Front Cover of John Corey Whaley's Where Things Come Back

John Corey Whaley’s “Where Things Come Back” – A Haunting and Truly Thought-Provoking Read

Front Cover of John Corey Whaley's Where Things Come Back

Front Cover of John Corey Whaley’s Where Things Come Back

It is difficult to find quality young adult novels with a sensitive male teenager as the protagonist. While this has to do with the stereotypes generally tied to readers of the genre, the rarity of this character also has a lot to do with issues and perceptions of gender in contemporary society. There is something about the male teenager (who openly expresses his emotions) that tends to irk some people; in tandem, this lack says a lot about the social expectations of masculinity, in which it is deemed that men should be stoic drones incapable of feeling. Nonetheless, some of the greatest young adult classics are written through this rare perspective, including but not limited to J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. 

John Corey Whaley‘s Where Things Come Back (you can read a summary of the novel’s plot here) can genealogically be traced to these aforementioned novels, not only because it delves deeply into the psyche of a male teenager, but also because it is beautifully written, honest, and challenging. By challenging, I am not referring to the complexity of the prose, but rather the complexity of the ideas that are philosophized in the narrative. Rather than complying with the linearity and predictability found in most coming-of-age plots, Whaley offers the reader a challenging puzzle without giving the reader all of the necessary pieces to form a complete picture. This is truly where the novel shines: rather than providing the reader with all of the answers, it is deliberately ambiguous, thus forcing readers to come up with their own meanings. As one of the characters of the novel posits towards its conclusion, “life has no one meaning, it only has whatever meaning each of us puts on our own life” (227).

Structurally speaking, the novel is one of the most experimental that I have encountered within the young adult genre. First and foremost, it offers what at first seems to be two entirely different stories, yet these bifurcated narrative paths begin to merge in unexpected (and heartbreaking) ways. Secondly, the protagonist of the novel, Cullen Witter, tells the narrative mostly from a first-person perspective, except in instances where he is (day)dreaming, reflecting, or analyzing his own thoughts. During these latter moments, the perspective shifts into a self-referential third-person point-of-view, as can be seen in the following passage:

When one’s parents storm out of the house followed by a psychic who is still holding his missing brother’s T-shirt and book, he stands up, looks into his mother’s eyes, and wonders where they are headed. (108)

This not only creates the illusion of the character trying to create a split between the real and the imaginary, but it also illustrates the protagonist’s attempt to actively live life while simultaneously trying to escape from it. The narrative shifts entirely to a third-person perspective when focusing on the plots of other characters.

It is very difficult for me to categorize this novel thematically due to the presence of many issues and tensions within the plot (something characteristic of most coming-of-age novels), which includes religion, violence, love, sex, death, and uncertainty. To further add to the novel’s sense of ambiguity, it is at times difficult to determine whether these issues are approached cynically or optimistically, especially when it comes to the ending. The novel embraces postmodernity (intentionally or unintentionally) by constantly destabilizing meanings and offering multiple perspectives to complex issues. The most intriguing of these destabilizations, in my opinion, was the novel’s treatment of religion, especially as distilled from the perspective of a Christian missionary, a delusional religious fanatic, and the everyday practitioner of religion. The novel also deliberates the issue of fate, pushing one to question the extent to which events are connected and to which our actions and thoughts are predetermined.

The main character of the novel is certainly memorable, but the most intriguing character for me was the Christian missionary, Benton Sage, who at first is the focus of the novel’s secondary narrative (warning: major spoilers ahead!). Benton Sage is a Christian (I assume he’s Mormon, even though this is never explicitly mentioned in the novel) who disrupts his evangelical mission in Africa because he feels that he is not doing much to provide salvation to the country’s residents; his appointed tasks are focused more on charity rather than on preaching. This character is fully immersed in his religion, to the point where he admits that he has few other interests in life, such as music or the arts, because these are not creations of God: “Well, I’ve always sort of thought that if the Lord didn’t make it, then it doesn’t need to be made. So I kind of just stick to the scriptures” (42).

