the-perks-of-being-a-wallflower

My article on The Perks of Being a Wallflower is now available online!

I’m pleased to announce that my article entitled “Writing through Growth, Growth through Writing: The Perks of Being a Wallflower and the Narrative of Development” can now be found in The ALAN Review‘s digital archives. Here is a brief abstract of the article, which won the Nilsen-Donelson award for best article published during the volume year:

This paper calls attention to the issue of social and personal development in Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, focusing on how the novel appropriates and transmutes the conventions of the formation novel, formally known as the Bildungsroman. Although the novel is written in an epistolary fashion, focusing on a series of letters sent to an undisclosed recipient, I argue that there is much value in approaching the text as a formation novel for it highlights the evolving nature of the Bildungsroman genre. The overarching themes of Charlie’s musings are focused on creating a social space in which the protagonist can record, evaluate, and deliberate his own position within his social context. These epistles also provide clarification of the pains and tribulations of achieving reconciliation between personal desire and social demand. Through a close-reading of the novel, I point out the role of writing in Charlie’s personal development, and how it influences and shapes his perspective of the world.

Click here for the PDF version of the article:

https://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/ALAN/v40n3/pdf/matos.pdf

Click here for the HTML version of the article:

https://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/ALAN/v40n3/matos.html

Winger_Front_Cover_Banner

Unrealistic Expectations: (Meta)Narrative in Andrew Smith’s [Winger]

Front cover of Andrew Smith's Winger (2013)

Front cover of Andrew Smith’s Winger (2013)

Warning: The following post contains major spoilers for Andrew Smith’s Winger. 

After reading Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle, I immediately knew that I had to read other works written by this author–and Winger seemed like the obvious choice. I finished reading Winger a couple of weeks ago. Typically, I write analyses and reviews of books soon after I read them, but for this novel, I needed time to process many things, including the novel’s “unexpected” twist and its narrative framing. I guess it’s also important to mention that I reacted quite viscerally to the novel’s ending. At first, I approached the death of Ryan Dean’s gay best friend, Joey, as narratively pointless. I was frustrated that so little attention was given to this event in the novel’s conclusion, and I was upset that the death seemed like a dramatic and rushed way of ending the narrative. I read other reviews of this novel, and many other readers approached the ending in a similar fashion. Although I had a stark reaction to the novel’s ending, I felt as if there was a major element that I was missing when approaching Smith’s work.

I ultimately messaged the author, and asked why the novel had such a dark twist. Andrew Smith kindly responded to my question, and he pointed out how careful attention should be given to the novel’s use of metanarratives–which in the case of Winger, refers to the moments in which the narrator discusses the purpose or function of reading, writing, and literature itself. Although Winger can be approached as a coming-of-age novel, it is also a work that self-consciously explores the nature of narrative, and its relationship to truth and to the formation and understanding of the self. With this in mind, I decided to revisit the novel, paying close attention to the ways in which metanarrative aids the reader in better understanding the novel’s conclusion and its narrative framing.

When approaching Winger, it’s important to keep in mind that the novel is structured into many sections. The novel opens with a small section that depicts the protagonist, Ryan Dean, being bullied by two classmates. Afterwards, the novel can roughly be divided into four major parts: Part One (the overlap of everyone), Part Two (the sawmill), Part Three (the consequence), and Part Four (words). Each one of these parts has a main thematic focus and structure, but I will focus my attention on parts One and Four in this discussion. Part One opens with a prologue–which can be considered an introduction to the literary text that is not necessarily connected to the work’s main narrative arc. This prologue helps frame the rest of the narrative, in that it shares key points that allow the reader to grasp the novel’s core themes. Even more so, the prologue, to some extent, foreshadows the novel’s seemingly dark twist towards the end:

Joey told me nothing ever goes back exactly the way it was, that things expand and contract–like breathing, but you can never fill your lungs up with the same air twice. He said some of the smartest things I ever heard, and he’s the only one of my friends who really tried to keep me on track too. And I’ll be honest. I know exactly how hard that was. (Smith 7)

