New Reviews for “Made Man” and a “Two Natures” Book Talk Video

Last month I had the pleasure of co-hosting a Zoom book talk with Canadian novelist Jessica Pegis, “Divine Non-Duality and the Queer Body”. We read excerpts from my gay male coming-of-age novel Two Natures (Saddle Road Press, 2016) and her new book The God Painter (Stone Table Books, 2021) and explored their common themes of exile, divine love, and spiritual and sexual integration. The God Painter is a work of Catholic-infused speculative fiction in the tradition of Mary Doria Russell and Ray Bradbury. Intersex aliens rescue humanity from our destroyed planet, but are they angels, demons, or something outside our limited categories altogether? Watch the 80-minute video on the Winning Writers YouTube channel:

Poet and critic Michael McKeown Bondhus wrote a wonderful review of my new poetry book, Made Man (Little Red Tree, 2022), for Full Stop Magazine this month. I have this novelty greeting card on my office shelf where one 1950s lady exclaims to another, “Sometimes I wish someone who understands me would tell me what I mean!” Michael has done just that…and saved me the labor of explaining myself to cis people quite so much. The review captures the specificity of gender transition but also its continuity with the dynamism of human life (however much we try to arrest its progress with laws and dogmas). We are not, after all, foreign objects or monsters compared to the rest of you.

As much as people claim to loathe change, it is also understood to be an elemental part of existence. The need to change one’s body, then, can be read as another manifestation of this universal impulse. Therefore, Made Man becomes an examination and celebration of change writ broadly along with all its magickal implications.

…Is Made Man’s goal, at least in part, to simultaneously muddy and clarify gender? Desire seems simple — person A wants person B — yet it is full of contradictions and taboos. Racist uncles are clearcut assholes, yet their worldviews are rooted in a version of reality they have absorbed from outside sources, including Russian bots. Gender, as Reiter and many others suggest, is both a social construction and an intimate part of the self. It can appear to be reducible to labels like trans man and genderqueer, yet those labels carry different meanings from person to person. By highlighting ambiguity and algorithms in some of their poems, Reiter finds another, less direct way to address the messiness of gender and compares it to the messiness of so many other parts of our lives.

Goodreads reviewer Transgender Bookworm rates Made Man 5 stars, saying:

Poet Jendi Reiter has written a beautiful and inventive collection of poems that explore gender and the pain of existing beyond society’s rigid binary in a new and exciting way. Tackling subjects both serious and lighthearted Reiter explores the way our absurdly gendered world informs our understanding of each other and the world at large. I found myself chuckling on one page and then gripping my seat in anger the next.

Enjoy this sample poem. Or don’t. I don’t care.

 

Prettyboy in Pink

This generation of lavender-haired pronouns only knows Molly Ringwald as hot Archie’s small-town mom on “Riverdale”. They play the torso drinking game as russet-top KJ Apa square-jaws his way from high school wrestling showers to prison cagefight to skinny-dip in the lake of girls beside the maple sugar factory. Who knew there was so much wealth in syrup? Like his nipples stretched immobile over muscle, mother Mary/Molly is contractually slated to appear in every episode, offering pants-suit credibility to his scheme to rescue the malt shop from mafiosi.

But we assigned-X’ers will forever stan Molly’s bricolage of girlhood, pretty in pink slicing and stitching the bridesmaid shells of teen tulle into a skin she could survive in. Lovestruck Duckie was too much a sister to her, with his manic pompadour and emotional hands. She required the prep-school prince’s genes for her supreme tailoring experiment. When Archie’s done running through his day’s foolish script, those maple-golden eyes go blank. It’s her body now, her finest dress.

Two Poems from Suzanne Ondrus’s “Passion Seeds”

Suzanne Ondrus is a poet and literary scholar whose work explores cultural exchange and understanding, intimacy, oppression, and history. Her poetry book Passion Seeds, about love and longing long distance between an American woman and a Burkina Faso man, won the 2013 Vernice Quebodeaux Prize from Little Red Tree Publishing. Suzanne has taught writing and literary theory in Burkina Faso, Guinea, Russia, Benin, Ghana, Uganda, Italy, and Germany, and was a 2018-2020 Fulbright Scholar to Burkina Faso in West Africa.

