Please Miss: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Penis by Grace E. Lavery

Well, that was certainly… something.

In all frankness, it felt very much like reading the screed of a 1980s British academic, who is quite erudite but also monomaniacal about a particular subject, in this case popular culture of primarily English extraction. Whether we’re reinterpreting Dickens through the (honestly valid) lens of pornography or skewering various obscure late 20th century BBC comedians, there is a lot to elicit the polite smile that betrays only the vaguest comprehension of what the writer is going on about. No wonder the book leads with chatter of Juggalos, the Little Shop Of Horrors and Mars Attacks before swerving hard into semi-famous Brits by way of Austin Powers: get the more recognizable bits out of the way first so that anyone who’s gotten this far is willing to just shrug and turn the pages for the sake of completion, no matter the perishingly narrow appeal of the subject matter near the end.

If I sound somewhat harsh, it’s likely because I still don’t understand the clown subplot, despite the chapter heading that promised to explain everything. Even more annoyingly, I was getting a distinctly Martin Amis vibe from the entire exercise, and if that’s your thing, then please, enjoy. It is not, alas, mine.

Which isn’t to say that Please Miss is without its merits. Grace E Lavery’s creative autobiography is absorbing, and often surprisingly empathetic. Her struggles as a trans woman coming to terms with her body and what it means to renounce her penis are gripping when presented frankly, as is her continuing engagement with her sexuality. I was less convinced by her attempts to psychoanalyze her upbringing and the people who raised her: there was something oddly glib about the presentation that was at odds with the openly messy expose of everything else about her life. And oh, the palpable desire to impress the reader was just… unnecessary. We get that you’re smart, Dr Lavery. But I would much rather hear about what you feel about your personal life journey than I would your learned dissection of The Old Curiosity Shop as Victorian porn, with a side trip through Edward Penishands.

Yeah, I value sincerity over intellectual razzle-dazzle, in large part due to the fact that something truly thoughtful doesn’t need all that shyster-adjacent frippery. There’s definitely value in this exercise tho, even if parts of it made for slow or even painful going. I guess I’m not a fan of the kind of fabulism that was liberally applied here, which felt a bit like an easy dodge when wanting to vent spleen or avoid acknowledging things best taken to therapy. The honest accounting bits were nice, tho.

Please Miss: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Penis by Grace E. Lavery was published February 8 2022 by Seal Press and is available from all good booksellers, including

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