Penfield R. Henderson, dog-walker with a trust fund and closeted-celebrity-fucker, has problems: a bitter parasocial obsession with transmasculine influencer Aiden Chase, a cramped dirty apartment in Bushwick he shares with the Witch and the Stoner-Hacker, and a deep-seated sense of inadequacy about his own awkward transition to manhood. After a bad run-in with Aiden, Penfield decides to cast a hex on him to send him back to the Shadowlands (the desaturated and miserable portion of transition where it all sucks endlessly) as punishment for his perceived perfection. But, unfortunately, the hex hits an unintended target: Blithe, a total stranger. The Rhiz, a benevolent web of queer elders, pairs Aiden and Penfield to caretake Blithe and pass on their trans wisdom to him in his time of need.
Future Feeling is a rambunctious novel full of hilarious, sly language games—but also advanced technology close enough to our own to feel relatable, dream-like flights of fanciful imagination, and an overarching concern with how trans and queer folks might form communities with one another. It’s very present in the current moment, despite (or because of!) its use of futurism. Lake has crafted a closely observed, referential, and occasionally self-critical portrait of the pettiness and loneliness and loveliness of Penfield’s internal life as he journeys toward acceptance.
Though it does quite a lot that I adored, I’m ultimately in a state of conflict about Lake’s novel. Future Feeling gets at the absurdities of (a specific form of) trans life in the USA in a delightful, incisive, weird manner that I found refreshing. For example, the sidelong references to queer theoretical concepts—the rhizomatic network of queer elders, ahem—made me smile. The unhinged dislocations from the real, like the courtroom name change scene, reflect the psychic experience of dislocation that being trans often involves. The book a whole is fun and weird and messy. However, that irreverent approach and Penfield’s often-myopic focus aren’t necessarily well-suited to deal with the weights of class and race that Lake draws to the edges of the narrative.
Blithe, a transracial adoptee who’s also a gay trans guy, serves more as a catalyst for Penfield’s growth than a full character in his own right. The optics of that, shall we say, aren’t great. On the one hand, given who Penfield is as a person, his self-centeredness makes plenty of sense within the story. On the other, the positivist ending and overall feel-good vibes make the implicit critique Lake might’ve been aiming for lose focus. The result is that the novel treats Blithe’s relation to the two white guys doing his caretaking as neutral rather than as a potential site of critique for the overwhelming whiteness of mainstream narratives of trans experience. (And, on a personal note, the uniquely gendered contours of his being gay don’t receive enough consideration.)
No book can do it all, I know—but given that Future Feeling explicitly attempts to tackle Blithe’s experiences of queerness, transness, and his racial identity with respect to his white parents, it’s fair to note that Lake opened the door then… didn’t fully succeed at walking through it. Overall, Blithe’s development and the role he plays in the narrative settle oddly for me. As an object who draws together Penfield and Aiden, who spends a large chunk of the book in a semi-catatonic needful state—and about whom the pair make cringey guesses like, “The one-child policy […] I watched a documentary about it,” to explain his being offered up for adoption—he doesn’t get sufficient room to be a person, but the novel also doesn’t then do enough to engage critically with that.
Aside from that issue, though, Future Feeling embraces to the nines a messily contemporary, digitally-mediated, bicoastal trans experience in a manner that cuts bone-deep. Penfield’s intense parasocial obsession with Aiden the perfect Gram trans, which his therapist is constantly on his ass about and which leads him to curse the guy for being too muscled and kitschy, speaks to a familiar cycle. Find a trans person online who’s hotter, richer, more passable, smarter, with better tits than yours, and wallow in self-loathing about it; form an attachment to an ideal that cannot be achieved and wallow in self-loathing about it; fuck a closeted person who won’t date you and simultaneously feel validated and grossed out by the process.
Rinse and repeat, without dealing with the self-loathing. That’s where Future Feeling does the best, sharpest work with its humor and misery: dealing with the constant slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, sometimes silly and sometimes agonizing and sometimes both, that come with being trans right now. You’re supposed to be visible, content, and perfect—or else you’re worthless. In fact, one of the lines that knocked me in the stomach came from Penfield-narrating-Blithe’s-story: “[he] spoke timidly because of course he was ashamed of being trans and ashamed of being ashamed of being trans” (89). To be ashamed of being ashamed is such a vibe, yeah?
As novel full of poetically and funnily observed queer experiences, ranging from Blithe’s overwhelming desire to “bottom for the desert” to Penfield’s application to a masculinity board to be allowed to go into the gym steamroom, Future Feeling allowed me to breathe deeply while I laughed. The idealism of the Rhiz, a worldwide web of queers who’re connected to assist one another, is sweet and dreamy… but the realities, like how it shoves Penfield and Aiden together to work with Blithe despite the fact that none of them seem suited to be in collaboration, are a lot messier. As for other keenly-observed messes: Penfield’s witchy roommate who refuses to clean up after herself because it disturbs the balances of nature, his job as a dog-walker for the rich and his fuck-dates with the closeted celebrity, his agitation that airport security can see he doesn’t have a “big dick.”
I’d be curious to hand this book to trans guy friends of mine who lean straight, or who come from various and sundry lesbian-adjacent communal/sexual backgrounds, to see how the sex scenes read to them. I found them charmingly self-conscious, rife with Penfield’s questioning of “what does it mean about my feminism if I ask this woman to call me daddy while I spank her, yikes,” but also delightfully horny about it. I also can’t help considering where the weird-fiction elements of Future Feeling place it in conversation with other contemporary trans fiction, such as Detransition Baby. The juxtaposition of the fuck-date scenes alongside the Shadowlands and the mood-measuring squishballs, which bounces again to the trouble of holding down a job and traveling-while-trans…
Future Feeling’s use of the speculative offers Lake an opportunity to refuse “representation” as a concern, instead getting at the affects of Penfield’s transmasculine experience. Rather than dryly reporting the long process of Penfield becoming friends with Blithe and Aiden, with Aiden beginning to date Rachel, with how the years (?) passed between the opening of the book and the conclusion, Lake trips through temporality. We flow through emotions and instincts: how it all feels, not how it all is. The final chapters read as a strange sort of guidebook to Penfield becoming an Operatrix: discovering queer histories, imagining queer childhoods, thinking about the future he’d prefer to occupy.
While elements of that ending are disjointed and make outright didactic claims, it functions logically within the story that came before—which coheres as a journey of self-acceptance that allows Penfield to suck less as a person in queer communal life. Future Feeling is an ambitious book, one that contains exquisitely turned observations and reflections. Reading it feels like falling through a bunch of fever-dreams strung across the landscapes of New York and LA, shared among famous and non-famous queers. At moments cruel, at others funny, it’s a worthwhile read that strikes at something of the now, despite its struggles to engage fully with issues of race and class in the manner it seemed to be aiming for.
Lee Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. They have two books out, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction and We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling, and in the past have edited for publications like Strange Horizons Magazine. Other work has been featured in magazines such as Stone Telling, Clarkesworld, Apex, and Ideomancer.