When closely reading this prologue, there a couple of things that we can infer:

  1. Joey’s thoughts and views of the world are used to open the prologue. This demonstrates that Joey is a person who significantly influences how Ryan Dean thinks, and also influences how he writes. Joey’s discussion of expansion and contraction can be connected to the novel’s major focus on the theme of change, and more precisely, the inevitability and irreversibility  of these changes.
  2. Note the verbs that Ryan Dean uses when referring to Joey: “Joey told me […] He said […] really tried to keep me on track too.” Through the use of these past-tense verbs, we are indirectly informed that Joey is no longer present in Ryan Dean’s life. We are initially given no clues to understand why he is absent. Thus, the prologue, through its use of language, foreshadows Joey’s death.
  3. Although Ryan states that Joey tried to keep him on track, the text implies that Joey’s efforts have failed. Furthermore, Ryan understands how difficult it was for Joey to watch over and guide him.

With these factors in mind, it becomes clear that the crafting of Winger‘s narrative is approached as a way for Ryan to revisit, relive, and understand the past through the process of writing. However, Ryan recognizes the futility of this endeavor to fully help him understand himself or the events that he faced. Just as he is unable to breathe the same air twice, he is unable to relive events in exactly the same fashion. The novel thus commences with the protagonist’s recognition and awareness of his own failures, and how these failures will determine what he shares and how he decides to share it. Furthermore, it is worth noting that the prologue epitomizes the central role that Joey plays in this developmental narrative, even though he is a secondary character.

The role of metanarrative in the creation of Winger becomes overt later in Part One, where Ryan Dean discusses his penchant for drawing, and the relationship between knowing a story and expressing it aesthetically. As can be seen in the following drawing found on page 21 of the novel, Ryan Dean stresses the difference between knowing a story, and representing it: img_00002_2_crop Ryan Dean’s discussion of drawing, narrative, and representation makes it clear that the novel should be approached as a carefully constructed and meditative text. The text is not presented as a work that’s produced as Ryan copes with particular events (as seen in novels such as Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower), but rather, it presents itself as an artistic impulse to represent a story that has already been lived and experienced. The fact that Ryan mentions that he knows “the ending of the story” implies that as an artist, Ryan is struggling to identify the ways to represent the events that led to the outcome that he knows.

With this in mind, the combination of words and images in Winger can signify not only the futility of art to replicate a particular memory or event, but it can also be approached as a concretization of Ryan’s struggle to convey ideas that even he doesn’t completely understand. When Ryan attempts to depict Joey’s death in Part Four of the novel, we notice how the novel undergoes an effect of narrative dissolution or entropy. Part Four begins with a handwritten letter, in which Ryan discusses how life never follows the course that one plans, and how life’s unpredictability is capable of destabilizing the linearity that we perceive in life. Here is the letter that Ryan shares with his reader, found on page 411: img_00003_2_crop (1) It is in this letter that Ryan recognizes the futility of narrative in creating an accurate and realistic portrait of life: “I tried to make everything happen the same way it did when I was seeing it and feeling it.” Furthermore, the letter is a comment about the nature of narrative itself. When reading works in a certain genre, we have expectations about what should happen to the characters, how the novel should end, and the overall lessons that should be learned. In this letter, Ryan (through the writing prowess of Andrew Smith) brilliantly critiques the linearity and predictability that we’ve come to expect of the novels we read, particularly novels in the young adult genre. We expect narratives to be linear, we expect characters to have happy endings–but through a compliance of these expectations, the aesthetic text merely becomes an object of conformity.

Through the use of metanarrative, Winger strives to convey a greater sense of realism through an embrace of the chaos and unpredictability found in life itself.  Thus, while it may be easy to approach Joey’s death as haphazard, rushed, or as some readers have uncritically argued, homophobic, approaching his death as so would be an injustice to the novel’s overall literary, aesthetic, and narrative aims. Indeed, Joey is one of the most likable characters in the novel–but likability does not and should not make a character or person immune to the instability and dangers of the (real) world.

