“Something That May Shock and Discredit You” is anything but a straightforward read. It is not so much a memoir in essay form as it is a complex, convoluted portrayal of a gender transition, a complicated relationship with God, and a concurrent loathing for — and love of — words.
Any of these subjects alone would generate more than enough material for a memoir, but Ortberg marries them together with graceful ease. Ortberg thrives, in fact, in a codependent web: narratives around his religion are interwoven with those surrounding his transition, and his writing is illuminated by both.
In fact, most of “Something That May Shock and Discredit You” reads like a line of tidy dominoes stacked up in a row, tumbling down one after the other. Ortberg’s life is shaped by his transition: His great loves, failures, and successes fall within the context of the initial toppled domino of his sex change.
What makes Ortberg’s book compelling, however, is that — despite its lack of order, chronological or otherwise — it does not chase its own tail circuitously. Ortberg begins his book by describing the book that he has not written: “The fight against writing ‘Son of a Preacher Man: Becoming Daniel Mallory Ortberg, My Journey Trekking Through the Transformative Expedition of Emergence, Voyaging Shiftward Into Form — An Odyssey in Two Sexes: Pilgrimage to Ladhood’ must be renewed every day.”
And the result? “Something That May Shock and Discredit You,” whatever genre it might fit into, is not that book. Ortberg views his transition through perspectives that are both wholly unique and heartbreaking. He writes about his love for William Shatner (“Captain James T. Kirk was, and is, at every age and in every incarnation, a beautiful lesbian”) and Duckie from “Pretty in Pink” (“Duckie from ‘Pretty in Pink’ Is Also a Beautiful Lesbian and I Can Prove It with the Intensity of My Feelings”); about drinking (“[s]o many ways to be drunk, so many ways to be a woman”) and about umbrellas (“‘I don’t believe in umbrellas’... ‘What’s not to believe in?’”).
Ortberg’s book is zany and wacky and more than a little messy. There are poems about Lord Byron, dialogue pieces about “Mean Girls,” and long winded rants about the Tudors. Yet nothing is superfluous; everything means something, no matter how loosely related to his transition and personal identity. Ortberg closes his chapter on the Tudors with a painful lamentation for the married simplicity and brutality of oppression: “Put me back in time where gender roles were more strictly enforced, give me a body I’ve got to account for to some greater authority every second of the day,” he writes.
Because, by all rights, a memoir about transition should be messy. Transition itself is messy. Amid all this, God plays a central role in Ortberg’s one-man drama. “God,” Ortberg writes, “has not given us a spirit of anxiety but of power, and love, and of sound mind… you need not be ashamed of me or of being weirdly religious sometimes.”
Likewise, just as Ortberg’s book has no real beginning — it picks up in a place of self-introspection, and continues much in the same vein — it has no real end. His final paragraph deals with baptism, and his own metaphorical baptism into his own skin. “I cannot shake the sense that I have only recently sprung from being held underwater,” Ortberg confesses.
And, just as the book is messy because transition is messy, there is no ending because transition, too, has no end. It is an ongoing process, and pretends, in fact, to be nothing less. It’s right there in the name.
“Something That May Shock and Discredit You” is not a memoir because it is not a portrait of a life. Instead, it is a snapshot of a brief moment in transition, and the moments that came before; the gaffes between the person that was, the person that is, and the person that remains constant regardless of pronouns and haircuts. It is a book about the adequate singing voice that Ortberg loses after his own voice deepens, about the acne that crops up on his neck; about his struggle to parallel park. It is about his wife, his family, and his religion. For all that it is a personal narrative, the book isn’t really about Ortberg. It’s about the act of transition itself.
— Staff writer Emerson J. Monks can be reached at email@example.com.