Parrotfish_Animal

Ellen Wittlinger’s [Parrotfish]: A Transgender Coming-Out Novel

Front cover of Ellen Wittlinger's Parrotfish

Front cover of the paperback version of Ellen Wittlinger’s Parrotfish

What made a person male or female, anyway? The way they looked? The way they acted? The way they thought? Their hormones? Their genitals? What if some of those attributes pointed in one direction and some in the other?

– Ellen Wittlinger, Parrotfish (p. 131)

Although Julie Anne Peters’ Luna was the first young adult text to tackle the issue of transgenderism, Ellen Wittlinger’s Parrotfish offers us a very direct and personal perspective of what it means to born in the wrong body. Unlike Luna (read my analysis of this novel by clicking here), Wittlinger’s novel is  told from the first-person perspective of the character undergoing a transition from one gender to another, and it is also centered on a female-to-male (FTM) rather than a male-to-female transition. Although the novel lacks a certain degree of credibility due to its almost cartoonish and one-dimensional portrayal of certain secondary characters, it is ultimately a text full of heart, and it complies with its goal of giving the reader insight into what it means for trans youth to come-out within contemporary society. Although the coming-out genre may be deemed tiring and overwrought by some readers, Wittlinger’s novel demonstrates how the genre needs to explore alternate coming-out narratives that are not focused solely on white gay/lesbian upper/middle class characters. I loved Luna‘s initial attempt to do this, but ability to establish a strong rapport with the trans character was limited, due to the fact that the trans character’s story was distilled through her sister’s perspective.

Parrotfish begins at the moment when Angela Katz-McNair–the novel’s protagonist–decides to become Grady. Grady chooses this name not only because of its gender neutrality, but also because it contains the word gray within it: “you know, not black, not white. Somewhere in the middle” (6). He initially comes out as a lesbian because he deemed it to be a closer and easier step toward revealing his queer self within his community. He decides to unleash Grady soon after by declaring himself a boy to his family and friends, and by performing masculinity rather than suppressing it: he cuts his own hair very short, he begins to bind his breasts with a bandage, and he begins to wear traditional male attire. The main tension with the novel is Grady’s fear of losing touch with his past self. By assuming his true gender identity, he fears that he would have to sever his relationship with his past entirely. This is an interesting contrast to Peters’ Luna, for running away from the past is not presented as an option for Grady. He wants to embody his true gender, but in doing so, he does not want to lose a connection to everything that has shaped him.

In my opinion, the most interesting parts of this novel were those that explored not only the emotional difficulties of transitioning from a female to a male gender, but also the physical difficulties of said transition. Peter’s Luna, for instance, focuses more on the emotional torment that its transgender character faces. Luna does express physical torment, especially during the scene in which the trans character, as a child, tries to cut off his penis (as shown through the protagonist’s flashback); these physical accounts, however, are rare. Given that Wittlinger’s novel is told through the perspective of the FTM transgender protagonist, I was expecting a more nuanced understanding of the physical pains of transitioning–and the novel delivers in this aspect. For instance, Grady constantly remarks on how painful it is to breathe and to engage in physical activity when his breasts are bound with tight bandages (even though he is fortunate enough to have small breasts). Grady also expresses the difficulty of determining what bathroom to use in his high school, ultimately avoiding the decision because his understanding gym teacher allows him to use her private bathroom and shower. A particularly insightful scene in the novel in terms of the physical pains of transitioning takes place when Grady explains how he feels towards menstruation while experiencing it:

now I was a boy who had just started his period and was probably bleeding all over his jockey shorts. Yeah, that was normal. Even my own body betrayed me on a regular basis. What was I supposed to do now? Crap. I could feel the cramps advancing. The gym and Ms. Unger’s bathroom were half a mile away from my locker. By the time I ran down there I’d be a mess. (59-60)

Menstruation highlights the tension that exists between Grady’s mind and his body. It also becomes an experience of active struggle for Grady, for although he is trying to be a boy, menstruation coerces his masculinity to clash vis-a-vis the femininity he is trying to suppress. For instance, when Grady is suffering from menstrual cramps, he refuses to acknowledge to them to his mother because it “seemed like an argument against what I’d been trying to prove to her” (61). Thus, even when embodying his true gender, Grady realizes that performativity is still necessary when it comes to expressing truth.

Going back to the fact that this novel is a bit unrealistic, I want to focus on Grady’s fear of not losing his entire past by embodying a different gender (prepare for major spoilers). Towards the end of the novel, most of the tensions that Grady had with other characters vanish entirely. He mends his relationship with his best friend, Eve, after she helps him avoid a cruel prank that other students were planning against him. His family, most of which showed apprehension towards his transition, rapidly become entirely accepting of him. Even the novel’s bully, the nefarious queen bee Danya, faces suspension from Grady’s high school and is ultimately humiliated by other students at the winter dance. The message is clear: to thine own self be true, and not only will everyone accept you, but your bullies will face karmic consequences for their insidious actions.

Not only does Grady’s past relationships stay intact, but his life improves in almost every aspect imaginable. This outcome may be approached my some as misguided, because it undermines the difficulties and the non-teleological struggles of being transgender. Unlike the LGB side of the spectrum, trans youths not only have to come out, but their coming-out entails performative and physical changes that inevitably invoke a contrast between the before and the after. Although I absolutely adore the positive and optimistic message that the novel presents, I can’t help but wonder if the novel is too optimistic and naive when it comes to the issues that transgender teens face. Not all transgender teens are going to be lucky enough to be accepted by every single member of their immediate family. Not all transgender teens will find love and support as easily as Grady does. Peters’ Luna, on the other hand, shows both sides of the spectrum in terms of the consequences of coming out as transgender to one’s family: some quietly accept, some have no issue with it whatsoever, and others react with outrage and at times violence.

I reiterate that I completely understand Wittlinger’s utopian depiction of a transgender future–but I question whether the novel should’ve been more realistic when considering the outcomes of this distinctive coming-out process. I’m especially anxious to know how transgender readers feel about the general approach and conclusions that this novel presents. Regardless of its shortcomings, Parrotfish is well worth a read, and it provides some excellent food for thought. I particularly recommend the novel to readers who are not really aware of the nuances of gender, especially when it comes to matters such as performativity and gender construction. Those who are aware of these nuances might find the novel a bit too obvious and didactic, despite its warm, humorous, and fast-paced nature.

You can purchase a copy of Wittlinger’s novel here.

Work Cited

Wittlinger, Ellen. Parrotfish. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007. Print (Hardcover edition).

The Universe

On YA Fiction with Gay Latino Characters: Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Front cover of Benjamin Alire Sáenz's Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (2012)

Front cover of Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (2012)

Words were different when they lived inside of you.

– Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (p. 31)

A few years ago, I wrote a short essay that was published in the Changing Lives, Changing Minds blogs managed by UMass Dartmouth regarding the importance of young adult literature in my personal and professional life. In this small essay, I discuss that although gay YA fiction helped me to accept myself and to understand the nuances of sexuality and sexual orientation, I always felt a “rift” between my reality as a Latino man and the reality depicted in most gay coming-of-age novels, mostly because:

the representation of the coming out process within the literature is influenced by social, cultural, and racial factors, such that the depiction of the turbulent relationship between certain socio-cultural backgrounds and homosexuality seems to be overshadowed by the ostensibly progressive perspectives of gay males portrayed in novels with white middle- or upper-class protagonists.

Now, this is not to say that there was a total absence of gay YA novels with central Latino/a characters or protagonists. Alex Sanchez’s works, such as his heartwarming Rainbow Boys series and his politically charged novel The God Box have prominent gay Latino characters who happen to be well-rounded, and who are able to fall in love and find happiness (unlike other gay Latino characters in YA fiction, such as in the case of Nick Burd’s The Vast Fields of Ordinary, who are depicted as tortured souls unable to reconcile their personal desires with the demands of their culture). And while I’ll be the first to admit that Sanchez’s works were groundbreaking, I’ve pointed out previously that they are many times perceived as overly didactic, giving them an almost instruction manual-esque character–which is unsurprising given the fact that Sanchez obtained a master’s degree in guidance and counseling. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love Sanchez’s work. But I love it more for it’s emancipatory nature rather than its literariness.

Didactic is one of the last words that comes to mind when reading Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. I still can’t get over how beautiful and amazing this novel is (I know, beautiful and amazing are not “academic” judgments–but as the protagonist of this novel emphasizes, rules must be broken).  This novel is expertly crafted. The prose is simple, delicate, unpretentious, and poetic. The characters are complex, sympathetic, and real. Alire Sáenz plays whimsically with text and blank space, at times giving me the impression that I’m reading a poem rather than a novel. Finally, we have a young adult novel with a gay Latino protagonist that exudes literary merit while also keeping its soul accessible. This is the novel I wish I had in my hands as a teenager, but unless time machines are invented any time soon, I know that this is an impossibility. Alire Sáenz’s words found a way to dig deep inside of me, and as pointed out in the quote above, words mean different things when they dwell in you.

The novel centers on a fifteen year-old Mexican-American teenager named Angel Aristotle Mendoza (who is known as Ari by his family and peers) as he befriends fifteen year-old Dante Quintana, the Mexican-American son of an English professor and a therapist. Early on in this coming-of-age novel, which takes place from 1987-88, it is clear that both of these boys are very different in terms of their outlooks on life, due mostly to their different upbringings. Ari’s father is a Vietnam vet who rarely shares his thoughts of the war and who barely speaks at all, and his mother is a school teacher who maintains a strict yet playful relationship with Ari. Ari is constantly haunted by the fact that his brother, who is fifteen years older than him, was sent to jail when he was four years-old–and the family refuses to acknowledge the brother’s existence, even when Ari requests to know more about his sibling. Growing up with a distant father and family secrets results in Ari having difficulties to share his life openly with other people. Ari’s family contrasts significantly with Dante’s family, who refuse to keep secrets from each other, and who openly show affection. Dante is also an open book who shares his thoughts and emotions even when he is aware that they may offend or bother those who surround him. Despite these differences, they do share many common tastes–especially in terms of their love for language and the written word.

The development of the relationship between Ari and Dante is the crown jewel of this novel. The relationship between these two teens, who at first were friendless and  lonely, is quite intense. Their love for each other is first accentuated when Aristotle jumps in front of a car in order to save Dante’s life. Aristotle ends of breaking both legs and an arm in his effort to push Dante away from a speeding vehicle, and as he recovers in a hospital, the two boys begin to grow closer. As their relationship develops, we as readers observe how the two teens begin to deeply influence each other, and we also observe how their personalities and ideologies spark when coming into contact. I was drawn to specific moments in which Dante’s openness clashed with Ari’s reserved and conservative nature. An instance of this clashing can be seen in the following exchange between the two characters:

“I went swimming today,” he [Dante] said.

“How was it?”

“I love swimming.”

“I know,” I said.

“I love swimming,” he said again. He was quiet for a little while. And then he said, “I love swimming–and you.”

I didn’t say anything.

“Swimming and you, Ari. Those are the things I love the most.”

“You shouldn’t say that,” I said.

“It’s true.”

“I didn’t say it wasn’t true. I said you shouldn’t say it.”

“Why not?”

“Dante, I don’t–”

“You don’t have to say anything. I know that we’re different. We’re not the same.” (151)

What caught my attention in this passage was not only the differences in attitudes that exist between the two characters, but also the way Dante’s sexual orientation is handled in the novel. This passage is essentially Dante’s coming-out to Ari. Later on in the novel, Dante explicitly mentions that he has kissed boys and that he eventually wants to marry a man, but this “confession” is done fearlessly and effortlessly. Dante does have issues in terms of revealing his sexual orientation to his parents, but this is because he is an only child, and he is worried about the heteronormative expectation (especially within Latino communities) of providing grandchildren to his parents: “I’m the only son. What’s going to happen with the grandchildren thing? I hate that I’m going to disappoint them, Ari. I know I’ve disappointed you too” (227).

Dante’s belief that Ari is disappointed in him stems from the fact that he believes that Ari will break their friendship because of his sexual orientation. Ari, however, asserts that they are still friends–and they continue to be friends even when Dante overtly expresses his love for Aristotle. Despite how clear it is that Ari loves Dante, Ari constantly tries to assert heterosexuality. There is an instance in which Dante asks Ari how he is sure that he doesn’t like men if he hasn’t tried doing anything with them–prompting Ari to kiss Dante in order to test the gay waters. Ari claims that the kiss was not enjoyable. Even after Dante is (SPOILER ALERT) gay-bashed during the novel’s falling action, and even after Dante’s parents confess that theyknow Dante is in love with Ari, the latter is unable to say that the two are anything but friends:

I [Ari] wanted to tell them [Dante’s parents] that he had changed my life and that I would never be the same, not ever. And that somehow it felt like it was Dante who had saved my life and not the other way around. I wanted to tell them that he was the first human being aside from my mother who had ever made me want to talk about things that scared me. I wanted to tell them so many things and yet I didn’t have the words. So I just stupidly repeated myself. “Dante’s my friend.” (309)

Something I found remarkably groundbreaking was the fact that it is Ari’s father who helps him come to terms with his sexual orientation. During the final chapters of the novel, Ari and his father have a serious conversation regarding Dante’s feelings toward Ari. Ari points out that he is aware how Dante feels, but that ultimately he has no control over Dante’s feelings. Ari’s father responds by saying: “the problem isn’t just that Dante’s in love with you. The real problem–for you, anyway–is that you’re in love with him” (348). Ari’s father can’t stand seeing his son being consumed by loneliness and self-loathing, so rather than allowing his son to go through the difficulty of finding a way to come out (not only to others, but to himself)–the father becomes the catalyst that allows Ari to express his true sexual identity. I found this to be such a refreshing moment in this novel, for we witness an instance in which the father figure (who is typically represented as chauvinistic, patriarchal, and homophobic in other gay novels with Latino characters) disrupts heteronormative stereotypes by nurturing, rather than suppressing, his son’s homosexuality.