Thus, the possible anger and frustration that we feel towards the novel’s ending stems not from the text itself, but rather, the unrealistic expectations that we impose on the texts we read. In terms of the novel’s ending seeming contrived or unexpected, it is important to keep in mind that Ryan writes his story as a way of trying to understand the ramifications of Joey’s death.

The novel as a whole forces us to question our reliability on words and grand narratives. While Winger “fails” to live up to the expectations that we have of linear and conventional young adult narratives (and narratives in general), it is through this failure that the text is able to push us to question many things we take for granted. Part Four of the novel, in particular, refutes many of the narrative conventions that we have come to expect in the novel itself. Images are no longer used. The chapters in Part Four are no longer numbered as they are in other parts. Pages are occupied by an increasing amount of blank space. Ryan Dean, who was able to portray events with an excruciating amount of detail, can’t find a way to express his thoughts: “I need to vent. But I can’t. The words won’t come” (430). His prose becomes increasingly fragmented. This sense of fragmentation, dissolution, and chaos is able to represent pain and torment in ways that couldn’t possibly be conveyed by traditional, linear prose.

The more I think about Winger, the more I’m able to appreciate just how smart, insightful, and riveting this novel is. It’s a novel that has haunted me since I’ve read it, and it will continue to haunt me as I think about the role of (meta)narrative in young adult fiction. Andrew Smith is continuing to shape, deconstruct, and reinvent young adult fiction not only through the inclusion of fresh content, but also through the implementation of experimental narrative form. You can purchase a copy of Winger by clicking here.

Work Cited

Smith, Andrew. Winger. New York: Simon & Schuster BFYR, 2013.  Print (Hardcover edition).

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Escaping the Labyrinth: Suffering in YA Fiction and the Case of John Green’s [Looking for Alaska]

Front cover of John Green's Looking for Alaska (2005)

Front cover of John Green’s Looking for Alaska (2005)

 

How will we ever get out of this labyrinth of suffering? –A.Y.

– John Green, Looking for Alaska (p. 158)

What is the role of suffering in young adult literature? I’ve been obsessed with answering this question since one of my dissertation committee members asked me it a couple of weeks ago. My desire to answer this question has further increased as I continue to teach a course on young adult fiction this semester. I am constantly thinking about what defines this genre of literature, especially when considering that the line between literature written for adults and young adults is so thin. Part of this has to do with the ambiguity of what a young adult is, but for the most part, the trouble in defining young adult literature is found in the plasticity of the genre itself.

Young adult literature has become an umbrella term for an ever-expanding collective of novels, dealing with everything from the real, the everyday, the fantastical, the impossible, the painful, and the imaginary. Since the scope of young adult literature is so embracing, however, it becomes increasingly difficult to establish parameters for what it can or cannot be. Does a YA novel simply require a teenage protagonist in order for it to be categorized as such? An adolescent protagonist is definitely a must–but is there a further narrative strand that binds this collective of novels together? Perhaps an exploration of suffering in these novels can provide some answers.

I’ll be the first to admit that suffering is perhaps a universal element of most, if not all novels. After all, most events that a protagonists face are in some way driven by dissatisfaction or displeasure. However, it seems that most young adult novels go at great lengths to highlight the role of suffering in aiding the development of a character over a particular span of time. In the course that I’m currently teaching, we’ve read novels such as J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia, and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Arguably, all of these novels center wholeheartedly on a protagonist’s suffering. Holden Caulfield is tormented by phoniness and hypocrisy–including his own. Jess copes with the death of his best friend, Leslie. Charlie is distressed by his obsession for observation and his struggle to become an active participant. This week, as we begin our discussion of John Green’s Looking for Alaska, the notion of suffering has become front and center due to the novel’s explicit and reiterative questioning of the nature of torment and dissatisfaction in the lives of contemporary teenagers.