Benton is not only shunned by his family because of his inability to carry on with his mission in Africa, but his future college roommate even goes as far as to speculate that Benton is gay… an interesting claim, seeing as Benton’s roommate is described in a very suggestive and provocative fashion: “Before him stood a tall, lean, and muscular boy around his age with neatly combed brown hair, piercing eyes, and a serious look about him” (78). Alas, the reader is unable to delve too deeply into Benton’s psyche because he eventually commits suicide relatively early on in the narrative–and an explanation for this suicide is implied, although never explicitly stated. Benton’s insecurities, obsessions, and religious fixations transfer to his roommate, Cabot Searcy, who will later be the source of most of the tensions found in the novel.

Where Things Come Back, as the title of this post suggests, has been one of the most haunting reads that I’ve encountered in a long time, and it will definitely be a text that will linger in my mind as I continue to explore issues of personal development, gender, and growth in young adult fiction. It exudes quiet passion and heartbreak, invoking the desperation and the helplessness that is felt when trying to make sense of the ups and downs of life. The book is greatly reminiscent of the other great works of young adult fiction, such as The Catcher in the Rye, Flowers for Algernon, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but it also adds an original twist to the implications of growing-up and facing the harsh realities of life. I recommend this read if you are looking for something that is simultaneously puzzling, meaningful, and beautiful. I am definitely looking forward to reading Whaley’s future work.

Primary Source:

Whaley, John Corey. Where Things Come Back. New York: Atheneum (Simon & Schuster), 2011. Print.

Hand of a child opening a cupboard door

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s [Epistemology of the Closet] – A Staple of Queer Theory

Front Cover of Eve Kokofsky Sedgwick's Epistemology of the Closet

Front Cover of Eve Kokofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet is often approached as one of the most groundbreaking discussions within the study of queer theory. Combining philosophical, legal, literary, and historical approaches towards queerness and human sexuality, Sedgwick’s text is focused on the destruction of the dichotomous divides used to discuss and categorize expressions and epistemologies (states of being) pertaining to sexual identity. She goes as far as to posit that a complete and encompassing understanding of Western culture must incorporate a critical analysis of the establishment and advent of the homo/heterosexual definition (1), and posits that issues pertaining to homosexuality and the closet (such as the divides between privacy and exposure, nature and culture, man and child) are central to most of contemporary Western thought. The aim of this post is to distill some of the more challenging and noteworthy claims made by Sedgwick in her discussion.

Sedgwick’s text was overall challenging due to the elusive and difficult nature of her prose and sentence structure. After reading some passages several times, however, I was offered great insights into the positioning of homosexuality within current strands of thought and philosophy. Here discussion opens up with a differentiation between minoritizing views towards homosexuality (in which homosexuality is of importance to a minority of people with specific attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs) and universalizing views (in which homosexuality and queerness are central in some way to all human beings). She also delves into a discussion of the origins of the term homosexual based mostly on Foucault’s pivotal discussion titled The History of Sexuality (Volume I). Surprisingly, not only was the term homosexual coined before the term heterosexual, but the prominence of the term ultimately led people to identify themselves not only according to their gender, but also their sexual orientation (thus illustrating the convergence of language with sexual identity). The homosexual, in this Foucauldian view, thus became a distinct species. The aim of Sedgwick’s discussion, however, is not to offer an explanation for the establishment of sexual categories, but rather, an exploration of their “predictably varied and acute implications and consequences” (9).

Later on in her book, Sedgwick mentions its purpose, which actually was one of the most difficult passages for me to understand and break-down. Epistemology of the Closet intends to:

demonstrate that categories presented in a culture as symmetrical binary oppositions—heterosexual/homosexual, in this case—actually subsist in a more unsettled and dynamic tacit relation according to which, first, term B is not symmetrical with but subordinated to term A; but, second, the ontologically valorized term A actually depends for its meaning on the simultaneous submission and exclusion of term B; hence, third, the question of priority between the supposed central and the supposed marginal category of each dyad is irresolvably unstable, an instability caused by the fact that term B is constituted as at once internal and external to term A.” (10)