In sum, this is a beautiful, groundbreaking, and insightful novel, and this post really doesn’t do it any justice. I am honored and pleased to announce that I’m currently working on an essay focused on this novel for a collection of literary criticism on Latino/a young adult fiction. In this essay, I will explore how issues of futurity play a role in gay Latino/a YA fiction–and I am certain that Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe will add depth and heart to my academic inquiries.

You can purchase a copy of this novel here.

Work Cited.

Alire Sáenz, Benjamin. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. New York: Simon and Schuster BFYR, 2012. Print (Hardcover edition).

The Rules of Attraction

Knowledge, Postmodernity, and Bisexual Love Triangles: Bret Easton Ellis’ The Rules of Attraction

Front cover of Bret Easton Ellis' The Rules of Attraction (1987)

Front cover of Bret Easton Ellis’ The Rules of Attraction (1987)

“No one will ever know anyone. We just have to deal with each other. You’re not ever gonna know me.”

“What in the hell does that mean?” I ask.

“It just means you’re not ever gonna know me,” he says. “Figure it out. Deal with it.”

– Bret Easton Ellis, The Rules of Attraction (p. 252)

What does it mean to know someone? Friendship, kinship, romance–all of these relationships are based not on blood lineage or genetics, but on the promise of knowledge. What I mean by this is that these relationships are typically forged through experience and through sharing: two or more people have decided to link their hopes, fears, emotions, time, bodies, and space in an effort to stave off solitude, emptiness, and/or ennui. But what happens to relationships if we were to focus on the fact that at the end of the day, it is impossible to truly know someone in their entirety? Through the exploration of the psyche of three characters living a life debauchery, hedonism, and at times, nihilism, Bret Easton Ellis’ The Rules of Attraction exemplifies the futility of trying to know someone. The novel highlights how people are prone to lying, creating an inauthentic image of the self, and misreading the actions of behaviors of those who surround them in an effort to create meaningful connections.

This novel oozes postmodernism. When first reading the book, I thought I had a misprint in my hand due to the fact that the novel begins in the following fashion: “and it’s a story that might bore you but you don’t have to listen, she told me, because she always knew it was going to be like that […]” (13). After doing some quick research online, I found out that the novel was deliberately written this way in en effort to wedge the reader right in the middle of the action. The novel also ends in an incomplete sentence, further eradicating any sense of finality in the novel. Another trait that characterizes the novel as postmodern is its historical rootlessness. Although we are given bits and pieces of the characters’ past through their interactions with friends and family members, we are not given a full back story for most of the characters. We don’t know who the characters were, we can’t tell who the characters are (due to the novel’s ambiguity and contradictory accounts), and by the end of the novel, we can’t even begin to estimate what will happen to these characters–further adding fuel to the novel’s theme of the elusive nature of knowledge.

Because of the reasons above, it is quite difficult for me to provide an accurate summary of the novel. The three main characters of The Rules of Attraction–a novel that is narrated from multiple first-person perspectives–are Sean Bateman (a young man from a wealthy family who heavily abuses drugs and alcohol, who is ostensibly bisexual, and who is prone to self-loathing and suicidal tendencies), Lauren Hynde (a depressed and overly emotional artist/poet who sleeps with many men in an effort to forget her ex-boyfriend), and Paul Denton (a smart, libidinous, self-centered, and overly self-aware bisexual man). They all go to a fictional liberal arts college in the East Coast known as Camden, and the novel heavily implies that they are involved in a love triangle. Paul used to date Lauren before the novel takes place, and it can be interpreted that Sean sustains an active sexual relationship with Paul and Lauren (even though he solely confesses his love for the latter).

The reason I say heavily implied is because although Paul openly shares details of his relationship with Sean, Sean never mentions his involvement with Paul. As a matter of fact, when Sean does refer to Paul in his stream-of-consciousness, he usually does so with apathy or contempt. Although this may suggest that Paul is fabricating the relationship, this can also be interpreted as Sean’s unwillingness to share certain details with the reader–and it becomes clear that the withholding of information and knowledge is key to this narrative. Let me turn my attention to the following passage, in which Sean is reflecting on his sexual relationship with Lauren:

She spoke rarely to me, and never mentioned anything about the sex–probably because she was so satisfied, and I didn’t say much back. So there were few drawbacks to our relationship, fewer disagreements. For instance, I didn’t have to tell her what I thought about her poetry, which sucked even though a couple of her poems had been chosen for publication in the school’s literary rag and for a poetry journal her teacher edited. […] But what was poetry, or anything else for that matter, when compared to those breasts, and that ass, that insatiable center between those long legs, wrapped around my hips, that beautiful face crying out with pleasure? (187)

The passage above illustrates many key features of the novel’s content. It first and foremost shows that there are certain things that people never talk about even though they think them. Interestingly, Sean comments on how Lauren never talks about their sexual relationship, which possibly mirrors his own inability to talk about the (possible) sexual relationship that he has with Paul. Furthermore, the passage depicts how Sean makes assumptions and interpretations of Lauren’s behavior, going as far as to deduce that the reason she doesn’t talk about their sexual relationship is because she is so deeply satisfied with it. However, we later on discover that Lauren doesn’t feel too enthusiastic about her sexual relationship with Sean, and she even fakes her orgasms most of the time.

Paul and Sean’s relationship was one of the most intriguing aspects of this novel, especially due to the dual interpretation that it invokes. On one hand, if we approach this relationship as a figment of Paul’s imagination, then it can be said that it reflects the theme of desire and dangers of living vicariously through the imagination. On the other hand, if we approach the sexual relationship as real, the focus then becomes Sean’s repression and inability to accept and know himself (thus making truly impossible to know anyone or anything). Trying to choose a side is difficult and impossible. At times, I find myself leaning with Paul due to the fact that Sean seems to be deliberately malicious and duplicitous, but on the other hand, I’m also aware that Paul has an ability to change his self-depiction to suit the tastes of those he tries to seduce. For instance, when he first meets Sean, he pretends to have failed a couple of classes in an effort to seem more accessible, especially since Sean is notoriously known for having no interest in academic affairs. Is it possible that Paul’s narrative perspective is deliberately crafted in a way that makes us as readers more sympathetic to him?

