A NATURAL HISTORY OF TRANSITION
“I want nothing incapable of change,” declares the narrator in Callum Angus’ “Canada.” That story, published earlier this year in the anthology Kink (edited by Garth Greenwell and R.O. Kwon), was my introduction to Angus’ work, and it was that line—simple, bold, and bristling with possibility—that left me eager to read more. “Canada”—here titled “Migration”—is one of the eight accounts featured in the trans, Portland-based writer and editor’s debut collection, A Natural History of Transition, published in April by the Canadian small press Metonymy.
The capacity for change or transition—be it human or animal, natural
or artificial, psychological or physiological—and the desire to shed that which lacks this capacity indeed are both themes threaded throughout these narratives. Angus takes us deep into the liminal spaces born out
of transition in its many forms, and because of this, even the shortest pieces—some just a few pages long—contain more than meets the eye. Frequently, this comes in the form of fantastical or magical elements
that are occasionally overt and often uncanny; at times, reading these stories feels like looking through a quasi-opaque curtain at the shadowy forms that dwell on the other side. When the elements of fantasy and fabulism are more direct, they are seamlessly integrated into the fabric
of the tale—Angus seems sure-footed in his awareness of the purpose
they serve. In the opening selection, “In Kind,” Nathan, a trans man who has decided to have a child on his own, meditates on the peculiar timing of magic after his mother’s death: “He wondered why the magic had waited. … [He] wondered how magic picked the moments to show up.” Angus, for his part, consistently picks his moments wisely.
In “Rock Jenny,” Angus introduces a theme that he will develop throughout the collection: the idea of “transition” not as an isolated event—a door you can only go through once, and in one direction only—but as something less monolithic, a revolving door or highway roundabout that you can move through, within, and around with fluidity. Jenny, who experiences a series of such transitions throughout the narrative—including turning into a massive sedimentary rock formation—seems to feel torn between a longing for options and possibilities and the fear of change (or of others changing around her). The story thrums with a tension that never quite spills over into unease, largely thanks to a control and musicality in Angus’ language that is reminiscent of the best of Gabriel García Márquez. (Many of the pieces, particularly those that explore familial relationships/dynamics, glimmer with this quiet tension, affected by Angus’ treatment of language.)
In “Migration,” as in other shorter pieces in the collection, human dramas are viewed against the backdrop of nature in both its beauty (geese migrating south) and its monstrosity (tiny bugs ravaging the plants in a greenhouse). The act of migration serves as another reminder of the possibilities contained within travel and transition. (Travel, through both space and time, seems to be a richly layered concept for Angus—the book ends with a plane’s “stomach-lurching” final descent.) Another short piece, “Moon Snail,” shows a more experimental side of Angus: Following an epigraph from Gertrude Stein, he offers a suitably Steinian meditation on the isolated self and the similarities between the poet’s eye and the scientist’s—a nod to Stein’s early career in medicine.
Two longer pieces, “Winter of Men” and the titular “A Natural History of Transition,” are strong examples of well-paced storytelling that is buttressed by vivid characters and, in the case of the former, thoughtful historical research. “Winter of Men” takes as its starting point the history of Lydia Longley (popularized as “The First American Nun” by a children’s novel in the 1950s), who, in 1694, was taken captive by Abenaki raiders in Groton, Massachusetts, and then taken to Montreal. There, she was ransomed to a wealthy Frenchman and tutored in Catholicism, ultimately entering the Congregation of Notre Dame, a non-cloistered convent founded by Marguerite Bourgeoys. These characters and their backstories become the canvas on which Angus paints a dark portrait of desire and transformation that explores themes of gender and the brutality of colonization.
The essence of the title selection is straightforward: The narrator’s uncle dies suddenly, leaving a natural history museum of “cobbled-together” exhibits to his nephew, who flies across the country to small-town New York to tend to things. Upon this foundation, however, the structure Angus erects is like a house filled with odd light fixtures that illuminate eerie curiosities. It’s the first time the narrator has been home to Catania since he transitioned, and the complexities of engaging with the family and friends he left behind play out alongside a series of disturbing discoveries about the contents of the museum and the strange transformations the town’s residents are undergoing. The story is yet another example of Angus’ careful braiding of a suspenseful plot with acute character study.
Angus presents the idea of ‘transition’ not as an isolated event but as something less monolithic, a revolving door or highway roundabout that you can move through, within, and around with fluidity.
In all, these eight tales show a staggeringly virtuosic range. Though they don’t all pack the same punch, taken collectively they represent a stunning achievement in the sheer fact of their variety. Angus shows mastery of both compressed and expansive forms—we have the exciting opportunity to glimpse here a young writer exploring different modalities of structure and tone (lyrical, experimental, referential, mythic) with almost universally compelling results.
At every turn, Angus’ characters contain Whitmanesque multitudes, embodying the endless potential for transformation that makes up complex and worthwhile lives. Through the lens of these nuanced and compassionately realized characters—the majority of whom are trans—we ultimately come to see transness both within and beyond the frame of the individual. Transition, transformation, in-betweenness, migration, destabilization: It is the broader humanistic virtues of embracing these states of being that Angus, brimming with imagination and pathos, gives shape to.
Giancarlo Latta is a violinist, writer, and composer based in New York. He is a member of the award-winning Argus Quartet and has performed across the U.S. and Europe. He writes regularly for the Lambda Literary Review and The Gay & Lesbian Review, and his poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in the Seasons of des pair quarterly and Border Crossing. He loves books, birds, and coffee. You can learn more at GiancarloLatta.com and ArgusQuartet.com.