In her powerful, short novel The Illusionist, Dinitia Smith describes in chilling detail what can happen to people simply because they are different and can be seen as Other—difference of color, of sex, of economic class, of ethnicity. Dean Lily, the lead character in Smith’s novel, is not only different; he also dares to conceal the difference. Suppose you were to awaken one morning to discover that you were somehow in the wrong body, and that those around you seem not to notice. Dean finds himself in just that condition every morning, a boy, a young man, who has always known himself to be a boy, but who happens to have the genitals of a girl, and who (much to his embarrassment) begins to sprout breasts in his teens. From the first, he understands and tries his best to get others to understand that there has simply been a mistake, a confusion. And as soon as he is able, he wanders away from his small, upstate New York town in order to be the person he feels himself to be.
Ah, but if being different is a sin in the eyes of the many, the they-self, how much worse to be different and to pretend to ascend to the throne of power, to pretend to be a man. Mere difference is one thing, and bad enough, but pretending to be one of the chosen, one of the elect, that cannot be forgiven.
Dean not only looks and acts like a gentle, attractive male, he also does magic tricks, and attracts attention with his smooth sleights of hand. Even the jaded, usually bored patrons of the local bar in Sparta, The Wooden Nickel, stop watching the football on TV, interrupt their desultory half-conversations with their neighbors to watch as the new guy in town performs feats of magic. If the men are as suspicious as they are interested, the women are simply interested. Chrissie loves Dean simply because he attends to her, notices her, with no sexual overtones at all. He moves in with her and immediately shares in household chores, and not on command, but simply seeing what needs to be done. Terry, older and tougher than Chrissie, already abandoned by one man and now raising an infant boy on her own, falls for Dean because of the attention he pays to her body, because he seems to be able to make love to all of her, and demands nothing in return. And if his careful attention to her and her needs were not enough, he also really attends to her son, plays with him, cares for him.
While Dean is not voracious, while he does not behave as most of the myopic men in town , counting each sexual encounter as a conquest, nevertheless, he does seem to need to have women fall for him. Melanie, the pretty and much sought after girl who already (at about the age of twenty) lives in reclusion with her mother, usually on the run from what she sees as the misguided interests of the men around her, falls for Dean because he does not have to touch her. Indeed, he refuses to touch her, worshipping her at arm’s length, loving her with a pure love that does not burn.
Smith gives us the story of each of these women, changing voices as she moves from character to character, and (in my estimation) makes each love believable. The reader can understand quite well just why each of these women finds Dean so attractive. And while there seems to be a kind of cruelty in Dean in his moving from woman to woman, from love to love, he seems not simply to be using them. When Melanie confronts him about his relationship with Terry, Dean does not deny his love for Terry; it is simply different from the love he has for Melanie. And he comes across with the same sort of innocence in a confrontation with Terry, neither denying Melanie nor seeing his love for Terry as inconsistent with other loves. If Dean is driven, it is not a drive for conquest, for collecting notches; rather, it is a drive to be a man, to be seen as a man. If women love him, then he must be a real man.
While the love stories in this little book are each convincing and somehow affirming, the reactions of the men are both ugly and predictable. Bad enough that this stranger shows up on the scene wooing with his acts of illusion, now the women are falling for him, and the men sniff a difference. This man does not fight when insulted; he hangs out with women instead of men. An outsider who is after their women, but worse than that, he is an illusionist who dares to pretend, who dares to ascendancy. Of course, he must be brought down, must be exposed in front of the women. And exposing is not enough; he must be raped, violated, beaten. Certain that when he is seen for what he is, exposed for what he is not, the women will come back to the real men.
I have to admit that as I was reading this book, the writing was so beautiful, the little love relationships so convincing and pretty, that I hoped for a happy ending. I would have preferred happiness to truth, though I could not shake a sense of foreboding. At least in this culture, difference is not rewarded, and the less power men have, the more jealous they are of that scant power. Dean is doomed from the beginning. Although he knows himself to be Dean Lilly, the men will allow him to be only Lilly Dean. He must be made to pay for his arrogant attempt to ascend.
I have some small reservations about this book; I was bothered by it, made anxious by it. But I think most of the anxiety has to do with the world I find myself in rather than with the story Smith has to tell us. Somehow, I wanted the author to tell us more, to make us understand more thoroughly. Who was this man? What did he need? What did he want? What are we to learn from his life? Quoting from the text:
But is there an actual truth? Certainly the actual truth cannot be that he was really a girl; he would know that better than we, wouldn’t he? Instead, I think he was right; there had been a mistake, a confusion, and only he understood the actual truth.
So what did people know about Dean? Did they guess? One moment, you were looking at a boy. The next, you shifted the angle of your sight just a little and—and lo and behold—he was a girl! And you were left squinting and wondering. But maybe people just didn’t want to know the actual truth. It was more fun that way anyhow. Dean was like going to the movies. He was entertainment. Watching him was something to do, he was someone to look at and smile about if you saw him on the street, or at night when you were drinking at the Wooden Nickel. If you were an old person, and sitting there in the window of your house day after day looking out onto the street, you’d see Dean strutting down the sidewalk, handsome and cocky, in his cowboy hat and boots with their thick heels. He’d catch you staring at him and he’d grin and he wouldn’t let go of your eyes, he’d force you to look at him, and you’d just keep staring and staring in spite of yourself.