J.C. Lillis’ [How to Repair a Mechanical Heart]: A Gay YA Novel on Fandom, Religion, and Canonicity

Front cover of J.C. Lillis' How to Repair a Mechanical Heart (2012)

Front cover of J.C. Lillis’ How to Repair a Mechanical Heart (2012)

If there is one thing that gay young adult fiction should be thankful for, that thing would be the internet. Because of the advent of the web, we have witnessed the increase of self-published e-novels distributed through online stores such as Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Self-publishing, in my opinion, greatly expands the possibilities of gay young adult fiction, not only because authors are free to be more experimental and explicit when it comes to the novel’s content and structure, but also because they do not have to comply with the expectations and demands of a publishing house or an editor. J.C. Lillis’ How to Repair a Mechanical Heart (2012) is definitely one of the most unique gay YA novels that I have read this year, not only in terms of its content, but also in terms of its narrative techniques and devices. Although, on the surface level, the novel is centered on the blossoming relationship between two teenage boys, How to Repair a Mechanical Heart, offers readers a fresh take on the uneasy tension that exists between religion and homosexuality.

Now, religion is a topic that is found in many YA books dealing with homosexuality. Some of these novels, such as Alex Sanchez’s The God Box, take a more didactic and realistic approach to the issue, going as far as to present characters that discuss homosexuality by directly citing a barrage of Biblical rhetoric. Other novels, such as Timothy Carter’s Evil?, take a more fantastical and satirical (and hilarious) approach to the tension between religion and homosexuality through the incorporation of characters such as demons and fallen angels. How to Repair a Mechanical Heart tackles the issue of religion and homosexuality through a realistic approach, however, the exploration of this issue is framed through an exploration of fandom subculture. Although at first I was skeptical about whether a gay YA novel could pull off discussing tough issues through fan culture (which includes Comic Con-esque events, the reading and creation of fan fiction, and even the critique of television shows via vlogs), by the end, I thought that Lillis managed to pull it off beautifully. This novel turned out to be an entertaining, complex, and funny read in spite of its often heavy-handed themes and events.

The novel focuses on Brandon and Abel, two fans of a science fiction show entitled Castaway Planet. This show centers on the space adventures of two main characters: Cadmus, a hot-headed, impulsive, and unpredictable explorer; and Sim, an android who is intelligent, calculating, and incapable of feeling human emotion. Brandon and Abel are the hosts of a Castaway Planet vlog, where they deconstruct episodes of the television series, and where they offer critiques of Castaway Planet fan fiction that they dislike. The fan fiction that really grind their gears, however, would be those that ship Cadmus and Sim, for they deem that this relationship is absolutely implausible and disjointed from the themes and reality of the show. Their dislike for this type of fan fiction leads them to partake on a road trip across the country with their friend, Bec, in order to interview the show’s actors in hopes of discrediting any fanfic author who ships Cadmus and Sim. Their anger toward this shipping arises from the fact that Brandon and Abel believe that it demonstrates “zero respect for canon or for Cadmus or Sim as characters” (Lillis).

Throughout this road trip, Brandon and Abel not only develop an increasing appreciation towards the shipping of the Castaway Planet characters, but they also discover their true feelings towards each other. However, these feelings are complicated by the fact that Brandon is still unable to let go of the Catholic doctrine that has shaped his views and understanding of amorous relationships. Brandon is ultimately constructed as a dualistic character in that his mind has come to terms with his sexual orientation, but his heart has not. Brandon’s struggles are intensified not only because his childhood priest approaches celibacy as the only viable life choice for a Catholic gay man, but also because Abel previously has had his heart broken by Jonathan, a boy who decided to end their relationship due to the tension that it caused with his religion. Whenever Brandon is engaging in behavior that may be deemed “gay,” Catholic guilt manifests within his consciousness in the form of his childhood priest, who often reprimands him for his poor decisions that supposedly contradict the teachings of the Catholic church.