What makes this novel fun and great is precisely its ambiguity, and its attempt to replicate our approach to the people around us. We can make estimations of why people are the way they are, why they behave a certain way, why they engage in certain activities, but all in all, we can never be certain. Our knowledge of people is not truth. Our knowledge of people is limited to what they divulge to us, and even then these revelations can be twisted, fabricated, or misinterpreted. Attempting to know the characters in this novel makes us no different from Paul during the narrative’s conclusion, who chases after Sean’s motorcycle as it rides away in the horizon–aware of the fact that he would never catch it. Perhaps Ellis is parodying us as readers, who expect to understand the characters by the time we reach the final page. Yet, as a cruel and ironic joke, the final chapter is incomplete–leaving us exactly where we began. I guess Sean Bateman was right… we’re not ever gonna know anyone.

Work Cited

Easton Ellis, Bret. The Rules of Attraction. New York: Vintage Contemporary Editions, 1998. Print (Paperback).

Buttefly Luna

On Transgenderism and Transition: The Case of Julie Anne Peters’ Luna

Front cover of Julie Anne Peters's Luna (2004)

Front cover of Julie Anne Peters’s Luna (2004)

Locating narratives of transgender persons (particularly teens) is no easy task, especially when considering that fictional works (excluding film and television) with central transgender protagonists didn’t really surface until the late 1980s and early 1990s. One of the first fictional attempts to portray issues transgenderism is Bill’s New Frock, a children’s book written in 1989 by Anne Fine. Bill’s New Frock tells the story of a boy named Billy, who wakes up one morning to find out that he is now a girl–and must confront the difficulties of being a girl while consciously feeling like a boy. Though the amount of novels with central transgender characters has remained relatively low when taking the entire scope of LGBTQ literature into consideration, the visibility of transgenderism has increased dramatically in the twenty-first century, especially with the publication of the Pulitzer Award-winning book Middlesex (2002) by Jeffrey Eugenides.

Within the scope of transgender fiction, Julie Anne Peters’s Luna is arguably one of the first young adult novels to thoroughly capture the trials and tribulations faced by teenagers with Gender Identity Disorder (GID), as distilled through the perspective of a family member. The novel is narrated and centered mostly on Regan O’Neill, a “genetic girl” or “g-girl” who desperately tries to understand and protect her brother, Liam, as he begins his transition into Luna, his [1] true female self. When first reading the book, I was curious as to why Peters decided to tackle the “reality” of transgender teens through the lens of a straight, female protagonist rather than through the lens of Luna herself. According to an interview conducted by Cynthia Leitich Smith, Peters asserts that:

I’m not trans. I never will be. My authenticity bias couldn’t be compromised. To be authentic and honest, the narrator, the main character, would need to act in the role of observer. I decided to create a sister for Luna, Regan. Regan would be Luna’s confidante throughout life and in that way she could see, and relate to the reader, the childhood manifestations of being born transgender.

I thought that this choice to tell Luna’s story through the perspective of her sister was effective, because it allows the reader to not only understand the frustration and pain that Liam goes through in order to assure that Luna can exist, but also how this frustration and pain can affect a person who isn’t transgender.

In terms of Luna‘s narrative structure, the plot is told through Regan’s real-time experiences, and also through a series of flashbacks that are triggered as she witnesses Liam’s struggle to unleash Luna. These flashbacks (indicated in the narrative via the use of italics) ultimately serve the purpose of pinpointing moments in the past in which Regan notices Liam’s dissatisfaction with his sex at an early age, and how he was coerced to perform masculinity even when he felt this was hypocritical and downright contradictory to his being. These flashbacks are crucial towards delivering the novel’s message of acceptance by highlighting the physical and emotional toil of being born into a body that one does not fit into.

There was one particular flashback that was striking to me, due to the immense physiological reaction that Liam develops when he compares his own naked body to that of his sister and a friend. When a young Liam encounters his younger sister and his friend Kate waddling stark naked in a kiddie pool, he removes his swimming trunks and stares at himself. He then begs his sister and his friend, Katie, to “Take it off” (226) repeatedly, thrashing back and forth as he tries to yank off his penis. His friend Katie, after giggling, assists him in pulling his penis, much to the horror of their parents. Liam’s mom pulls him away from the pool and punishes him. When the mother later enters the home to answer a ringing phone, the following exchange happens:

“What have you done? Oh my God. Put that knife down.” She [the mother] appears behind the screen, clutching Liam in her arms. “Connie, I need to run Liam over to the emergency clinic.”

Mrs. Camacho rushes across the yard. “What happened?”

“He cut his . . . his leg. Will you watch Regan?”

“Of course. You want me to call Jack [Liam’s father]?”

“No,” Mom replies quickly. “No, I can handle it. He doesn’t need to know.” Mom says something else, but all I see is the blood running down her leg. (227)

The passage above is quite violent, and it definitely stand out as one of the most memorable scenes within the novel. Despite its heartbreaking and violent nature, this scene does an effective job of portraying an anti-essentialist view of gender, in which biology does not always correlate with sexuality or identity. Regan, as a narrator, goes at lengths in order to demonstrate that at some level, her entire family is aware that Liam is different, and that he has always deviated from the normative expectations of masculinity. Regan’s father actually confronts Regan about Liam, asking her if she happens to know whether or not Liam is gay. Regan answers, truthfully, that Liam is not gay, but she thinks about how he does like men because he truly is a girl. It is important to note that in Luna, Peters makes a split between sexual orientation and gender identity, ultimately arguing that attraction to a particular gender and one’s own sex are not enough to account for the complexity of the (sexual) self.

As with most texts that discuss transgenderism, it seems that a split between the body and the mind is a prominent (and perhaps necessary) motif. This separation between the body and the mind is noticeable early on in Luna, when Regan notes that Liam usually drives in his convertible car with the top down, even during the winter: “As if he couldn’t feel the cold; as if his body wasn’t connected to his brain” (18). The novel also seems to depict a separation between Liam/Luna that is interesting in terms of performance and binaristic thinking. On one hand, Luna can be approached as a constructed persona. After all, Liam and Regan are aware that in order to Luna to reveal herself, Liam must change his clothing, put on a wig, and overall go through a transformation process that takes over an hour. Nonetheless, Luna simply approaches this process, despite the layering and construction, as an embodiment of the self, whereas she views Liam as the performance:

“Liam.” He let out a short laugh. “Who’s that? A caricature I’ve created. A puppet, a mime, a cartoon character. I’m this male macho version of a son that Dad has in his head.” (20)

Luna believes in the ability to shape the self rather than suffering from the woes of biological determinism, unlike Regan, who initially believes that “You can’t change your destiny” (60). What Regan learns throughout the course of the novel is not only how gender is in no way deterministic or tied to destiny, but also how binaristic thinking leads to limitations and judgments that do more harm than good. She initially is unable to understand Luna’s attempts to collapse her two selves by choosing truth (Luna) over performance (Liam); Regan is also unable to understand why Luna decides to run away to Seattle in order to begin her new life. Ultimately, Regan understands that these are necessary steps that Luna must take to be happy in life.

