The Fifth Wound, Aurora Mattia’s debut novel (Nightboat Books, March 2023), is both prose and poetry, both memoir and fantasy, a nonlinear kaleidoscopic roman à clef that might be termed magical realism but is perhaps more accurately just magic. It defies summation: Mattia details her lost romance with a man named Ezekiel, offers commentary on the publishing industry and what it is to be beautiful, starts a band with a siren, and recounts hospital visits and psych ward stays, to mention only a few of the stories bound in this book of wounds. The language is lush, densely lyrical, bursting forth with glittering lists of “false eyelashes, bone corsets, medieval manuscripts on the sacramental applications of pus collected from the stigmata of saints” and rendering strange accounts of fairies or the “memories of distant tarantulas nesting silently within piles of iris petals and dragonfly wings.”
The text itself is multiform, studded with footnotes, lines from such poets as Frank Bidart and Rachel Rabbit White, emails from both friends and publishing agents, offering thoughts on previous work, and text exchanges between Aurora and Ezekiel, with phrases of erotic, playful beauty. The Fifth Wound isn’t a discrete, finished text but a single expression of an ongoing and all-encompassing creative process, its constituent pieces not hidden but highlighted.
Mattia makes this intention explicit in an early footnote regarding the Townes Van Zandt lyrics quoted throughout the book, all blacked out because the owners of Van Zandt’s music denied the rights:
Instead of simply concealing the errors, hiding the seams for the sake of beauty, instead of concealing these places of heat and tension in the book, I have decided to make the absence visible by suturing, by making scars, what we call redactions. To show the way my song was wounded. To show the way a wound is sung.
Interspersed with vivid fantasy and recountings of significant memory are passages of what I can best describe as critical theory, in which Mattia offers incisive commentary on such topics as how meaning is constructed and the workings of what she refers to, simply, as Empire—the methods it employs to maintain the current sociocultural hierarchy, to colonize all forms of difference and render immutable and absolute anything that could be considered a kind of identity. By manufacturing selfhood as a series of stable categories, discarding becoming in favor of a framework in which everyone always-already belongs to whatever version of a particular identity has been rendered acceptable, Empire precludes the possibility of sociocultural upheaval —precludes, in fact, possibility at all, possibility being “the precondition of meaning,” which itself is fundamentally “a mode of changing and being changed.”
Given that Aurora is a transgender woman, she places particular focus on how Empire accounts for transgender experience: by damning us with a facsimile of becoming, acknowledging our existence only under the false assertion that our transformation of self is nothing more than a linear process to achieve a stable and clearly delineated identity—the closest possible approximation of cisgender personhood, both in behavior and in body.
Mattia demonstrates that this narrative isn’t just incorrect but actively harmful in a harrowing sequence where she recounts going to the hospital after a man she’s having sex with begins to fuck her so violently that, as she later learns, he tears a three-inch wound in her vagina. Howling in pain in a hospital bed, she is approached by doctor after nurse after doctor, all of whom assume, despite her repeatedly stating that she’s transgender, that the “blood oozing voluminously like magma” out of her is menstrual. One man responds to the disclosure of her gender with the patronizing assurance that she’ll be treated “as a woman,” a term that for him is inextricable from the modifier cisgender.
Perhaps my above description of Empire’s understanding of transgender people is too charitable. Mattia’s is less forgiving: “Empire tells a simple story about so-called transsexual women: that we do not exist because we have never before existed. That we are merely the expression of a latterday delusion.”
In defiance of such blatant untruth, Aurora finds her kind everywhere: among the fairies and mermaids populating her rich imagery; in canonically trans figures such as Aphroditos and Eleanor Rykener; even, as demonstrated in a particularly erotic passage, in Jesus him/herself. This is more than mere representation—by linking herself to such a range of beings, Mattia unfolds the nuances of her personhood beyond the narrow confines of her identity as defined by the “Imperial tongue.” Her maximalist style also assists in the purpose of making herself genuinely, fully understood:
Unless I make myself extravagantly explicit, unless I ensure every atom of my vision is as rococo as a Fabergé egg, unless I trap my reader’s precarious faith in sentences as labyrinthine as Escher’s staircases, such that any attempt to disprove me results, inevitably, in vertigo, that is, unless I sublimate my confessions into a Gordian equation of symbols, who will believe in my outraged scrap of self?
Through figurative language and excursions into fantasy, Aurora is able to communicate her experience with a potency and fidelity not possible had she limited herself to reporting the material details of events as they happened. Her intent, however, is tempered by ambivalence. Aurora is well aware that language has its limits, and worries about whether The Fifth Wound will actually help the reader survive, or whether even her attempt to articulate her selfhood is nothing but more data for Empire.
At the beginning and the end of it all is Ezekiel, the fairy-turned-man that Aurora has never stopped loving, though the nature of that love evolves, as she goes from having lost him to finding him again, after a fashion. The Fifth Wound opens with the declaration of this loss, a description of the end of their relationship: Ezekiel’s walking away, leaving Aurora heartbroken. Her desire to keep Ezekiel is in fact framed as the indirect source of the novel, as she informs us that Ezekiel did not find her beautiful and so she “became a writer so that his eyes would no longer be interrupted by the sight of [her] ugliness.” It isn’t enough. Aurora, knowing this, has become beautiful, though she’s done so too late, and her fraught relationship with beauty is a theme that the novel returns to again and again.
So too does The Fifth Wound return to Ezekiel. Aurora’s relationship with him progresses in chronological time from this beginning-after-the-end, over the course of some years, and passages detailing significant developments between the two appear throughout the novel. The “straight” temporality of this storyline links it to Mattia’s periodic reflections on the process of The Fifth Wound itself. Its linear progression provides an anchor point for the reader during the mixed sequences of fantasy, philosophy, and reflection that make up much of the text.
Ezekiel also serves as something of a foil to Aurora. Though they met as fairies who shared “what could be called a gender,” Ezekiel has become a man and Aurora a woman. Aurora is a creature of language with an instinct to make symbols of things, while Ezekiel at one point tells her that he’s attracted to her specifically because he hopes the act of speaking aloud will neutralize his desire. Ezekiel is afraid to let himself love, while Aurora loves too hard and too much. Aurora is left behind. Ezekiel walks away.
As Aurora gains greater perspective on Ezekiel, she is able both to meet him with more compassion and to articulate his vulnerabilities more clearly to the reader, just as she reveals her own increasingly vulnerable experiences. The relationship between the two is introduced in the language of pain, but it is soon suffused with tenderness and a defiant hope for a happy future. This book of wounding is “half a romance”; is it not fitting, then, that this romance is, essentially, the story of a wound healing?