The Short Version: When straight awkward male teenager Adam goes to stay with his older sister in New York City for the summer, he’s ready for his life to change. She’s in the midst of the gay rights movement and drags Adam along – and suddenly he discovers that lots of hot ladies are interested in him… because they think he’s transgendered. So he plays along.
The Review: I’m kind of astonished by this novel. I’m astonished that Alison Bechdel gave it her stamp of approval, I’m astonished that it’s on the Tournament of Books bracket, I’m astonished that it got published at all. I don’t know Ariel Schrag’s work except that it is in the “queer autobiographical cartoon” realm – but this novel just feels like a tonal misfire in nearly every way.
The only way that it’s a success is in the way it talks about the sexuality/gender spectrum. I’ve never read a novel before that is so bold and open about using terms from GLBTQ culture that mainstream readers will almost certainly have to look up. Cisgender, for example, is one that I’d heard maybe once or twice prior to this – and I’m an equality advocate. So it was cool to be learning and to be seeing what felt like a really honest portrayal of a community that, while I might be friends and allies with its members, I’ll never actually be a part of. I felt largely like I was getting to see a community in vivid realness as opposed to fictionally, where the characters feel like… well, characters instead of real people living inside the page. Nearly each and every one of the GLBTQ characters in this book felt like they were more than just a stereotype, more than just a straight person’s understanding of what they’d be like – which is what, as a reader, I all too often come across. Even the most queer-positive writing can sometimes run up against that problem, so it was cool to see folks being given vivid and messy representation.
This was pretty much the only cool thing about the book. I’m still utterly flabbergasted by the plot, here. (also, fair warning, I’m gonna be into SPOILER territory because I can’t not address plot points, especially the ending ones)
Basically, a doofy straight white dude decides to pretend that he’s transgendered in order to sleep with a lesbian – and when she finds out, she’s okay with it! She ends up actually turning straight because of it! This is not the B-plot of an American Pie movie! This is the plot of a critically-well-received novel written by a queer author!
The exclamation marks are just how I feel; they drive home, I hope, the utter ridiculousness and backwardsness of this plot. It’s mostly just a little weird in that sort of “crazy teen hijinks” way for the first half-or-so of the novel – classic “fish out of water, he’s learning so much” stuff and the humor of watching the sheltered kid get his eyes opened is as funny as ever it could be. Even the scene where he’s at a club and gets groped and propositioned by a woman who thinks he’s trans has an element of humor to it: he didn’t know any better, he gets weirded out, he flees and is like “whoa, brave new world that has such creatures in’t.” It’s not offensive, it’s cute and goofy.
It’s when the lies properly begin, when Adam begins his relationship with Gillian, that it gets skeevy as fuck. For one thing: don’t lie to the person you’re dating. Or if you do, in a literary setting, be in a Gillian Flynn or Jonathan Franzen novel. His continued over-the-top ways of keeping up the lie (ACE bandages to wrap his junk? for fucks sake) could be funny if the deception wasn’t so wrong: he’s lying, fundamentally, in order to get laid. If he was lying for nearly any other reason, the humor might win out – but lying to get laid steers us eerily close to rape. Indeed, when they’re at Camp Trans and head out into the woods and she’s like “did you bring it” (it being a dildo) and he says yes WHEN HE CLEARLY DID NOT and they have sex(!!!) that’s…. I was sitting there reading it and saying over and over again “I think that might be rape.” This girl has said over and over again that she doesn’t want a dude… annnnd, oh, wait, no, it’s okay because after they’re done and he admits everything, she tells him that she’s known he was a cis-guy this whole time and she’s actually now into straight dudes. ….? Oh, also, he’s 17 years old so all of this shit is technically illegal anyway.
Look, sexuality is a spectrum – and a fluid one. But the way this fluidity played out felt not like an adapting spectrum but like the magic penis of Sean Connery’s James Bond turning Pussy Galore straight. It was offensive in that it was reductive in its logic – in a year when we’re actually starting to make headway into straight white dudes understanding that they ARE privileged and should feel not-great about it, it baffles me that a novel could come out (let alone be included on a list like the ToB) that basically celebrates the white dude’s privilege by giving him everything that he wants despite his rampant deceitfulness.
But the book was also offensive in that it wasn’t funny. I think if you’re being funny about something, even if that humor hurts, you are engaging with something in a way that forces people to think. I’ve been having ongoing conversations with friends and colleagues about satire, about our ability to find certain things funny or not – and my friend Jack Moore said “your sense of humor only goes as far as your sense of righteousness.” I think that would apply here; if the novel was more broadly satirical, people might’ve been more up in arms about it. But that would’ve been a good thing, because it would be forcing people to confront issues and engage in debate. Instead, I simply can’t see how you can defend this book, even with its mostly-realistic portrayal of queer characters. It just feels wrong.
Rating: 2 out of 5. The only thing stopping it from ignominy is the way the novel does portray (most of) its queer characters: there’s a lot of terminology, a lot of honest discussion, a lot of raw feelings and I think that stuff’s important for our society. If one bro reads this and ends up less homophobic, if one parent better understands their kid, and so – if one of those things happens, then any gripes I have about the novel are irrelevant because something good has occurred. I just can’t help but thinking that the reverse is going to occur, though: that some dude will finish this novel and be convinced that he can convince a lesbian to go straight. That a parent will show it to their kids and say “See? You just don’t know what you’re missing” or something else equally horrid. You can’t have it both ways, being smart and forward-thinking in your portrayal of queer characters and then reward straight white male privilege – because the latter is always, due to our messed up society, going to triumph.