Lillis’ novel does an excellent job of creating a multi-layered text in which all the layers are not only interconnected but also capable of illuminating important tensions and resolutions in the novel. While at first fandom, fan fiction, Catholism, and homosexuality seem to have little to no relation to one another, Lillis combines them in a unique way that sheds light not only on the construction of identity, but also the personal negotiations that individuals must undergo when facing cultural demands and when fabricating narratives. For instance, discussions of Cadmus and Sim obviously reflect the tensions that exist between Brandon and Abel. Brandon considers that religion has made his heart mechanical in that it runs in an automated fashion that cannot be fixed or controlled. This motif is central in the novel, for religion is approached as the element mechanizes Brandon’s heart and prevents him from fully loving Abel with no regrets or qualms. Abel, on the other hand, resembles Cadmus, for he is approached as an impulsive character who carelessly disregards the difficulties that Brandon faces when trying to repair his mechanical heart.

Surprisingly, fandom and fan fiction were also very useful and illuminating motifs that Lillis incorporates into the novel in order to offer a unique spin on the treatment of homosexuality within the gay YA novel. Fan fiction, most of the times, disregards realism and canonicity in favor of crafting a narrative that goes in accordance with the tastes, expectations, and desires of the fan fiction writer. Fan fiction is a particularly noteworthy genre of writing because it becomes a venue that allows viewers to assume an active role within the fictional universe created by a show, a book, or a movie. Furthermore, fan fiction allows the recipients of a cultural artifact to explore alternative narratives, outcomes, and possibilities that are not restricted to canonical norms. For instance, if I’m upset that Ross and Rachel end up together in the series finale of Friends, I can write a fanfic in which Rachel ends up going to Paris and begins a life without Ross.

The creation of fan fiction can be approached as a very queer process, especially when it comes to its focus on alternative outcomes, non-normativity, and a mode driven purely by individualistic desire. In How to Repair a Mechanical Heart, the act of participating within the fan fiction universe is linked to the process of embracing a gay identity, for it involves a refutation of rules and so-called truths in order to seek life alternatives that invoke comfort and livability. Fan fiction and queerness entail a refusal of a normative entity (the canon or heteronormativity) that seeks to regulate “sub par” existences and fictions. This notion becomes particularly apparent near the novel’s conclusion, when Brandon meets the creator of Castaway Planet. When Brandon seems to approach fan fiction with slight “disgust,” and when he approaches the creator of the show as the sole bearer of the show’s truth, the creator reacts very harshly to Brandon’s assumptions:

“Listen, you runt. I saw that self-righteous eyeroll when you said fanfiction. Let me tell you something: I fucking love fanfiction. Why do you think I made up these characters? So I could play with dolls in public and tell everyone else ‘hands off’? So I could spoon-feed you stories from on high about the mysteries of love and free will and giant alien spiders?” He shows me his palms, then the backs of his hands. “I am one man with a laptop. When I give the world my characters, it’s because I don’t want to keep them for myself. You don’t like what I made them do? Fucking tell me I’m wrong! Rewrite the story. Throw in a new plot twist. Make up your own ending. Castaway Planet is supposed to be a living piece of art! (Lillis, location 3278)

The show’s creator overtly refutes any desire to regulate how his characters are used or appropriated. He expresses how people should feel free to take the “truth” depicted by the canon and transform it in ways that go in accordance with their individual wants and desires. The canon is not mechanical in that it requires preciseness and exactness to function, but rather, it is approached as a living entity capable of transformation. In due course, Brandon begins to approach religion in a similar fashion, realizing that he can grow comfortable with belief in a God if he accepts that certain elements within the doctrine are not only open to interpretation, but can also be rewritten to go in accordance with an alternative truth.

Although How to Repair a Mechanical Heart, at times, seems slightly moralizing and repetitive in its treatment of religion, it presents one of the freshest approaches towards spirituality and belief within the confines of a gay YA novel. I think that this novel is very innovative in terms of framing its central issues through fandom subculture, and I especially enjoyed the novel’s overt and explicit decoupage of narrative conventions. While the structure of this text generally follows the linear conventions found within most gay coming-of-age fiction, it consciously employs the style and conventions of the fan fiction genre to add some much needed flair and whimsy to the often stale and dry treatment of religion and homosexuality in YA fiction. I highly recommend this novel for its likable characters, its queer potentiality, and its unique structure and motifs.

You can purchase a copy of Lillis’ novel here, and you can read more about it by clicking here

Work Cited

Lillis, J.C. How to Repair a Mechanical Heart. Amazon Digital Services, 2012. Kindle text.

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