What caught my attention in terms of Luna’s escape to another state is that–alluding to ideas posited by Judith Halberstam–we encounter a moment in which an individual must escape the influence of the heteronormative family in order to discover alternative ways of being that aren’t tied to normative notions of success or development. This is made definitely apparent when we consider the fact that Liam is a depicted as a genius: he designs computer code, he aces all of his classes, and he is paid to find bugs and programming flaws for a video game company. Luna makes it clear that by leaving to Seattle, she won’t finish high school, and she will be giving up college and the scholarships that were given to her. Although this might be considered a failure according to normative standards, Luna views it as a success because it is her only chance to  can stop performing and start being:

“This isn’t good-bye. It’s hello. I think of it as a new beginning because that’s what it is for me. A rebirth. I’m starting my life over. The next time we meet, you won’t even know me.” (247)

All in all, this was an insightful and enjoyable read, and you can definitely tell that Peters went through a lot of research and reflection before crafting this novel. I definitely recommend this text as a segue into transgenderism as represented in fiction.

You can purchase a copy of Luna by clicking here.

– – –

[1] The protagonist of Luna refers to her sibling Liam/Luna using variable names and pronouns. Although she refers to Liam/Luna as both her sister and brother, there are times she refers to him as her brother even though she dons female attire. In an effort to replicate the use of pronouns in the novel, I will refer to Liam/Luna as both a he and a she.

Work Cited

Peters, Julie Anne. Luna. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2005. Print (Paperback edition).

hardlovecover

On Asexuality and Kinship: Ellen Wittlinger’s [Hard Love]

Front cover of Ellen Wittlinger's Hard Love

Front cover of Ellen Wittlinger’s Hard Love

Ellen Wittlinger’s Hard Love is at its core a novel about love, but it is quite different from other young adult novels on the subject that were written in the late 1990s. The narrative is centered on John Galardi (known by some as Gio), a junior in a high school who is still haunted by the ghosts of his parents’ divorce. On one hand, his father abandoned John and his mother because they did not comply with his self-image as an elitist literary publisher and playboy; on the other hand, because of John’s resemblance to his father, his mother has avoided physical contact with her son for over six years (no hugs, no physical proximity, nada). Because of this, John not only has difficulties expressing his emotions, but he also prevents other people from reaching out to him in order to avoid being hurt. He he poingnantly expresses this notion in a letter to his mother:

So I took all of the sadness of the divorce, and all the love I’d once had for both of you [his parents], and all the fear I had of being alone, and turned it into a stone wall to hide behind. To protect myself. I’m so protected now, dear mother, sometimes I feel like I’m barely alive. I am immune to emotion. And I hate you for it. (139)

John’s thoughts and feelings are shared with others anonymously through a zine he writes and publishes titled Bananafishwhich he writes after being inspired by a series of zines he read at a record store. He is particularly drawn to a zine titled Escape Velocitywritten by someone named Marisol, who is a self-proclaimed “Puerto Rican Cuban Yankee Cambridge, Massachusetts, rich spoiled lesbian private-school gifted-and-talented writer virgin looking for love” (9). Drawn to the rawness and honesty of Escape Velocity, John devises a way to meet Marisol at the record store the day she delivers her publication for distribution. Tethered by their emptiness, confusion, and lack of experience, John and Marisol become quick friends–and seeing as Marisol is the first person that John was able to connect to, he falls in love with her. The main tension within this novel arises through this love–John truly believes that their connection transcends labels of sexuality and sexual orientation, whereas Marisol is certain that she’s a lesbian and she can never envision herself dating a man. The narrative then explores whether their friendship can survive the incongruity that exists in terms of their love for each other.

Excerpt from page 93 of Ellen Wittlinger's Hard Love. The novel is mostly told through the protagonist's perspective, and this perspective is enhanced with the novel's zine-like structure. Text is written in different fonts, images and text are combined in unique ways, and the pages sometimes give the impression that they are collages of letters, newspaper clips, and clip art.

Excerpt from page 93 of Ellen Wittlinger’s Hard Love, illustrating one of the many zines that John reads throughout the narrative. The novel is mostly told through the protagonist’s perspective, and this perspective is enhanced with the novel’s zine-like structure. Text is written in different fonts, images and text are juxtaposed in unique ways, and the pages sometimes give the impression that they are collages of letters, newspaper clips, and clip art.

As can be seen in the image above, Hard Love is structurally interesting because it is presented as a collage-like collection of letters, narrative, images, newspaper clippings, poems, autobiographical pieces, and general musings that attempt to replicate the feel of an actual zine. All of these mediums work together to give us a snapshot of John’s mind. The fragmented feel of the novel does an exemplary job of concretely depicting John’s anger, confusion, and truth while at the same time leaving enough room for the protagonist to be ambiguous and difficult to understand.  John’s characterization was very intriguing to me, not only because of the novel’s structure, but also because of his gender identity and sexuality. For instance, early on in the novel, John expresses his inability to find women attractive, and he often expresses his disdain towards his friend Brian because of the latter’s overly enthusiastic attraction to women that he has never spoken with. As a matter of fact, for a while I was convinced that John was asexual, which would’ve been amazing given that as of yet,  I’ve not encountered an explicitly asexual character in a young adult novel. I got this sense in passages such as the following:

I can’t stand it anymore, the constant talk about girls and sex. I just don’t feel like thinking about that stuff. Waybe it’s weird, but I’m not interested in it. I mean, it worries me a little sometimes, because I guess guys my age are supposed to be like Brian, lusting after pouty lips and big boobs. But to me, the mystery of female body parts is one I’d just as soon not solve. Not that I’m interested in boys either–I’m just not interested in the whole idea of locked lips or proclamations of love. (19)

John’s sexual ambiguity and his inability to discern his sexual inclinations becomes a prominent issue in the early chapters of Hard Love, and there are instances in which John is unable to deduce whether he can potentially be attracted to any sex at all. At one point, John admits to Marisol that he possible could be gay, but he hasn’t taken a moment to contemplate this possibility. My initial reading of John as potentially asexual was further evidenced by Marisol’s attempt to fix up John with her gay friend, Birdie. This fix up fails, however, because Birdie thinks John is heterosexual based on his behavior and attitudes. Let me turn my attention to the following exchange between Birdie and John after the latter is accused of not being gay:

“What do you mean? I’m not  even sure myself if I’m gay or not. I mean, I’ve been thinking maybe I am.”

You have? Are you attracted to men?” Birdie asked.

“Well, no. But I’m not attracted to women either.”

“Oh, well, that’s just dysfunctional, not gay,” Birdie announced confidently. I was lost for a comeback. (52-53)

Marisol then asks whether John was disappointed to find out that he is not gay, to which he responds “It’s just Birdie’s opinion” (53). Now, there are obvious issues of asexual representation in the exchange between Birdie and John, because asexuaity is viewed as a dysfunction rather than an alternative way of being. It is possible to perceive a tension between John’s attempt to define his sexuality while at the same time having it defined by others. John’s non-normative sexual behavior and attitudes certainly make him queer to some extent, but this queerness is somewhat subdued when John “discovers” his heterosexuality through his attraction to Marisol. Although he confesses his love to Marisol, she does not reciprocate his feelings. She admits she loves him, but only “as much as [she] can” (223). Although he is attracted to Marisol, who is a woman, John suggests that his love is not a matter of genitalia and sex, but rather, who is capable of seeing one for who they truly are:

To tell the truth it couldn’t matter less

who wears the pants or the dress, but only

who becomes visible to whom.