As can be seen in the passage above, this purpose is indeed loaded and slightly difficult, but I will try to deconstruct this passage in hopes of providing some illumination as to Epistemology of the Closet‘s purpose. In essence, Sedgwick is arguing that the binary opposition between homosexuality and heterosexuality is futile due to the instability of this divide in the first place:

1) Homosexuality and heterosexuality are not symmetrical or equal terms, and they are not equal halves of a whole. Rather, homosexuality is a secondary or inferior class of term when juxtaposed to heterosexuality. This part is quite obvious and understandable, for homosexuality (as a term or concept) does not possess the power, “prestige,” authority, or valence  that is loaded within heterosexuality (it is ontologically valorized).

2) The meaning attributed to heterosexuality depends on the not only taking valorization away from homosexuality, but also on the exclusion of homosexuality as part of the heterosexual. Keeping in mind that the term heterosexual was coined after the word homosexual, it comes as no wonder that the heterosexual is thus defined as he/she who does not embrace the traits or behaviors of the homosexual (i.e. I am heterosexual because I am not homosexual).

3) When it comes to the issue of whether heterosexuality came before homosexuality, or vice-versa, is a “dilemma” with no solution that is in turn very unstable, precisely because homosexuality is part of heterosexuality while at the same time being excluded from it. In this sense, homosexuality is similar to Kristeva’s notion of the abject in that you recognize that it is part of the whole while at the same time being excluded from it.

Sedgwick posits that the category of the homosexual, despite its status as a subordinate classification, has  in part refused to wither away because individuals who identify themselves as homosexual view the term as one of empowerment and unification. However, the prominence and permanence of the term is attributed to way more than its use as a gay-affirmative term: “Far beyond any cognitively or politically enabling effects on the people whom it claims to describe, moreover, the nominative category of ‘the homosexual’ has robustly failed to disintegrate under the pressure of the decade after decade, battery after battery of deconstructive exposure—evidently not in the first place because of its meaningfulness to those whom it defines but because of its indispensableness to those who define themselves against it” (83). Thus, the term homosexual thrives not because of its positive attributes, but rather, because it allows a so-called status quo to delineate attitudes and behaviors that it rejects.

On Difference and the Nature/Nurture Debate

After her discussion of the futility of the binary divide between homosexuality and heterosexuality, Sedgwick delves into a nuanced treatment of the three points that I explained above, focusing on the subordination of homosexuality within a heteronormative context, and on the development of axioms that help the reader to understand the importance of difference when it comes to the discussion of human sexuality. The subordination of homosexuality is quite obvious and easy to grasp, especially when Sedgwick discusses biases that have existed in the legal treatment of homosexuality within contemporary society, especially after the appearance and spread of AIDS. For instance, she alludes to the use of gay panic defenses within courts as a way of justifying violence done to members of the gay community, and how “The widespread acceptance of this defense really seems to show to the contrary, that hatred of homosexuals is even more public, more typical, hence harder to find any leverage against than hatred of other disadvantaged groups” (19).

Sedgwick posits a handful of axioms that are necessary not only to fully comprehend the epistemology of the closet and the nuances of sexuality, but also to deconstruct the binaries that enforce ideological views of the world. The first axiom, which at first may seem to be the most obvious, is that people are different from each other. I believe this is something that most people would agree with, but it’s also a very difficult concept to come to grips with. We have plenty of identity markers used to classify, categorize, and understand the people around us, but even then, we only have a very limited understanding of the person as a whole. Sedgwick posits that the most universal markers of identification that exist today are those of gender, race, social class, sexual orientation, among others, but even then, this information only enables us to understand people in very broad ways, preventing a more nuanced or true differentiation from taking place. Sedgwick argues that people, especially those who have suffered oppression or subordination, have had to develop systematic ways of classifying and knowing people in order to determine “the possibilities, dangers, and stimulations of their human social landscape” (23). Learning more about the types of people that exist in the world is not only necessary to avoid stereotyping, but Sedgwick ultimately argues that knowledge about the different people in the world is crucial for survival:

I take the precious, devalued arts of gossip, immemorially associated in European thought with servants, with effeminate and gay men, with all women, to have to do not even so much with the transmission of necessary news as with the refinement of necessary skills for making, testing, and using unrationalized and provisional hypotheses about what kinds of people there are to be found in one’s world. (23)

In axiom 4, Sedgwick aims to deviate from the nature/nature debates that hinge on discussions of homosexuality, preferring to discuss homosexuality in terms of universalizing or minoritizing views because it forces us to ask the question: “In whose lives is homo/heterosexual definition an issue of continuing centrality and difficulty?’ rather than either of the questions that seem to have gotten conflated in the constructivist/essentialist debate” (40). Sedgwick seems to imply that there is perhaps the possibility of a eugenic agenda that might surface if a constructivist view on homosexuality is ever determined to be causal. She argues that gay-affirmative work complies with its aims when it steers away from discussions on the origins of sexual orientation and identity, and focuses more on activist and contemporary concerns. By engaging in a debate on the origins of sexual orientation, one risks participating in a tradition that views culture as something that is malleable and nature as a static phenomenon. If homosexuality were to be viewed as a product of culture, there is the risk of viewing it as something that can be altered or suppressed.

On the Nature of the Closet

The closet, as Sedgwick points out, is complicated because although it is presumably used to conceal a facet of one’s identity, this sense of concealment is not always complete or total. The act of coming out the closet is not a one step process because there is always more than one closet in the life of the homosexual. Coming out is a process that must constantly be dealt with when encountering a new person. One may consider themselves to be out, but there is always someone out there who is not aware of one’s sexuality due to its presumably unmarked nature, and there are times when remaining in the closet seems to be a more feasible, and at times safer, option:

every encounter with a new classfull of students, to say nothing of a new boss, social worker, loan officer, landlord, doctor, erects new closets whose fraught and characteristic laws of optics and physics exact from at least gay people new surveys, new calculations, new draughts and requisitions of secrecy or disclosure. Even an out gay person deals daily with interlocutors about whom she doesn’t know whether they know or not. (68)

Especially today, the closet is closely tied to notions of knowledge, concealment, and truth. The term “coming out” has even been applied to notions that deviate from the disclosure of one’s sexual identity, such as to “come out” as a democrat, or to “come out” as an atheist. It can be said that the notion of coming out has been broadened to such a degree that it is no longer central to notions or matters of sexuality, but Sedgwick argues that in true universalizing fashion, this broadening demonstrates how pivotal queer and homosexual matters are for Western thought, and how integral they are to everyday actions and beliefs (72).

I think that the first couple of chapters within Sedgwick’s discussion really provide a solid platform that enables a discussion of homosexuality, the closet, and their pervasive influence in contemporary thought. The book is particularly useful because it demonstrates not only the futility of binaries as proper mechanisms of definition, but also the issues that surface when determining the relationship that exists between language and sexuality. Homosexuality as such was a category that was devised as a pathological classification of individuals who engaged in same-sex behavior, and the emergence of this category pretty much radicalized the way we approach knowledge and people. This is a text that I must revisit soon in order to fully comprehend all of the arguments and notions that Sedgwick presents in her attempt to reconfigure epistemological and ontological approaches to homosexuality and the closet in a postmodern world.

Primary Work

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. Print.

Bring On the Books for Everbody

On the Evolution of Literary Culture – Jim Collins’ “Bring on the Books for Everybody”

One of the greatest challenges throughout my years engaged in graduate study has been the struggle to validate my field. Validation certainly is a problem in the humanities, especially with the advent and reign of STEM fields and areas. However, even within the field of English, I am constantly met with ridicule, or sometimes scorn, when I tell some of my colleagues that I  primarily work with teen and young adult literature. This has to do with the fact that there are some who consider the study of YA literature to lack the challenge and the intellectual rigor that “authentic” forms of literature fully embody. I find it very curious, however, that some literary scholars dismiss these forms of literature, when most of the time, it is the YA genre that sparked our love for literature in the first place.