Her new collection, Death of an Unvirtuous Woman, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press in September 2022 and will be available for pre-order in May. It is a true story of female resistance to domestic violence involving an 1881 Ohio-German immigrant couple. Read three poems from this book in the feminist journal S/tick.

Suzanne kindly shares these poems from Passion Seeds.

Let’s Go Green

Dante had Beatrice blazing blond before him
guiding him from the ice of hell to heaven’s
summits.

Beatrice burned forever in his heart.
Her hands filled with air
and her smile shouldered the world.
From afar he would watch,
happy for a view of her on Sunday.
In the Duomo, his heart arched over
the bridge his eyes made to her,

silent,
unaware
he prayed.

My black angel, you are afar.
How shall I say you burn for me?
My love for you glows like coal or
you are my black angel of coal glow?
But you are not coal, licorice, chocolate,
tar, oil, rubber, sod, tires, or asphalt.
You are seed in my heart,
the green promise.
I want to be the seed of your heart;
I believe I am the seed of your heart.
Please water me with your tears
and bring your heart to the light
so our seeds can grow and glow green.

****

Bleached History

I.
White through fire circles,
mud houses, lingering handshakes
white through indigo, slit goats’ necks
and the dolo-filled calabash.

II.
A congregation so large,
piled high up to the sky
for only one step to his throne,
to finally come home.

III.
Missionaries pleaded, cajoled
for their congregation to reach that throne!
They even stole boys to enroll
and control,
promising parents future rewards.
Their heads were shaved
and their mother tongues shamed,
with the antelope skull worn at least
once by all.
Cultural carving beyond bones,
branding
Jean,
Marc,
Antoine
over Narelwindé’s
wings
to God,
on top Awa’s whisper
to the river
and Yalle’s hope risen.

IV.
The red soil with its orange puddles
held this pain,
so full from
what the whites called religious school.

They tried to stitch boys against the hum
of their ancestors in the wind,
and with white cloth, bread and wine
wind their minds for Christendom and
the French curriculum.

But whispers of songs
sung in the field,
lingering handshakes,
compounds with family
and thatched roofs commanded feet
home, through thorned brush

stealthy under the moon,
back close to Mother’s womb
from where solid like the baobab
they did first bloom.

 

Author Note: This poem was inspired by Burkinabe shaman Malidome Patrice Somé’s autobiography, Of Water and Spirit. Somé was kidnapped as a young child by missionaries and taken to missionary school; he escaped in his late teens, returning to his village. In the 1950s children were punished if they spoke their native languages at school; French was the language of instruction in Burkina Faso. Dolo is homemade grain alcohol. Calabash is a gourd. Calabash are dried and used as bowls, among other things. Wearing an antelope skull signifies shame, akin to wearing a dunce cap. Narelwindé, Awa and Yalle are Burkinabe first names. Baobab is a tree of utmost significance to West Africa, signifying strength and groundedness.

“Made Man” Makes News: BGSQD Reading Video and Solstice Lit Mag Review

The Bureau of General Services-Queer Division (BGSQD), the queer bookstore at The Center NYC, hosted a fabulous launch reading for me and poet Steven Riel (Edgemere) this past weekend, which you can watch on their YouTube channel:

Being back in person in a queer arts space was a sacred experience, enhanced by Frank Mullaney’s “Wallpaper Saints” photo exhibit, which you can view behind us. Please support this essential cultural haven by purchasing books from their website. If you don’t see Made Man or Edgemere on their site yet, email Greg Newton at contact@bgsqd.com to purchase your copy.

