While I want to believe what “Star Trek” taught me, I think space might not really be the final frontier. Sure, there’s this unfathomable depth of infinity to be investigated outside us, but what might be even more complex is the stuff inside — the farthest reaches of our own human identity and all the psychological twists that go along with deciphering that.
Or at least this is how I feel after reading my first genderqueer erotic novel. “Rye” is probing — in every sense of the word — in both its critical exploration of gender identity and its display of those personal tensions within real-life relationships. And although it lacks exceptional prose, Sam Rosenthal’s second book raises plenty of provocative questions about sexuality and polyamory, while telling a pretty good story (and, I guess, helping you get off, depending on your inclinations).
We follow Matt, a 40-year-old divorced father, who’s romantically involved with Rye, a 31-year-old biological female who identifies as male — and whom Rosenthal respectfully refers to with male pronouns throughout the novel. Their relationship is equal parts passionate and tumultuous, as both struggle to understand their own needs and desires, from both physical and emotional perspectives.
But the most complicated thing about the interactions between Matt and Rye might be the battles with binary oppositions — clashes and ironies seemingly more associated with the heteronormative world — that surface throughout their seemingly “free” gender-neutral lives. Both are forced to confront questions about their personal quests for hedonistic happiness in a world that largely ignores or simply doesn’t understand them (although Rosenthal himself largely ignores actual depictions of the world of hetero “values”). And the reader — alongside the fictional lovers — is asked to further dissect traditional notions such as marriage, monogamy and its related intimacy issues, and the masculine/ feminine power dynamics within sexually unpredictable relationships.
On top of all that, we later find Matt engaged in a simultaneous relationship with Rain, a queer 23-year-old hermaphrodite who tends to switch between male and female pronouns — and whose distinctly different personality and sexual attitude force Matt to further struggle to understand his feelings for Rye. It’s difficult for me to describe all the gritty details in a G-rated manner, so I’ll just say that you’re going to be very, very close to all three of these characters by the end of the novel.
So, yes, there’s a lot of sex in this book. A lot. And for some readers, the underlying themes might seem too cryptically embedded within nonstop images of sheer kinkiness. But I think there are theories worth digging for in Rosenthal’s jumble of words and bodies — ideas that will probably mean different things to different people, and will likely also leave most readers with some previously hidden sense of curiosity, a new insight into the diversity of queer life, or at least a more intellectual way to get off.
RYE | By Sam Rosenthal | Projekt Books | $12.95 | 268 pages