The Cult Classic That Captures the Grind of Dead-End Jobs

Pop culture tends to romanticize bookstores as workplaces. Imogen Binnie’s Nevada does the opposite.

An eye peering through a wall of stacked books
The Atlantic; Getty

Many writers have to wait until old age to see their work reissued. Imogen Binnie, whose debut novel, Nevada, came out in 2013, only had to wait nine years. Nevada was first released by Topside Press, an indie publisher that was run by trans editors and that put out primarily trans literature. It became a word-of-mouth hit, generating what the writer Casey Plett calls a “communal response,” especially among trans and queer readers. After Topside folded in 2017, taking the book out of print, fans kept Nevada alive—discussing it, recommending it, and distributing it via a site called Have You Read Nevada? Eventually, one such fan, the editor Jackson Howard, reached out to Binnie, which led to Farrar, Straus & Giroux reissuing the book this summer.

It’s easy to see why it has reached cult status. Nevada is a delight to read. Its protagonist, Maria Griffiths, is a charismatic screw-up trapped in a bookselling job she loathes. Much of the book is dominated by Maria talking, usually to herself or to her blog, and although her monologues are full of exaggerations and generalizations, they’re also sharp, energizing, and laugh-out-loud funny. Often, they’re infuriating, too. In a recent profile of Binnie, the writer Harron Walker describes feeling frustrated with “Maria’s myopic takes [and] habit of framing her own life as the transgender experience,” and then realizing that “Maria’s myopia is the point.” Maria is stuck in her own existence; Nevada bears witness to her stuck-ness. It was among the first contemporary novels to treat a trans woman’s story in a complicated, nuanced way, not relying on transition for storytelling momentum or treating it as a guaranteed happy ending. Instead, Binnie casually refers to Maria’s transition as a “Very Special Episode,” and then, by and large, lets her protagonist avoid mentioning it again.

I’d argue that Nevada is also important for a different reason: It is among the first great bookseller books. Bookselling—by which I mean working in a bookstore, as opposed to owning one—is labor, and Nevada is as much about class and labor as it is about transness and gender. Of course, the two are thoroughly intertwined, both because money affects transition—consider, for instance, the fact that for Maria not to have to shave every day she’d “have to give lots of money to a professional specialist who sticks electric needles into your face to kill the hair”—and because any honest evocation of a life, real or fictional, will include class. Nevada succeeds at telling Maria’s specific story precisely because Binnie pays attention to the details, and horrors, of her work.

Nevada is explicit about this linkage. Early in the novel, in a passage that features Maria waxing critical about trans women being “at least as boring as everybody else,” Binnie writes, “This is what it’s like to be a trans woman: Maria works in an enormous used bookstore in lower Manhattan. It is a terrible place. The owner is this very rich, very mean woman … The managers under her have all been miserable under her for twenty or thirty (or forty or fifty) years, which means they are assholes to Maria and everybody else.” The swift progression from Maria’s broad assertions about trans women to the day-to-day reality of her job makes clear, to anyone who needed the clarification, that there’s no monolithic experience of “what it’s like to be a trans woman.” Indeed, Maria’s tendency to make grand statements is often a way for her to hide from either her emotions or the banal realities of her not-at-all-generalizable life.

In Nevada’s first half, Binnie evokes the mundane reality of bookselling in detail vivid enough that stockroom dust practically rises from the page. She worked as a bookseller while writing Nevada, and that experience, mixed with her commitment to nuance, sets the novel apart from the many books and movies that romanticize bookstores as workplaces. Often, such stories have store owners as protagonists, and they usually deal less with the work of bookselling than with the industry’s projected future. By contrast, in Nevada, the store’s owner appears only once, and her presumed interests—profit, the store’s reputation—appear nowhere. Binnie instead evokes bookstore work through a cascade of employee impulses, reactions, and slacking-off strategies that took me straight back to my own bookselling days. Maria hides in the Irish History section when she wants to avoid people, yet enjoys the minor mind-reading required when customers “want her to figure out what they want for them.” She debates getting drunk with her fellow workers, sneaks out for “extra bonus breaks,” deflects customers who hit on her, and brings home review copies of new releases, though she already has “so goddam many books.”

Bringing review copies home from a bookstore job is fun, in part, because it feels a little bit like stealing from work. So does slacking off—a form of stealing time—in Irish History. Maria does her best to revel in a mindset that boils down to “fuck promotions and fuck career advances. You just shelve books.” Yet she also wants to be “the sort of person who has too much self-regard to stay at this job,” no matter how much she tries not to buy into the oh-so-American belief that a person’s work is linked to their worth.

It’s a tough myth to avoid. When Maria gets fired, halfway through the book, Binnie uses the moment to, once more, highlight the connection between Maria’s work life and her trans identity. While losing her job spurs Maria to action—it sends her on a road trip to Nevada on a somewhat inchoate quest for a better life—the scene itself is more cruel than cathartic. Her manager avoids her eyes and makes “sure to draw out her name in a way that makes it clear he remembers it wasn’t always her name.” Maria’s been at the store since before transitioning, which means her deadname is part of the manager’s institutional memory—and therefore, part of his power, which he flaunts by being a jerk.

One of Nevada’s through lines is Maria’s many confrontations with other people’s power. Often, her monologues about gender are thinly veiled pep talks for dealing with, say, cisgender liberals who “want to show how much compassion they have,” or “ideas people have [about trans women] that were made up by, like, hack TV writers.” (A happy ending here: Binnie now writes for TV.) Hacky, transphobic television writing is nothing new, but the compassion idea is worth lingering on, given the common narrative that reading fiction is not only associated with empathy, but is also a worthy pastime precisely because of that link. I imagine Maria rolling her eyes at this concept. Binnie, certainly, shows no interest in it—which is yet another reason Nevada is as spiky and enjoyable as it is. Empathy is a worthy human value, but giving it can often feel better than receiving it. Nevada isn’t about the reader, which is to say it’s not about the giver. It’s about Maria, who has no interest in anyone’s empathy—and yet she, too, tries to display her own. In Nevada she meets a young Walmart worker named James, whom she suspects is a trans woman; James suspects the same, but is no more interested in receiving empathy than Maria is. In fact, Maria’s efforts to empathize with James totally backfire.

What Maria wants, or says she wants, is to be seen as her “hilarious, charming, complicated weirdo self.” But she also, clearly, yearns for some form of solidarity. Solidarity is a union word, and Binnie often refers to the fact that Maria is a union member. In 2013, not many booksellers had that option. Lately, though, there has been a wave of bookseller unionization, spurred by the pandemic’s exacerbating effect on the low wages, poor management, lack of paths toward advancement, and other grinding working conditions that are endemic to many bookstores, and that Binnie describes bluntly and well. Reading Nevada as an ex-bookseller makes me hope that someone who buys this novel from a real-life bookstore might, after finishing it, think differently about the person who rang them up. Do they get paid a living wage? Do they get long-enough breaks, or do they have to sneak out for extras? Is their manager decent to them?

Questions like these are the basis of solidarity. It’s impossible to truly understand what the fight for a better life for workers—or for trans people—means without first recognizing the conditions of their lives as they are. Nevada is both a good and an important book for precisely that reason: Binnie lets readers look squarely at the world Maria inhabits, complete with the limitations of a grinding, ill-paid job. It’s easy, once we’ve done that, to understand how badly she needs something more.