In a nutshell, the novel centers on a year in the life of Miles Halter (a.k.a. “Pudge”), a resident of Florida who moves to a boarding school in Alabama during his junior year to seek a “Great Perhaps” (5). It is during this year that Pudge befriends colleagues such as the Colonel, a lower-class math genius with a stoic attitude and sarcastic personality, and Alaska Young, an intelligent, free-spirited, impulsive young woman (and the source of the novel’s title). Much attention is given to Pudge’s somewhat unrequited desire for Alaska, and his attempts to understand her despite her impulsiveness and her candidness.

The novel is structured into two parts: Before and After. The Before section of this novel can be approached as a countdown, in that every chapter tracks the days that are left until an unknown event occurs. With this in mind, the reader approaches this first section with an awareness that a major, plot-shifting event is about to occur–thus creating an anticipation for the event that will mark the beginning of the After section (MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD). This event happens to be Alaska’s death, as she dies when drunkenly driving to her mother’s grave to leave flowers on the anniversary of her death. The novel, however, is unclear as to whether or not this death was intentional. Thus, the After section, which comprises about 1/3 of the novel, focuses mostly on Pudge’s and the Colonel’s attempt to cope with the grief and guilt instilled by Alaska’s passing. Although Alaska’s death certainly comes as a shock, the novel foreshadows this event various times, the most notable instances being:

  • When Pudge questions why Alaska smokes cigarettes so quickly, she responds by saying “Y’all smoke to enjoy it. I smoke to die” (44). This claim gives the reader insight into the fast-paced fashion in which Alaska lives, and furthermore, it possibly indicates an affinity that Alaska has with the death drive.
  • Further exemplifying Alaska’s connection to the death drive and self-harm, when Pudge suggests that Alaska should stop drinking so much, she responds with the following: “Pudge, what you must understand about me is that I am a deeply unhappy person” (124).

What is interesting about this novel is that although Pudge is undoubtedly its protagonist, its narrative is driven primarily by Alaska’s suffering. Her unhappiness can be traced back to her early childhood, where she witnessed her mother dying of an aneurysm, yet was too shocked and confused to help her at the moment. According to Pudge, her impulsiveness and her desire to continue moving forward is her way of making up for her supposed lack of inaction as a child. Alaska’s dissatisfaction with life, and her connection with the notion of suffering, are narratively framed by intertextual references, the most notable being a reference taken from Gabriel García Márquez’s The General in His Labyrinth–a historical novel on Simón Bolívar. Alaska points out that Bolívar’s last words are “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!” (19). From this moment on, Bolívar’s last words become a significant motif in the novel.

The motif of the labyrinth becomes quite significant in an instance in which Pudge and Alaska are discussing futurity. Alaska expresses her disdain for the future, for it lures people into the trap of focusing on the not-yet-here rather than the here. It is in this rejection of futurity (a foreshadowing of her death, perhaps?) that the image of the labyrinth becomes associated with Alaska’s ideas of suffering:

You spend your whole life stuck in the labyrinth, thinking about how you’ll escape it one day, and how awesome it will be, and imagining that future keeps you going, but you never do it. You just use the future to escape the present. (54)

What is significant about this passage is that Alaska clearly believes that there is no way of escaping the labyrinth that we are stuck in. The passage is imbued with a crushing pessimism–to the point where Alaska is unable to envision any reality besides the one she lives. Alaska views suffering as a static presence in her life. Suffering is so crippling for her, that she is ultimately unable to envision a way of being that is different to the reality she is currently living–which leads her to reformulate the question originally penned by García Márquez: “How will we ever get out of this labyrinth of suffering?” (158). In due course, Alaska’s reformulation of this question becomes the question that haunts the novel’s characters. How do they escape the labyrinth of suffering erected by Alaska’s death?