You saw me truly, and I saw all you let me;

I’m not lying now, and I hope I never will. (205)

What makes this novel unique is that it is a love story that focuses on a protagonist who views love as a matter of connection rather than of sex or sexual orientation–although this in turn is problematic, mostly because at times it seems like John hopes that his love for Marisol could provoke her to overcome her lesbianism. This does not happen, and thus, this novel is anything but a young adult version of Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy. The novel also attempts to reconfigure the reader’s perceptions of friendship and family, ultimately presenting alternative ways of kinship that are not necessarily sexual or heteronormative in nature. Although it seems that John is in due course heterosexual and not asexual, there is an ambiguity and openness about him that is both refreshing, intriguing, and queer. Now, my question is: when will we have a great young adult novel with an asexual protagonist? Does anyone know about one?

You can purchase a copy of Hard Love here.

Work Cited

Wittlinger, Ellen. Hard Love. Simon Pulse, 2001. Print. (Paperback edition)

Angels in America

On Stasis, Mobility, and Postmodernism: Tony Kushner’s Angels in America

Front cover of Tony Kushner's Angels in America (Millennium Approaches and Perestroika)

Front cover of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (Millennium Approaches and Perestroika)

Well I hate America, Louis. I hate this country. It’s just big ideas, and stories, and people dying, and people like you. The white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word “free” to a note so high nobody can reach it. That was deliberate. Nothing on earth sounds less like freedom to me. (Kushner 228)

The quote above depicts the moment in which Belize, one of the central characters of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, challenges the optimistic view of American freedom, and he ultimately challenges idealism and “Big Ideas.” Belize, a black, gay, ex-drag queen and nurse, is perhaps the ultimate embodiment of queerdom in the play in terms of his anti-normative positionality in a mid-1980s America. This liminal position not only allows Belize to notice and question the limits and destructiveness of idealism, but it also allows him to reject it all together: “I live in America, Louis, that’s hard enough, I don’t have to love it. You do that” (Kushner 228). Belize complies with the overall aim and objective of the play, which is the importance of questioning everything in light of the inevitable unsustainability and paradoxical nature of (American) life. In a world full of hate, sickness, global warming, religious and spiritual incongruity, corruption, greed, and inequality, how is it even possible to find stability and meaning? What does it mean to be sexual, spiritual, healthy, or successful in a world where these concepts are approached discordantly by different people?

Kushner’s Angels in America, a Pulitzer Prize-wining play which takes place within the peak of the AIDS crisis, attempts to address all of the questions above through the lives of characters who are in one way or another affected by the syndrome. It is through the play’s exploration of AIDS that the goal of postmodernism, which is to question everythingis put into practice. Naturally, the juxtaposition of AIDS and postmodernism is absolutely feasible given their similarities of structure and meaning. In Spaces of Belonging, for instance, Elizabeth H. Jones alludes to Lee Edelman’s views to argue that AIDS and postmodernism are similar in their “disrespect for the laws of orderly representation and hierarchy” (263) and their linkage to contemporary issues such as the “decline of faith in rational, transparent representation” (263). Thus, Belize’s confrontation with Louis, as illustrated above, mocks the view of America as a stable entity, and more importantly, it ridicules Louis’s belief in his knowledge–despite Louis’s assertions, he understands little about his Mormon/closeted/Republican boyfriend Joe, he knows nothing about America, and he is oblivious about how the society he idealizes is crumbling beneath his feet.

A similar obliviousness can be seen through the character of Roy Cohn, the cartoonishly evil lawyer and powerbroker that we can’t help but pity (to some extent) towards the end of the play. When he is diagnosed with AIDS, Roy takes it as a personal offence because he deems that his doctor is labeling him as a homosexual. The doctor tries to state the facts of Roy’s condition and its causes, ultimately affirming that Roy has “had sex with men, many many times” (Kushner 51). Roy proceeds to make the claim that who he sleeps with does not define who he is:

Like all labels they tell you one thing and one thing only: where does an individual so identified fit in the food chain, in the pecking order? Not ideology, or sexual taste, but something much simpler: clout. Not who I fuck or who fucks me, but who will pick up the phone when I call, who owes me favors. This is what a label refers to. (Kushner 51)

Here, we observe Elizabeth H. Jones’ views on AIDS and postmodernity manifesting within the play. Roy not only argues that labels place one within a social hierarchy, but he also points out that they serve to represent and restrict an individual to certain forms of being. He then proceeds to establish that labels  ultimately indicate how much power (“clout”) an individual possesses. Given that Roy views the label of homosexuality as a label for individuals with no power, and seeing as he repeatedly affirms “I have clout. A lot” (Kushner 51), he challenges the extent to which homosexuality is able to transparently represent him. Though his rejection of homosexuality may seem to be an attempt to disrupt stable representation, he does so by embracing another hierarchical binary: the powerful versus the powerless. It is here that AIDS works as a postmodern agent in the play. Despite the fact that Roy declares himself to be on the top of the food chain, and despite the fact that he declares himself as a man with a lot of clout, AIDS renders him powerless, while simultaneously putting him on the same level as everyone else who dies with AIDS. Despite the fact that he views his power as stable, AIDS destabilizes it. Now, we run the risk of viewing AIDS as a karmic agent in the play, out to feed on the evil and the power-hungry, but this changes when we realize that AIDS is not controlled by power or hierarchy, and there are relatively good and sympathetic characters (such as Prior) who are affected by the syndrome as well.

Stability is also challenged through the character of Prior Walter, who can in many ways be approached as the protagonist of the play. In the climax of Angels in America, Prior is approached (in a dream) by an Angel (also known as the Continental Principality of America). The Angel declares that Prior is a prophet who must disperse the ideas present within the sacred implements, which turn out to be “The Tome of Immobility, of respite, of cessation” (Kushner 265). This Tome is meant to aid Prior in bringing a halt to the instability caused by humanity’s upward mobility: “As the human race began to progress, travel, intermingle, everything started to come unglued” (Kushner 176). Thus, stasis, finality, and ultimately, death are seen as a solution to the world’s postmodern state–a way of bringing order to chaos. Prior ultimately rejects his role as a prophet, simply because he views life as dynamic rather than stable. He finds stasis to be a paradoxical mode of being, because to achieve stillness in an active environment requires exertion and yearning:

It just. . . . It just. . . . We can’t just stop. We’re not rocks–progress, migration, motion is . . . modernity. It’s animateit’s what living things do. We desire. Even if all we desire is stillness, it’s desire for. Even if we go faster than we should. We can’t wait. (Kushner 264)

In this case, progress is not viewed as linear, but it is viewed as motion. Progress involves desire, a denial of stasis, and a refusal of order and permanence. Rather than embracing death, Prior desires to embrace life and the ability to keep on moving: “I want more life. I can’t help myself. I do” (266). Immobility, stability, and transparency are impossible in a postmodern world. But as Belize would say, just because we live in it, it doesn’t mean we have to love it. Being, according to Kushner’s play, is not a teleological movement, but rather, a movement with no fixed endpoint.