Bring On the Books for Everbody

Trying to argue for the usefulness of inclusion of certain genres within the literary field is indeed challenging. However, the primary reason that this challenge is seemingly insurmountable can be attributed to people who think that the label of the “literary” is static and impervious to change. I recently read Jim Collin’s wonderful book titled Bring on the Books for Everybody: How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture, and in due course, this text was a delightful and in-depth exploration of how notions of the literary have rapidly transformed over the past few decades due to developments in multimedia, social networking, and book marketing. Furthermore, the book insightfully illustrates how the literary has melded into the realm of the popular despite the futile attempts to keep these two domains apart.

In his book, Jim Collins explores how popular literary culture developed during the 1990s due primarily to changes in terms how books are marketed, distributed, and sold, and also due to the emergence of different systems of literary expertise: one system based on the validation of literary texts based on their ability to be different and experimental (a.k.a. “literary”) and another system based on the authentication of good literature based on its ability to inspire, promote change, or authenticate feelings/desires for self-improvement. Collins’ explores how the appreciation and practice of literary texts has transcended from an appreciation of literature based on an author’s or text’s “transcendent literary genius” (183) to an appreciation of literature based on its ability to connect people, spark conversation, and speak to a particular community’s set of values, experiences, and expectations.

Part of what I found so convincing about Collins’ book was his reconfiguration of the notions of literary taste and literary communities. Traditionally, when speaking of literature, we tend to resort to the use of hierarchies in order to establish what texts deserve the literary crown, and which texts should remain within the lowest ranks of this pecking order. This notion was made very clear to me when I was once having a discussion with one of my colleagues, in which I was trying to defend Susanne Collins’ Hunger Games series as literary. I thought the series was noteworthy not only because it is an entertaining read, but also because it thoroughly explores issues that some readers otherwise would be oblivious to (i.e. capitalism, social injustice, etc.). My colleague, on the other hand, thought that the series was “poorly written” and that it was too focused on the ventures of a “whiny protagonist.” What we had here was a clash not only of taste, but also in terms of our identifications with particular reading communities. But were any of us wrong? According to Jim Collins, not necessarily so.

Do you consider the Hunger Games to be literary? Why or why not?

Do you think The Hunger Games  has “literary” merit? Why or why not?

Collins focuses on how emerging literary markets, especially those found online in sites such as Amazon.com and large book chains such as Barnes & Noble, are based not on hierarchical tastes, but rather, on the acknowledgment of “different reading communities as coequal options” (78-9). This can especially be seen by the Listmania lists that certain readers develop in Amazon, in which people resort to book recommendations not based on a hierarchy of what is good or bad, but rather, on how well a reader’s own literary taste matches with that of the list creator (thus converting the list creator into someone whose literary judgment can be trusted). The Web has enhanced the existence and prominence of particular reading groups and communities, especially with the advent of websites such as Goodreads, which allows users to generate lists based on the votes and opinions of thousands of readers. My discussion with my colleague in terms of the Hunger Games series not only exemplifies our belonging to different reading communities, but it also represents a clash between traditional and current understandings of literary culture.

Collins further explores this tension by focusing on how forms of popular culture have not only become more “literary” as time has progressed, but also how these forms further fuel the perpetuation of a literary culture that is wrongfully deemed lost. Whether it be through film adaptations, through television shows, through social powerhouses such as Oprah’s Book Club, or even through other forms unexplored by Collins, such as video games and internet blogs—the way we experience the literary is no longer bound to text. Did you delve into Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby though writing, or did you recently watch the 2013 adaptation? Are you familiar with the life of Leonardo Da Vinci through encyclopedias and history books, or do you watch the 2013 television series Da Vinci’s Demons? Have you experienced Shakespeare’s Hamlet through the playtext, through a performance, through the Sparknotes available online, through a comic book, or through one of the many movie adaptations (such as the 1996 version by Kenneth Branagh)? Perhaps the divide between literary and popular culture is not as engulfing as many assume it to be. As brilliantly put by Collins:

Popular literary culture represents a powerful counterargument to the Fahrenheit 451 scenario, since it is built, from the ground up, on the interdependency of the print and visual culture, not a world of books versus wall screens, which persists only within an ideology of reading that can accept just one form of literacy and, therefore, must demonize all electronic culture. (265)

I think that an awareness of how literary culture has changed will be extremely usefully, especially for those who explore non-canonical or non-traditional literary forms. At least within my own studies, I am sure that Collins’ discussion will serve as a sturdy platform for my explorations within the young adult genre, a genre that in due course thrived with the advent of today’s popular literary culture. If you’re seeking a way to situate your understanding of literature within the landscape of popular culture, or if you simply need to encounter an optimistic spin on the literary future of contemporary society, then I definitely suggest that you give this book a look.

Primary Source:

Collins, Jim. Bring on the Books for Everybody: How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010. Print.

– – –

“On the Evolution of Literary Culture – Jim Collins’ Bring on the Books for Everybody” was first published at http://angelmatos.net on June 11th, 2013.

Front cover of Eddie de Oliveira's Lucky

On YA Novels with Male Bisexuality – Eddie De Oliveira’s “Lucky”

Front cover of Eddie de Oliveira's Lucky

Front cover of Eddie De Oliveira’s Lucky

As YA author Malinda Lo once pointed out in her wonderful discussion of bisexual characters in YA literature, “representations of bisexual characters remain few and far between.” This, as Lo pointed out, has a lot to do with the perception of bisexuality in contemporary society, where it is often viewed as an “excuse” for admitting one’s homosexuality, or it is viewed as a “lifestyle” embraced by people who are supposedly greedy or that take sexual promiscuity to the extreme. Society has a long way to go in terms of veering away from these stereotypes.

Male bisexuality in YA fiction is extremely scarce. Lo points out Cassandra Clare’s series as one of the only examples of male bisexuality within the genre (that she could think of). In 2011, Alex Sanchez, one of the most known authors of gay YA fiction, published his novel Boyfriends with Girlfriends, which also contains a representation of bisexuality that is designed to directly challenge the preconceived notions of individuals who are attracted to both men and women (and in my opinion, it is a fantastic introduction to the hardships that bisexual individuals face).

One of the lesser known novels that directly deals with issues of male bisexuality is Eddie De Oliveira’s Lucky, originally published by Scholastic in 2004. Taking place in England (as made obvious by the abundance of British slang peppered throughout the text), the novel focuses on Sam, the protagonist, who is trying to come to grips with his attraction to both men and woman throughout his first year of college. This trial is made much more difficult when he meets Toby, a classmate who has dated both men and women in the past, and who is not afraid to admit it.

The novel, in many ways, follows many of the steps that are seen in the coming out story: there’s a moment of ignorance, a moment of realization, the crisis, the trials, the step out of the closet, and acceptance. All-in-all, I thought the novel was an entertaining and interesting read, although I foresee that some readers may have a couple of issues with it.

Many readers of this novel might be upset when they realize that the main character rarely explores his attraction to men through physical means, but rather, he purely deliberates it through thought and emotion. The character makes his attraction to men explicit, but throughout the entire novel, he does not once kiss another man (and I mean a kiss… not a peck on the cheek). It seems that every time he comes close to achieving some sexual intimacy with another male character, “something” happens.

Despite the fact that Sam’s sexual attraction to men is never acted upon, he does express said attraction, and it bothers him to the point of torture. In a moment where he reaches the climax of his sexual crisis, Sam asks himself:

…did I fancy boys and girls?–or did I just like boys a lot as friends, or did I feel closer to them than girls, and does sex define sexuality, and if I wanted to hug and hold hands but nothing more, did that make me gay or bi? My state of mind was as tangled as a bowl of spaghetti. (130)

Sam constantly denies his attraction to men, this this denial is challenged when he begins to develop an attraction to Toby; an attraction that becomes unbearable once Toby begins to date a woman named Lucy. Seeing Toby together with Lucy drives Sam into fits of rage and jealously, and he ultimately comes to grips with his attraction to both genders due to a prolonged series of events (which I’m not going to spoil here).

