In the 1980s, poet and activist Roz Kaveney wrote a novel, ‘Tiny Pieces of Skull’, about trans street life and bar life in London and Chicago in the late 1970s. Much admired in manuscript by writers from Kathy Acker to Neil Gaiman, it has never seen print until now…Funny and terrifying by turns, and full of glimpses of other lives, it is the story of how beautiful Natasha persuades clever Annabelle to run away from her life and have adventures, more adventures than either of them quite meant her to have…
Roz Kaveney is someone I have known for a little while now, and consider a friend; she also showed me a draft of the manuscript for this novel some time before publication. So when Tiny Pieces of Skull finally came out back in late April of this year, I knew I had to read it; and after wrangling with various attempts to lay hands on a copy, I finally got one by mid-May… just when my reviewing dried up. So, rather belatedly, I’m now reviewing the book, having read it nigh on two months ago; sorry for the delay, Roz! (Consider this a late birthday present?)
Tiny Pieces of Skull is itself a tiny book – only 180 pages long – produced by a tiny press – Team Angelica. This feels wrong for someone with a personality, and a reputation, as massive as Roz Kaveney’s; activist, poet, editor, author and critical writer, she has turned her hand to many things in the queer and the science fiction communities, and made friends along the way with luminaries such as Neil Gaiman. Perhaps, then, it is no surprise that a novel based on her life-experiences in the 1970s feels larger than life, especially since for the UK at that time the United States of America, where Kaveney was, was larger than life (see Gaiman & Pratchett’s Good Omens for another example of that larger-than-life attitude to the USA). It feels much more fantastical than is the case, purely because of the absurdity of the experiences it contains; and yet it also has an honesty about racism, sexism and transphobia – and how those, and movements fighting some of those – intersect (the portrayal of TERFs is, of course, deservedly unflattering at its kindest).
This is also the kind of book that would make a great piece of evidence for a prosecutor, if statutes of limitation didn’t exist. Tiny Pieces of Skull is very honest about survival as a trans woman in the 1970s: drugs, sex work, and a certain amount of at least proximity to serious crime all feature in the story, and Kaveney treats them in a matter-of-fact manner, as simply things that formed part of her (or rather, her character Annabelle’s) life; it’s a riotous, chaotic, confused life that involves gullible johns, corrupt moralising cops, drug dealers with commitment issues and controlling arseholes as well as a wide range of drag queens and trans women all trying to just get by as best they can in a society that often looks down on and despises them.
If there’s one problem with the book, it’s actually given away by the blurb; this is a novel full of people who are defined by a single character trait. Natasha is beautiful, Annabelle is clever, et cetera; Tiny Pieces of Skull has an awful tendency to reduce everyone else to being bit-players in Annabelle’s life, of significance only because of their significance to her… and worse, always stupider than her, needing her to help them or easily tricked and manipulated by her. While this is inevitable to some extent – no autobiography or memoir casts its protagonist in a villainous role – it grates a tad and starts to feel a little light and glib, as if Kaveney has given up on the realities of her life in favour of a version that feels less like reality and more like reality TV or soap opera, where schemes interact with schemes at every turn and witticisms are the only form of communication. This is especially egregious in the dialogue, which just doesn’t have a ring of verisimillitude to it; if this is fictionalised, then it needs to have the plausibility realism doesn’t need, and which this novel at times definitely lacks.
As an artefact of the 1970s trans scene in America, as a memoir of Kaveney’s life, and indeed as a soap opera of a novel, Tiny Pieces of Skull is a rather marvellous little book; just, perhaps, not one for this particular reader.