In other news, Solstice Lit Mag poetry editor Robbie Gamble just published a great review of Made Man in their Spring 2022 issue. Gamble says, “The reader is in for a comitragic, day-glo accented, culture-hopping, snort-inducing, gender-interrogating rollercoaster of a ride… In the current season of culture wars, where state legislatures are enacting ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bills, and trying to reframe gender-affirming treatments as parental abuse, Made Man stands as a testament to the humanity of trans people everywhere. It’s also chock-full of intelligent, often hilarious and sometimes biting poems that will leave you spinning and exhilarated.”

Other great stuff in this issue of Solstice includes Richard Jeffrey Newman’s sexual abuse memoir “The First Time I Told Someone” and MC Hyland’s prose-poem “Five Short Essays on Open Secrets”. Check it out and subscribe to their free e-newsletter.

Two Poems from “The Chessmaster’s Daughter” by Barbara Regenspan

Barbara Regenspan is a poet, scholar, and opinion writer who has taught leadership in social justice-focused education at Colgate University. Her books include Haunting and the Educational Imagination. Now, her debut full-length poetry collection, The Chessmaster’s Daughter, is available from Cayuga Lake Books. This collection combines lyricism and philosophical inquiry, meditating on the tensions between appreciation of the present moment and responsibility for the burdens of history. Regenspan appreciates the complexity of her Jewish immigrant legacy: its silent traumas, restless search for truth, and ancient rituals of renewal. In a familiar trajectory for progressive American Jews, she also turns to Buddhist mindfulness and nature-centric practices to counterbalance the intellectual ferment of her ancestral religion.

Barbara says, “I am a strong supporter of the local Tompkins County Workers’ Center (they are among the original national fighters for a living wage) and I have offered the book as a fundraiser.” Donate $13 or more to this upstate New York labor advocacy group, and they will send you a copy of The Chessmaster’s Daughter.

She kindly shares these poems below.

Little Animal Lessons

The day after Ruth’s fatal fall
a squirrel found its way into an
upstairs waste basket,

apparently unfazed when David
released it to the outside sill.

Then a toad preceded our steps on
the path to the market, committed to
the journey on the dry concrete,

avoiding the lush summer growth to
the right and left,

demanding from us a walking meditation
under its peculiar green leadership.

I’ve known this before:
The smaller living things, not
your usual friends, acting out,
commanding:

“Slow down, heed
the closures,
the new possibilities.”

****

Argue for Life

Try to leave your life without dying.
It’s impossible; you were always
a detective anyway and must find
the crime the suspect did not commit.
You’ll be given away by wind chimes
left on the porch,
whose commitment to a furious
system leaves a trail of resonance.
The pain you need to escape has
its own residue, because the separation of
you from everybody else that you almost
believed in is defied by the difficulty leaving.
Stay here with me in this house on the canal
where the lovers we’ve hardly seen walk
by and look in the window, or touring groups
ignore us to take in the sights—approaching the
gorge trail, the path of depth and turns.

Poetry by Helen Bar-Lev: “The Wrong Tree”

Israeli poet and painter Helen Bar-Lev was born in New York in 1942. She has held over 90 exhibitions of her landscape paintings and published eight illustrated poetry collections. She kindly permitted me to reprint the poem below, inspired by Russia’s war against Ukraine. It was first published in ESRA Magazine.

The Wrong Tree

Look at us humans
bones and blood and skin
eating fruit from the wrong tree,
sailing arks to banish the bad
but we are fools and sink with the ship

Prayers unheard clog the earth
war after war and the world whirls on
a murderer in every corner
superheros vanished or banished,
refugees like the rest of us

Atlantis has disappeared
Saints burned at the stake
Shangri La never was
think Hiroshima, my love

Mozart was recalled at thirty-five
Moses forbidden the promised land
slavery and plagues still alive
and no one to raise us from the dead

Look, Henny Penny
the ruble is falling
the wall is wailing
the pipes are calling
Danny, the boy, the soldier
tells Mama he’s frightened–
then the missile explodes

The sun shines and regrets and retreats
the crocodile cries and destroys
this is not the planet of free choice