– – –

Acknowledgments: I’d like to thank Leanne MacDonald, Evan Scott Bryson, and Lindsay Haney for their insightful comments on this play. They really helped me to sort out my own thoughts in this analysis.

Works Cited

Jones, Elizabeth H. Spaces of Belonging. New York: Rodopi, 2007. Web.

Kushner, Tony. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2003. Print.

mauricecover

On Happy Endings and Gay Fiction: E.M. Forster’s [Maurice]

Front cover of E.M. Forster's Maurice

Front cover of E.M. Forster’s Maurice (1971)

“A happy ending was imperative. I shouldn’t have bothered to write otherwise. I was determined that in fiction anyway two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows, and in this sense Maurice and Alec still roam in the greenwood. […] Happiness is its keynote–which by the way has had an unexpected result: it has made the book more difficult to publish.”

(E.M. Forster, Terminal note of Maurice – p. 236)

Maurice, a central text within the gay literary canon, is by far one of the bravest creative works written within the genre of LGBT literature; arguably, it is one of the bravest texts of the early twentieth century. The novel is an essence a Bildungsroman that traces the emotional development of the eponymous hero as he deals with the repercussions of being homosexual in Edwardian England. During his time at college, Maurice Christopher Hall becomes involved in a romantic (yet strictly chaste) relationship with his Cambridge colleague, Clive Durham, until the latter decides to marry a woman–leaving Maurice desolate and heartbroken. Through his attempts to “cure” his homosexuality through hypnosis and other means, Maurice meets Alec, a gatekeeper at the Durham estate. He becomes involved both romantically and sexually with Alec, and decides to start a life with him–all while affirming his “Wildean” identity to Clive as an act of socio-cultural resistance. As Maurice admirably states in his declaration of queer embodiment to Clive:

I was yours once till death if you’d cared to keep me, but I’m someone else’s now–I can’t hang about whining for ever–and he’s mine in a way that shocks you, but why don’t you stop being shocked, and attend to your own happiness? (230)

Although written by E.M. Forster during 1913-14, he refused to publish the book during his lifetime because of the negative legal and moralistic attitudes toward homosexuality that permeated England during the advent of the century. While bravery isn’t necessarily reflected in Forster’s (perfectly reasonable) decision to withhold publishing the text during his lifetime, it is reflected in the novel’s content: to envision a world, fictional or realistic, in which two men could “fall in love and remain in it” was beyond the scope of most modernist writers. It’s also brave in terms of its optimism, for in a world in which literary merit is driven by pain, suffering, depression, and unhappy endings, writing a novel with a happy ending is indeed a deviation from the grim albeit expected nature of the “literary.”

It is no coincidence, however, that Maurice was written just before World War I. One could only imagine how this optimism would be affected if the novel were written a year or two later. Forster did edit the novel during the 1960s, and it was known for having an epilogue in which Maurice’s younger sister (Kitty) encounters him and Alec working as woodcutters (and the consequent hatred she develops once she puts two and two together). Forster decided to discard this epilogue because the novel’s action is set in 1912, and the epilogue would’ve taken place a few years later in “the transformed England of the First World War (239). Thus, even though the novel is edited decades after it was written, its narrative essence and its optimistic outlook remained unchanged because it is meant to be approached as a snapshot of homosexual love during a period in which issues of class, aristocracy, politeness, and appearance are crucial to character development. This, in conjunction with the fact that the novel was published almost sixty years after it was written, leads it to be approached as a period piece (even though it was not written to be read this way).

Given the fact that the novel was written so early during the twentieth century, it is surprising to see how forward-thinking the novel is in terms of its views on sex, homosexuality, and queerness. Maurice is shown from his early teens to sense some discomfort in terms of heterosexual courtship. This is particularly noticeable when Mr. Ducie is explaining the act of heterosexual intercourse (with diagrams and illustrations traced on sand) to a fourteen year-old Maurice at the beach. The young teen is unable to grasp the adult’s approach to the birds and the bees: “He was attentive, as was natural when he was the only one in the class, and he knew that the subject was serious and related to his own body. But he could not himself relate it; it fell to pieces as soon as Mr. Ducie put it together, like an impossible sum (7, emphasis mine). The design and mechanics of heterosexual intercourse do not mesh with Maurice’s sensibilities, thus linking homosexuality to organic or perhaps even genetic roots. Indeed, this biological perspective goes in accordance with the view of homosexuality as pathological during this period, and the hypnotist that attempts to cure Maurice of his “trouble” in the novel goes as far as to diagnose him with a case of “Congenital homosexuality” (167). This diagnosis may indeed seem problematic, but before jumping to conclusions, I want to focus my attention on an exchange that happens between Maurice and Lasker Jones (the hypnotist/therapist) during the last failed attempt to cure the former of his so-called ailment:

“And what’s to happen to me?” said Maurice, with a sudden drop in his voice. He spoke in despair, but Mr Lasker Jones had an answer to every question. “I’m afraid I can only advise you to live in some country that has adopted the Code Napoleon,” he said.

“I don’t understand.”

“France or Italy, for instance. There homosexuality is no longer criminal.”

“You mean that a Frenchman could share with a friend and yet not go to prison?”

“Share? Do you mean unite? If both are of age and avoid public indecency, certainly.”

“Will the law ever be that in England?”

“I doubt it. England has always been disinclined to accept human nature.”

Maurice understood. He was an Englishman himself, and only his troubles had kept him awake. He smiled sadly. “It comes to this then: there always have been people like me and always will be, and generally they have been persecuted.”

“That is so, Mr Hall; or, as psychiatry prefers to put it, there has been, is, and always will be every conceivable type of person. And you must remember that your type was once put to death in England.” (Forster 196)

Although homosexuality is approached as pathological in most of the novel, Lasker Jones and Maurice seem to come to the consensus that homosexuality is simply a way of being that has been policed and suppressed in an effort to further wedge the divide between the cultural and the natural. This passage is emancipatory in that it problematizes the view of homosexuals being unable to assimilate to cultural norms through an inversion of agency: the problem is not the homosexual’s inability to mesh with society, but rather, society’s inability to mesh with the homosexual (i.e. people who have existed, exist, and always will exist). This is precisely why a happy ending for the novel, as Forster put it, was imperative.

