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'People Collide' is a 'Freaky Friday'-type exploration of the self and persona

Harper Via

Isle McElroy's sophomore novel, People Collide, begins with a literal save-the-cat trope, used to delightfully deliberate effect.

Originating as the title of a popular screenwriting book by Blake Snyder, "save the cat" refers to the idea that a narrative should establish the likeability of its main character — by having them, for example, save a cat that's stuck in a tree — early in the text so that the audience is on board with that character's coming adventure.

"Each day," McElroy's narrator Eli explains on the novel's first page, "is a chance to discard your most pitiable habits and selves...When I stepped outside into the grand street in front of my apartment complex, I found, before me, a chance to become someone better: a hero. A cat lay dead in the street, splayed on the pavement in front of a dumpster. A kitten." Eli, who is hoping to at least place the dead cat in the dumpster, runs upstairs to get a plastic bag and comes back to pick up the dead kitten — only to discover the kitten wasn't dead at all but only sleeping. Has he saved the cat, then? Or has he merely proven to the reader that he wants to be the kind of person who could? Regardless, the introduction to Eli via this anecdote heightens the self-awareness present throughout People Collide that strengthens the funny, self-deprecating, and terribly insecure narrator.

Eli is married to Elizabeth — her name nearly encompassing his — and is living with her in Bulgaria where she's completing a fellowship in which she "led lessons on American culture for teenagers who, even at their most invested, found her indoctrinating lessons taxing and ridiculous." But she's a writer, really, and so is Eli, although they have very different approaches to their creative endeavors.

The plot really kicks off when Eli arrives at Elizabeth's workplace to discover that people are addressing him as if he's his wife. When he finally realizes that he is, indeed, inside Elizabeth's body, he understandably freaks out and spends several days at home trying to figure out what's going on. He assumes, correctly it turns out, that just as he's inside Elizabeth's body, she must be inside his, but he can't find her or his own body anywhere — and she's not answering his cell phone, which she presumably has with her. If the dynamics of the married couple's genders confuses you here, that's because they're supposed to.

Indeed, witnessing Eli try to figure out how to navigate the world in his wife's body is fascinating. Tempting as it might be to draw a neat line between discovering one's trans identity and Eli's experience of uncomfortable embodiment, that isn't what's going on here, at least not at first. Eli is frankly unnerved by his access to his wife's body's sexuality in this way — from within rather than without — and doesn't attempt to explore her physicality in that way. Instead, he tries to individuate himself: "I liked the idea of doing something Elizabeth wouldn't. If I were going to be her, then I may as well be her on my terms. I occupied a space where neither she nor I seemed to exist, free from the expectations of our personalities."

What becomes clear over the course of the novel is that Eli's discomfort within Elizabeth, this new way of navigating the world as her, stems from a deep dislike of, and fundamental misunderstanding of, himself. Like most of us, Eli can't tell what first impressions people have of him. He perceives himself as awkward, lazy, a deadbeat who isn't nearly good enough for his striving and overachieving wife. Their class backgrounds are different as are their families, and Eli can't run from those realities; they remain a part of his psychology despite his new body. As the saying goes, no matter where you go, there you are.

When he finally finds Elizabeth, Eli is struck by their differences in inhabiting each other's bodies: "Elizabeth appeared at ease in my body in ways that I'd never been. She proceeded confidently, and I envied her, not only because I struggled to make sense of her body but because it seemed unfair that she might be a better version of me than I'd ever been." It's only upon meeting Elizabeth in Eli's body that readers get to see what it is that she loves about him, as he's spent much of the novel up to that point cataloguing his flaws. But she does love him, as much as he loves her, but neither of them has an easy time loving each other.

Ultimately, People Collide's Freaky Friday concept covers a deep exploration of marriage, love, and the ways we know one another — and don't — as well as how slippery a sense of self can be when so much of how we navigate the world depends on how it sees us.

Ilana Masad is a fiction writer, book critic, and author of the novel All My Mother's Lovers.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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