News news everywhere
on buildings, in bunkers,
oh how the world has shrunk

We are all golems
slumped on the floor
waiting for instructions…
or our own destruction

April Is Poetry Month: Two Poems from Mahnaz Badihian’s “Ask the Wind”

Since April is National Poetry Month, it seemed like a good time to run excerpts from some poetry collections I’ve recently enjoyed. Mahnaz Badihian is an Iranian-American poet, translator, and visual artist in San Francisco. She sent me a copy of her new poetry book, Ask the Wind (Vagabond Books), to review for Winning Writers. I was pleased by her original turns of phrase, delight in nature’s signs of renewal, and hopefulness about peace in our tortured world. She has kindly permitted me to reprint these poems below. I love how she takes an expression that usually denotes sadness, “not belonging,” and rethinks it as joyful non-attachment.

NOT BELONGING

Like a bird, she floats in nature
like water, she seeps through the earth
the cells in her body,
do not identify with anyone
she is everyone

She has no motherland
she’s free from friends and enemies
the recycled woman rises to far horizons
with no destinations in mind

She’ll not be wounded, not be sad
she’s free of old memories,
from belonging to one particular land
from heavy gold necklaces
her ancestors left behind

Now she puts her feet on fresh grass
opens her arms and lets the sun plant
flowers on her fingertips

Gives her naked bosom to the hands
of the breeze under the glory of
the apple trees
giving herself to the flowing creeks
letting the fish swim in her veins
for the birth of more new happiness.

****

DNA

It was Monday morning and
I was passing the big statue
In the lobby of Johns Hopkins hospital
searching for Room 202,
the first interview with Mrs. Willis

She had a kind smile on her lips
her hands were wrinkled with red nail polish
Mrs. Willis looked me in the eyes,
how do I pronounce your name, dear?
I said, MAH NAZ,
the exact same way it’s written

Mrs. Willis with her M.S. degree said, I’ll try
MENAZ Manos, Maha-noss
then gently she changed her voice and
said, Can I call you Mary?

Marry? Merry? Morry? Echoed in my head
I felt like evaporating morning dew,
like a branch of a tree under heavy rain,
like fruit just fallen from a tree

I looked Mrs. Willis in the eyes and said,
“But my name is the charm of the moon
the name I was called by my mother
and by the man with black hair
dark mustache and brown eyes.”

Mrs. Willis was looking at me
with wide-open eyes
I said: “Mrs. Willis,
is my name more difficult
than Deoxyribonucleic acid?”

March Links Roundup: The Transience and Greatness of Books

Happy March–the month when, theoretically, spring will arrive, even in New England. As they say, if you don’t like the weather, wait a day. As changeable, too, are the fortunes of books. This essay by Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), reprinted in Narrative Magazine, limns the author’s destiny in terms that are simultaneously humble, noble, and humorous.

Of all the inanimate objects, of all men’s creations, books are the nearest to us, for they contain our very thought, our ambitions, our indignations, our illusions, our fidelity to truth, and our persistent leaning towards error. But most of all they resemble us in their precarious hold on life. A bridge constructed according to the rules of the art of bridge-building is certain of a long, honourable and useful career. But a book as good in its way as the bridge may perish obscurely on the very day of its birth. The art of their creators is not sufficient to give them more than a moment of life…

No secret of eternal life for our books can be found amongst the formulas of art, any more than for our bodies in a prescribed combination of drugs. This is not because some books are not worthy of enduring life, but because the formulas of art are dependent on things variable, unstable and untrustworthy; on human sympathies, on prejudices, on likes and dislikes, on the sense of virtue and the sense of propriety, on beliefs and theories that, indestructible in themselves, always change their form—often in the lifetime of one fleeting generation.

Given the fickleness and unpredictability of the literary life–like any life–Conrad advises the author to prioritize clear understanding, compassion, and the liberty of the imagination. Art is already dead when it merely serves to illustrate an ideological or aesthetic agenda.