Forster could have played it safe to assure that Maurice was published during his lifetime: “If it ended unhappily, with a lad dangling from a noose or with a suicide pact, all would be well, for there is no pornography or seduction of minors” (236). But ending this novel in a tragedy would’ve not only followed the formula of countless other novels with gay content published during the time, but it also would go against the possibility of creating an active and effective identity politics. True, tragedy (and backwards feelings), in its own macabre way, has a way of inspiring and igniting a politics of identity; after all, it is pain that establishes the need for a politics of identity in the first place. However, considering all of the pain already portrayed in the novel, would it be necessary for characters to embrace death as a way of demonstrating the unfairness of the status quo? Forster suggests, in due course, that perhaps the shears needed to unravel the knot of (hetero)normativity are not found through death, solitude, and pain, but rather, through life, union, and happiness. Maurice, rather than basking in solitude, finds strength through Alec, and assures him that they “shan’t be parted no more, and that’s finished” (225). And although the forever-ness present within the lack of this parting may only be found in fiction, it is a fiction I’m willing to live through vicariously.

You can purchase a copy of Forster’s Maurice here.

Work Cited

Forster, E.M. Maurice. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1971. Print.

curiousincidentcover

Structure and Development in Mark Haddon’s [The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time]

Front cover of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Front cover of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

The publication history of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the God in the Night-Time (2003) is indeed very curious, mostly because it was deliberately marketed as both a children’s book and an adult novel. This leads me to invoke a pressing issue among scholars and readers who are concerned with narratives of youth: is it possible, nowadays, to have a text (novel, film, etc.) with a child or teenage protagonist and not have it classified as a children’s or young adult work? The answer to this question is beyond the scope of this blog post, but it is a useful question to keep in mind when approaching Haddon’s novel. The novel portrays themes that both teens and adults can appreciate, and the prose is direct and simple due to the narrator’s direct and no-nonsense approach to the world. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is in essence a fictional story intended to be perceived as the non-fictional narrative of Christopher Boone, a fifteen year-old teenager with autism. The narrative style and structure of this novel is interesting for many reasons:

  1. The text itself is intended to be approached a mystery novel written by the protagonist, initially focused on his attempt to figure out who murdered his neighbor’s poodle.
  2. Although Christopher acknowledges his role as an author, his teacher/therapist, Siobhan, plays the role of the enigmatic editor. Not only does she offer Christopher suggestions in terms of content, but she also scans his writing to assure that the prose is grammatically correct.
  3. Due to Christopher’s autism, he is incapable of lying (due primarily to his inability and discomfort with imagining scenarios and ideas that are not tethered to reality).
  4. The prose within the novel is accompanied by a series of diagrams and illustrations that facilitate Christopher’s ability to explain key (and at times mundane) aspects of the novel’s plot (see image below).
  5. The novel is a work in progress, and it can be considered epistolary in nature (to some extent).
  6. Christopher uses footnotes to add further explanatory valance to his claims.
Sample of the combination of text and image in The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time. In this diagram, Christopher explains the arbitrary nature of constellations, and how they can potentially represent anything to anyone.

Sample of the combination of text and image in The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time. In this diagram, Christopher explains the arbitrary nature of constellations, and how they can potentially represent anything to anyone.

The structure of the novel mirrors Christopher’s approach to the world, which is based on logic, deduction, truth, and objectivity. Christopher doesn’t express his emotions easily, and he has a difficult time reading the feelings of others. Christopher avidly hates being touched, he has a penchant for animals and dark enclosed spaces, he is a genius when it comes to math and puzzles, and as suggested previously, he has difficulty in envisioning scenarios that have not occurred in his actual life. Something that surprised me (and that surprises other characters in the novel) is that despite his logical approach of the world, he partakes in actions and thoughts that might be considered whimsical or downright superstitious, such as his immense hatred of the colors yellow and brown, and how he believes that certain color patterns of cars that drive by him are able to predict how good or bad a day will be: “In the bus on the way to school next morning we passed 4 red cars in a row, which meant that it was a Good Day, so I decided not to be sad about Wellington [the neighbor’s dog that was killed]” (24). Despite the fact that this may seem illogical, this seemingly arbitrary influence is actually a way for Christopher to give order to the chaos that surrounds him–and later on, he points out that other people’s days frequently become good or bad due to arbitrary circumstances (such as weather).

What intrigued me the most about this book is how Haddon is masterfully able to depict a voice that deviates from the norm without having Christopher lament his own pathology–an effect that is achieved by writing the story in a first-person point-of-view. He does not view himself as disabled, but rather, he views normalcy as incongruous, contradictory, and illogical. Christopher portrays himself as a beacon of light within a world of stupidity. I will be honest by saying that I don’t know many autistic people, so it is impossible to tell whether Haddon is able to accurately capture the thought-processes, attitudes, and feelings of an autistic person. According to an article posted in Huff Post Books, many people, especially those have autism or who know autistic people, believe that the book is an inaccurate and irresponsible portrayal of Asperger syndrome or autism due to its overemphasis on Christopher’s “strangeness” and his inability to cope with society at large.  Haddon himself claims that the central topic of the novel is not autism, but rather, the trials of a young genius with behavioral issues.  I do know, however, that autism varies in terms of degree and in terms of expression, so it is obvious that the case presented in the book will not necessarily match the case or the experience of every autistic person out there.

While I do believe that there are major issues of representation in this novel, I do not think that this should hinder one from focusing on the emancipatory potential this novel possesses, especially when it comes to highlighting the clash between essentialist and constructivist views of disability. While at times the novel does present autism as a neurological condition that presents symptoms that are beyond Christopher’s control, there are also many instances where people in his environment tend to pathologize him in excess. This is evidenced by how the father approaches the sudden absence of Christopher’s mother: rather than acknowledging the fact that the mother ran away with another man, Christopher’s father decides to tell him that his mother died of a heart attack, wrongfully assuming that Christopher would be unable to understand why his mother abandoned him. Although Christopher does exhibit seemingly “strange” habits and approaches to his surroundings, I think the novel pushes us to question whether this “strangeness” is something inherent within him or something that we project onto him.

What we have here is a coming-of-age novel that challenges what it means to develop, and what it means to come-of-age in the first place. We encounter a protagonist discovering who he is, what he wants, and what he desires. However, he also becomes aware of the limitations he has, the limitations that society imposes on him, and how to transgress said limitations. The novel is not about assimilating to society, but rather, it is about challenging it. We usually think of development as a linear and standard process with normative goals in mind, yet what we witness in Haddon’s novel is a protagonist trying to identify alternative modes of growing in a society that only expects so much growth from this person in the first place. This growth is achieved not through conventional behavior and not through an embrace of love and virtue, but rather, through the art of writing, through mystery solving, through travel, and through logic.

You can purchase a copy of Haddon’s novel here.

Work Cited:

Haddon, Mark. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. New York: Doubleday, 2003. Print.