Personally speaking, I thought the novel was overall touching and funny, although there are times when I felt that the plot became a bit repetitive, especially when it came to the characters uncontrollable frustration as he dealt with his emerging sexuality and the presence of countless football matches (I’m a disaster when it comes to understanding sports). These football matches, however, are important when it comes to highlighting the patriarchal and chauvinistic ideologies that torment the main character, and that influence his decision to stay in the closet.

The novel is designed to actively contest the stereotypes of bisexuality in hopes of providing the reader with a sense of enlightenment. This contestation is mostly illustrated through Sam’s friends, particularly his oldest friend Pod, who is unable to understand the nature of Sam’s attraction to men and women:

“All right, I’ll tell you what I think. I think I’m straight. I’ve always liked girls. I think Oscar Wilde was gay, he always liked boys. I don’t get how Sam can be both. Sounds to me like he’s hedging his bets. Can’t make his mind up. It’s worse than just being gay, you know. It’s slagging.” (156)

In this instance, the novel taps into the sentiments and attitudes that many people present when they directly confront the issue of bisexuality. Interestingly, Pod considers bisexuality to be a greater offence than gayness because according to him, it expresses a degree of indecision and of selfishness. The novel accurately portrays the social hierarchy that exists in terms of sexual expression, in which gayness and lesbianism are supposedly more tolerable than other expressions of sexual identity such as bisexuality and transgenderism.

I thought that De Oliveira greatly handled the representation of bisexuality in the novel, especially when it came to crafting an ending that doesn’t necessarily fall into glamour or unnecessary melodrama that is usually seen in middlebrow fiction. As a matter of fact, the novel’s ending presents the most memorable and emancipatory moment in the entire text, and I think it will help most readers get over some of the challenges of reading the novel (chiefly the lack of overt male intimacy and the overabundance of the motif of football).

All in all, De Oliveira’s text should be approached as a groundbreaking work within the realm of YA fiction, for its portrayal of male bisexuality in a positive albeit realistic fashion–particularly when male bisexuality in the genre is virtually nonexistent. The novel entertains, and it also educates without seeming overly pedantic (which is a plus). If like the main character, you are looking to “trying something new” (239) within the landscape of LGBTQ YA fiction, you should definitely give Lucky a read.

Primary Source:

De Oliveira, Eddie. Lucky. New York: Scholastic Inc., 2004. Print.

“On YA Novels with Male Bisexuality – Eddie De Oliveira’s Lucky” was originally published at http://angelmatos.net on June 9th, 2013.

We the animals

Justin Torres’ “We the Animals”: A Fresh and Animalistic Twist to the Coming-of-Age Narrative

We the Animals Cover

Front cover of Justin Torres’ _We the Animals_

When constructing the list for my doctoral exams, I wanted to include novels that discussed issues of development, coming-of-age, and sexuality from multiple perspectives. Justin TorresWe the Animals not only caught my attention because it was favorably reviewed by authors such as Michael Cunningham, but also because it contains Puerto Rican representations—and as some of you might know, these characters are quite scarce in YA fiction (especially gay YA fiction).

The novel centers mostly on the experiences of three brothers—Manny, Joel, and the protagonist/narrator—as they grow up in Upstate New York, trying to balance their humanistic demands with their animalistic urges. The two other important characters in the story are the mother, who is white, depressed, and unable to identify a shred of happiness in a domain ruled my machismo and poverty, and the father, a Puerto Rican man characterized by his rough, somewhat brutal, and at times impotent behavior. It does not help that the mother was only fourteen when she became pregnant with Manny, whereas the father was sixteen. Much of the tension within the novel surfaces when the children must assume adult roles as their parents come to grips with the fact that they were never given a chance to be children in the first place.

Part of what I enjoyed the most about this novel was its style and its honesty. The bulk of the narrative is told through the perspective of a sensitive protagonist who is seven years old. Torres did an excellent job of making the youth and the innocence of this character concrete, allowing the reader to understand and at times fall into the trap of the protagonist’s naiveté.