It must not be supposed that I claim for the artist in fiction the freedom of moral Nihilism. I would require from him many acts of faith of which the first would be the cherishing of an undying hope; and hope, it will not be contested, implies all the piety of effort and renunciation. It is the God-sent form of trust in the magic force and inspiration belonging to the life of this earth. We are inclined to forget that the way of excellence is in the intellectual, as distinguished from emotional, humility. What one feels so hopelessly barren in declared pessimism is just its arrogance. It seems as if the discovery made by many men at various times that there is much evil in the world were a source of proud and unholy joy unto some of the modern writers. That frame of mind is not the proper one in which to approach seriously the art of fiction. It gives an author—goodness only knows why—an elated sense of his own superiority. And there is nothing more dangerous than such an elation to that absolute loyalty towards his feelings and sensations an author should keep hold of in his most exalted moments of creation.

To be hopeful in an artistic sense it is not necessary to think that the world is good. It is enough to believe that there is no impossibility of its being made so.

At the Southern arts and culture magazine Scalawag, poet Minnie Bruce Pratt urges us not to give up hope for the queer and leftist struggle in the South. Don’t write off the region as belonging to the right-wing racists. Like her late spouse Leslie Feinberg (Transgender Warriors), Pratt sees transformation occurring through intersectional alliances among queer, POC, and working-class people.

The South is full of our queerness—35 percent of the LGBTQ population in the U.S. lives here (the Northeast is home to only 19 percent). In the Deep South—Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, and Louisiana—almost 40 percent of us identify as people of color; In Texas that figure is over 50 percent.

Pratt shares anecdotes about political organizing and how we can learn from each other’s limited perspectives, such as her white mother who appreciated women’s gains in independence in the 1970s, but was unaware that Black activism laid the foundation for her freedoms.

In this video at Poets & Writers, Paul Tran, in a gorgeously gender-bending dress, reads “Copernicus” from their new poetry collection All the Flowers Kneeling (Penguin Books). Read more of their work at the Poetry Foundation website. From “Endosymbiosis” (a word that means one organism living inside another):

It wasn’t him
but what he did
that lived on
inside me.
I had to
learn that.
I had to
cleave  action
from figure,
the verb  do
from the noun  doll
Performance artist Kris Grey creates thought-provoking shows and videos with their trans body, often nude, as the centerpiece. This untitled piece, in which they move in and out of a cast of their former body shape, helped me visualize how I might look and feel after top surgery. In their 10-minute video “Suspicious Packages”, Grey tries on some unexpected phallic substitutes. It’s deadpan funny, but maybe only trans guys will get the poignancy of it, too–that way in which a packer both eases dysphoria and uncomfortably emphasizes its own artificiality, its separateness from the body.

My Poetry Book “Made Man” Is Here!

My third full-length collection, Made Man, officially launches March 1 from Little Red Tree Publishing.

Staci Wright at the American Library Association’s Rainbow Round Table Reviews says:

A mix of somber moments and charming wit, Reiter’s collection makes space for humor in the maelstrom of navigating gendered experiences. Their poems synthesize recent historical moments and deeply personal anecdotes to create commentary that dares you to question binaries and social construction itself. Reiter sources material from the nooks and crannies of the human experience; they sculpt each poem using anything from Scholastic Book Club books to Jewish folklore to 1970’s photography series to Manhattan dumpling houses.

Poet and literary critic Stephanie Burt says:

Dense with figure and dense with thought, full of fun and full of anguish, superbly conscious of every rule they break, sometimes giving us comfort and sometimes “another live coal in your mouth,” the poems in this collection work and play and travel in many directions, speak through many and varied masks. Then they come back together to point to a confident future, a nonbinary embodiment, a way past the limits of what other people have told us counts as feminine (“the mermaid bleeds lipstick”), as masculine (“chaos softboy”), as sacred, as childhood (“happy as a rubber ball”), parenthood, adulthood (“I didn’t grow up. I had more laundry”).

