By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly
A shelf containing well-told stories by cis writers about trans characters need not be long, for it would contain few works. One exempting those with the problematic material would be even shorter. A story that earns its place, however, is Breakfast On Pluto, in both its novel form, by Patrick McCabe, and film adaptation from director Neil Jordan.
Written in 1998, before the recent flush of trans visibility and acceptance. This book set in the even more distant 1970s, Breakfast On Pluto, is told in the voice of Pussy Braden. Sort of trans woman pioneer from the small Irish town of Tyreelin, who recounts her life’s journey in vignette form at the behest of her counselor.
Pussy (her chosen name) is the illegitimate child of her town’s priest, whose mother abandoned her at birth. Mistreated by her foster mother, and rejected socially due to her burgeoning gender expression, Pussy develops a stance of campy oppositionalism. This outlook further hardens when she learns the truth about her parentage.
Once she leaves home, Pussy’s life becomes a picaresque series of adventures, many of them sexual. What lends her story its poignancy is her persistent desire to create the loving home she never experienced.
In the 2005 film, Pussy is portrayed, beautifully, by Cillian Murphy. Casting cis actors in trans roles is rightly contentious. I give the practice a pass on this occasion, because it predates, by many years, the current awareness on the topic. Murphy imbues the part with a dazzling blend of superficiality and steel. Pussy, in Murphy’s portrayal, is evading both her feelings and the ambient disapproval that greets her every desire and action. She pursues love, despite her belief it can only lead to the loss.
McCabe himself wrote the script for Jordan’s film, which is decidedly more optimistic than the novel. I’d assumed, initially comparing the two that commercial forces imposed such changes. But a lengthy interview with the two men by critic John Maguire suggests rather that the writer enjoyed carte blanche, and that the new outlook came about organically.
Comparing the two works, it’s fun, if a little puzzling, to see the changes McCabe makes to his story. In the novel, Pussy leaves her foster home to become the kept woman of a local politician. In the movie, it’s a touring rock singer who installs her in his cottage house. In both stories, the lover is killed because of his involvement with the IRA.
In both the book and the movie she travels to London and becomes a sex worker, nearly dying at the hands of a sadistic customer (played onscreen by Bryan Ferry!). In the book, she becomes the side woman to a nightclub singer. In the film, she’s a magician’s assistant to a sympathetic illusionist—with a cruel streak—played by Stephen Rea.
By the end one senses McCabe hasn’t just made a few cosmetic choices, so much as invented an entire alternate life for Pussy, out of an irrepressible desire for yarn spinning. This sense, likely erroneous, comes from the joy one receives at imbibing the writer’s prose, much of which is in the film’s generous voice-overs.
Pussy’s first-person narration—funny, flip, and crude—buoys. The reader through what is; at the bottom a painful, and at times a horrific story of marginalization, danger, and ambient political terror. Pussy’s preoccupations with movie magazines and makeup brands never read as superficial affectations. Rather as a coping strategy, on the one hand, and emblems of defiance toward an intolerant society on the other. A point McCabe underscores through her near total retreat into them at a point of great trauma.
Where McCabe creates a bright, shiny, confectionary world from words, Jordan uses costumes and songs to evoke a glammy ’70s world, and trace Pussy’s slow, often contested journey from androgyny to womanhood.
IRA terror activity throughout both the novel and film versions of Breakfast on Pluto. A topic Pussy displays little interest. It hovers like an inexplicable form of masculine aggression all around her, leading to the death of her lover and childhood friends, and her mistaken arrest following a bombing in London.
One never senses McCabe judges Pussy’s political detachment, or her preoccupations with love and loss. In the book, which short-listed for the prestigious Booker Prize in Britain, he portrays her in all her humanity. Neither a martyr nor an object of sensation, she emerges, rather, as the rarest of trans women in fiction: the “warts and all” human being.
The great theme of Breakfast on Pluto is the emptiness suffered by Pussy owing to her lack of familial love, and her efforts to fill the resultant void. The issue is addressed more directly in the film than the book and, not to give too much away, is resolved there more happily, as well.
While I loved the book and savored its tasty prose, I preferred the film for the happiness Pussy enjoys there. In fiction, as in life, it’s nice to see things look up for a trans woman once now and then.