludes, “Lord Byron Has a Birthday and Takes His Leave,” Lavery writes from the perspective of Byron. Later, he also takes the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius out for a spin, imagining what Aurelius’ New Year’s resolutions might be.
This colloquial and anachronistic approach to interacting with canonical writers and historical figures is what made Lavery’s “Texts from Jane Eyre” such a hit, and in “Something That May Shock and Discredit You,” those same witty chops make a vibrant reappearance. This time, though, cultural observation is combined with understated autobiographical revelation. Experiencing this understated dissection of the self makes one feel that this collection of essays, even though “collection of essays” can’t help but feel like an inadequate descriptor, is ushering in a new way of writing about and analyzing one’s own life experience.
While there’s no clear order to the way Lavery presents his life through the context of the art that has impacted him most, there’s still a sense that something is building, and by the end, that something has been constructed that’s tall and proud. Most chapters are quite short, providing breathing room to ponder and absorb what has just been read. Lavery’s tendency to freely play with form and style also amps up the antics.
Above all of its many literary merits, “Something That May Shock and Discredit You” is a fun time, a fun read and a joyride of visionary essay after visionary essay. If anyone can somehow make you deeply and simultaneously interested in “The Pilgrim’s Progress” and “House Hunters,” it’s Daniel M. Lavery. Perhaps several decades from now “Something That May Shock and Discredit You” will still be read, and perhaps it will even be studied; in the here and now, readers have the privilege to further delight in the linguistic savviness that has characterized Lavery’s writing career, and characterizes it still.
Lavery isn’t a new voice. With “Something That May Shock and Discredit You,” though, he has solidified himself as an enduring one.