I regret that I did not send the poem below to queer theorist Leo Bersani, author of the seminal-in-all-senses text Is the Rectum a Grave? And now he has gone to the great bath house in the sky. Dr. Bersani passed away at age 90 on Feb. 20. From the NY Times obit:

Dr. Bersani was best known for his 1987 essay “Is the Rectum a Grave?,” a dense, polemical critique of the tendency among some gay activists to respond to AIDS by downplaying their sexuality and emphasizing the need to replicate bourgeois heterosexuality.

Male homosexuality was not the mirror image of heterosexuality, he argued, but something radically different, lacking many of the patriarchal inequalities that he said defined straight life.

“Far from apologizing for their promiscuity as a failure to maintain a loving relationship,” he wrote, “gay men should ceaselessly lament the practical necessity, now, of such relations, should resist being drawn into mimicking the unrelenting warfare between men and women.”

This poem (like many of my best works) was inspired by a joke from my husband, so I guess marriage is good for something. FYI, the opening line of Bersani’s famous essay is “There is a big secret about sex: most people don’t like it.”

 

Is the Roasting Pan a Grave?

There is a big secret about turkey: most people don’t like it.
One November day’s duty, otherwise ignored, the bottom.

When the legs are moist, the breast’s dried out
With a hellbound heart, closeted clerics exhort the bottom.

The more savored the taste, the more later despised:
Rest now, fabulous martyrs who whored the bottom.

Play families, play natives’ welcome spread for the plagued men:
Our schoolboy histories will not record the bottom.

But for one night, we feast together in a dying year —
What, then, that too much stuffing may distort the bottom?

We “failed to find the idea of the holocaust unbearable”:
Rather police meat market into pastoral, report the bottom.

Give thanks to ghosts, our unquenchable forefathers,
Pilgrims of filth, who on their knees adored the bottom.

TL;DR? Should Bersani’s words prove dry,
Read the foil pan embossed: ALWAYS SUPPORT THE BOTTOM.

February Bonus Links: Go Ahead, Break That Dish

When the pandemic started, my spiritual guide Julian said to me, “We’re all going to die, darling–wear your good shoes.” (For more advice from an imaginary fashion photographer, read this book.) The sudden closeness of death and impermanence brought home to me that there may be no “later” that we’re saving our luxuries for. Or, as a less slutty higher power is reported to have said, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” (Luke 12:20)

In the magazine Eater, journalist and witchy writer Jaya Saxena advises “Stop Worrying and Start Using Your Fancy China”:

 It is such a waste of beauty to keep the loveliest things out of sight, away from the parties and the food and the people you love, just because you’re afraid you’re going to lose them.

The thing about owning nice things is you’re going to die one day. Which isn’t to say throw it all to hell and only eat off paper plates, but that nice things are meant to be enjoyed while we’re still on this earth… Honor your ancestors or your family who bought such nice things off your registry by actually using what they’ve given you.

This mindset shift is not easy, I admit. Referencing the fraught family dynamics of our wedding, I often caution my son when he’s playing too vigorously next to our the china cabinet, “Many Bothans died to bring us this Royal Doulton tea set.” Which, now that he’s seen “Star Wars”, perhaps he will understand.

Shortly before that wedding, a much-fought-for event that I’d dreamed about all my life, I wrote this poem about my ambivalence about making any life-altering decision, even one that I wanted. Now, contemplating another big step in my gender transition, I appreciated this article by Joseph Bikart at the UK-based digital magazine Psyche: “How to make a difficult decision”. Bikart offers several thought-exercises to help you identify the parts of yourself that want opposite things; expand the range of choices; clarify your underlying goal; and break down big overwhelming projects into manageable steps.

Bikart writes, “Decisions cut us off from other choices, other opportunities and the possibility of better outcomes. For this reason, the act of deciding can feel like a self-inflicted wound.” (Literally, in my case, since I’m thinking about top surgery!) And he really called me out with this one: “Indecision and procrastination do not postpone the pains of a decision to a future day: they multiply that pain by spreading it across every minute of every day, until you finally decide.”