The mother constantly goes through heavy abuse by her husband—she is beaten, insulted, and at one point of the novel, it is implied that he rapes her. The protagonist, however, easily buys into the lies fed to him by his father. For instance, the father explains to his children that their mother was beaten and swollen because a dentist removed some of her teeth by “punching on her after she went under” (12). Other instances of naiveté surface later on, when the father drops off the protagonist at a museum, promising to be back in an hour, only to return hours later with no explanation. That being said, the entire novel is void of explanations because it is distilled through the perspective of a child, not an omniscient and all-knowing narrator.

What makes this novel so haunting is the fact that this violence and abuse is contrasted with many beautiful moments full of tenderness and genuine love. The abuse and the tenderness are further contrasted with scenes that are subtle, but that convey a frightening sense of realness and rawness to the point of invoking discomfort. Among these moments was the scene in which the mother and father were bathing the three children. The whole family is found together within a room, naked or half-naked, sharing an intimacy that I’m not accustomed to seeing in YA fiction. The father urinates as the children are bathing, the mother and father engage in sexual foreplay as the children observe from the tub… it’s a moment that may seem awkward, but that expresses a moment of unity and harmony: “no one wanted to fight or splash or ruin the moment” (45).

I absolutely loved the first 2/3 of the novel, and this love at first dwindled during the last chapters, where some very abrupt and dramatic changes happened somewhat out of the blue. Typically, within coming-of-age stories, one observes a natural, fluid, and linear progression from one point of the protagonist’s life to another. The narrative, particularly during the last two chapters, makes a jump to a future point of the narrator’s life, where he briskly lists the developments that have occurred during a large span of time: he has grown apart from his brothers due to his diverging sensitivities and intellectual interests, and also due to his sexual attraction to men. This split within the narrative occurs after two very important events: the character watches gay pornography for the first time, and after his father abandons him at the museum for a while, he is caught dancing in a feminine fashion. This leads his father to point out the following:

“I was thinking how pretty you were,” he said. “Now, isn’t that an odd thing for a father to think about his son? But that’s what it was. I was standing there, watching you dance and twirl and move like that, and I was thinking to myself, Goddamn, I got me a pretty one.” (102)

This admission on behalf of the father could be interpreted in two ways: either the father was truly admiring his son’s beauty, or, he was coming face-to-face with the fact that his son deviates from the traditional expectations of masculinity (particularly within Latino communities).

While at first I was upset with this sudden and abrupt shift of tone within the novel, it was afterwards that I realized that the actual structure of the novel was mimicking the shifts that the characters themselves undergo when trying to balance their inner human with their inner animal. Furthermore, looking back on the narrative as a whole, I couldn’t help but notice how fragmentary in nature it is, which leads me to deduce that this coming-of-age plot never had linearity as a goal in the first place.

Furthermore, this narrative puts a new spin on the act of coming-out, in which the hardships of the actual process are not depicted. Conversely, the novel centers on the events that foreshadow the character’s sexuality and the final stage of formation as depicted in the final chapters. Keeping in mind that the protagonist has the tendency to be extremely insightful, yet simultaneously naïve,  this leads me to argue that Torres’ novel is an deliberate amalgamation of opposing forces (child/adult, animal/human, before/after, peace/war) that is centered on chaotic beauty rather than on the linear and somewhat predictable exploration of grey areas.

Is it possible that the coming-of-age genre is in due course coming-of-age? What we have here is a novel typically categorized as a coming-of-age or YA text, yet it delves deeply into issues such as the construction/deconstruction of meaning, the fragmentary nature of memory and experience, all while embracing heartbreak and turmoil… making the novel (post)modern in every sense of the word. This is a work I must return to again in the future when I have the time.

Source:

Torres, Justin. We the Animals. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. Print.

– – –

“Justin Torres’ We the Animals: A Fresh and Animalistic Twist to the Coming-of-Age Narrative” was originally published in http://angelmatos.net on June 6th, 2013.