On that note, hats off to cultural critic and historian Lucy Sante, formerly known as Luc Sante (author of Low Life and The Other Paris), who transitioned last year at age 67. In her recent Vanity Fair article about her journey of self-discovery, this passage stood out to me:

I once described myself as a creature made entirely of doubt, much of it self-doubt, but as soon as I made up my mind to come out, last February, I ceased doubting. That is to say, I experienced regular bouts of dysphoria, which in this context means intense recurring periods of self-doubt, self-hatred, and despair, which happen irregularly for varying lengths of time, typically (for me, by now) about two or three days a week. Yet paradoxically I had never before experienced such wholehearted conviction. Even in the throes of those bouts I felt an unaccountable bedrock of certainty.

Trans people colloquially refer to this moment as your egg cracking. It would be equally true to my experience to describe it as an iceberg thawing. All of the frozen feelings emerge like the Old Ones in “From the Mountains of Madness”. Along with euphoria, wholeness, relief, and a new sense of integration and resonance with myself, I have bouts of grief and fear. I confront internalized cis-het beauty standards that tell me I’m mutilating my body, or squandering the safety afforded by presenting as an average-looking lady. My younger selves finally speak up about the shame and discomfort of puberty. Paradoxically, I mourn both the young man I never got to be, and the older woman I won’t become.

Here’s another poem, “Couplets”, from the same pre-wedding period. “One can never/prove anything to the world, only make it surrender/by ignoring it or being ignored.” Thanks, Jendi-age-26. You were a smart guy.

Hell Is the Absence of Closure

Having just finished my intensive immersion in “The Sopranos”, I don’t have an explanation for the enigmatic and (some would say) unsatisfying final cut-to-black scene of Tony in the diner. To quote Wednesday Addams, Are they dead? Does it matter? What I do notice is a psychological resemblance to the endings of two other shows that made a deep impression on me, “Mad Men” and “BoJack Horseman”. The central character of all three shows is a charming and destructively narcissistic man whose antisocial behavior at first seems clever and entertaining, then tragic, then dull and predictable.

I binged “BoJack” during 2020 quarantine (how fucked-up is it that we have to specify which year of COVID quarantine we’re in?) and something about its combination of bleakness and surreal frivolity spoke to the sudden bizarre shift in our lives. I was late to the “Mad Men” trend, but caught up in time to watch the last season in real time. Back in 2015 I thought Peggy Olson had finally shown me the kind of woman I was, which I’d never seen on TV before. Isaac Fellman’s essay “Peggy Olson Is a Gay Trans Man” tells you how that worked out.

As viewers, we crave a conventional narrative arc. Someone changes, or is shattered by the consequences of refusing to change. The endings of these three series frustrate that desire, because a wearying stasis is truer to life with a person trapped in his own narcissism.

Don Draper seems to have a breakdown and breakthough in the finale, shedding the status symbols of his ad-man life to wind up sobbing in an encounter group at Esalen. But the final minutes strongly suggest he’s going to spin his moment of enlightenment into a Coca-Cola commercial as soon as he catches a ride home to New York.

A “Hollywoo” treatment of “BoJack” would have ended one episode earlier, with him drowning in the swimming pool of his former luxury apartment like Joe Gillis in “Sunset Boulevard”. Instead, a subdued BoJack is directing amateur theater productions in jail while his friends’ lives move on without him. “Life’s a bitch, then you die, right?” he says to Diane, who replies, “Sometimes, life’s a bitch, then you keep living.”

In my opinion, that’s the punishment to which Tony Soprano is sentenced. He’s dead inside, whether or not his physical body is alive. Like the Flying Dutchman, he’s going to go on eating onion rings in that diner forever, after almost all his old friends and close family have died (many by his hand).

Sometimes the redemption arc is that other people get away from the one guy who’s been soaking up all the energy in the room because of his resistance to growth. The guy who thinks he’s the main character in everyone’s life, not just his own.