While the novel eerily suggests that death is the only way of escaping this labyrinth, I find it interesting how the novel ultimately emphasizes the importance of the labyrinth in our everyday existence. As Pudge reflects on Alaska’s reconfiguration of the big question, he recognizes a shift in his way of thinking. Originally, Pudge thinks that the only way to cope with the labyrinth of suffering was by pretending “that it did not exist, to build a small, self-sufficient world in a back corner of the endless maze and to pretend that I was not lost, but home” (219). Pudge’s moment of growth occurs when he realizes that the labyrinth is ultimately an inseparable part of life. To live is to suffer. Life is more than the maze, but the maze is still an integral component of life. Pudge realizes that by trying to escape the maze, or by ignoring it, he is setting aside the very experience of navigating the maze, and he is focusing on the end rather than on the events that led him to the end. This exemplifies a moment of growth for Pudge, for it is here that he begins to distance himself from teleological notions: the process of navigating the maze is just as important as the process of escaping it.

The novel thus concludes with a glorification of adolescence, precisely because it is a middle ground between the beginning and the end. It is a time in which uncertainty reigns supreme–where possibilities are endless. It denotes the moment in which we navigate the maze, not when we enter it or escape it. As Pudge states in his teenage manifesto:

When adults say, “Teenagers think they are invincible” with that sly, stupid smile on their faces, they don’t know how right they are. We need never be hopeless, because we can never be irreparably broken. We think that we are invincible because we are. We cannot be born, and we cannot die. Like all energy, we can only change shapes and sizes and manifestations. They forget that when they get old.  (220)

John Green’s Looking for Alaska has given me serious food for thought, not only when it comes to the role of suffering in YA literature, but also in when it comes to considering how suffering is connected to the sense of invincibility and infinity associated with the concept of adolescence. Through the act of looking for Alaska, we find not only ourselves, but we also find more interesting ways of navigating labyrinths. When it comes to the labyrinth of young adult literature, perhaps it is time to stop finding a way out of it, and focus our energies in co-existing with it. Perhaps it is time to relish the interconnectedness of YA fiction–its ability to be all-encompassing, ever-expanding, and invincible.

Work Cited

Green, John. Looking for Alaska. New York: Dutton Books, 2005. Print (Hardcover Edition).

You can purchase a copy of Green’s novel by clicking here.

Candle cover image by coloneljohnbritt.

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On Closets and Straight Gazes – Bill Konigsberg’s [Openly Straight]

Front cover of Bill Konigsberg's Openly Straight

Front cover of Bill Konigsberg’s Openly Straight (2013)

I was thinking about how snakes shed their skin every year, and how awesome it would be if people did that too. In a lot of ways, that’s what I was trying to do.

As of tomorrow, I was going to have new skin, and that skin could look like anything, would feel different than anything I knew yet. And that made me feel a little bit like I was about to be born. Again.

But hopefully not Born Again.

-Bill Konigsberg’s Openly Straight (p. 4)

Bill Konigsberg’s delightful and heartwarming novel, Openly Straight, pushes readers to question the possibilities that “shedding one’s skin” offers, and the consequences that arise when reinvention threatens our sense of self. The novel is narrated by Seamus Rafael Goldberg (who usually goes by Rafe), a high school student from Colorado who transfers to Natick–an elite, all-boys school in the New England area. Although Rafe is openly gay, he decides to conceal his homosexuality while attending Natick to live a life free of labels, and to explore the possibilities of living a life unhindered by the so-called burdens of queerness.

Rafe, at first, claims that “The closet is when you say you’re not gay” (132). Problematically, he views the closet as a singular and individualistic space created by self-denial–and he fails to recognize that the act of being “out” relies on the obliteration of the many closets that appear and re-appear in our everyday lives. As pointed out by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in Epistemology of the Closet

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)

Rafe’s initial failure stems from his inability to understand that stepping out of the closet is not a one-step process, for it comprises an act of revelation and disclosure each time a new closet is erected in one’s life. I was impressed with how Konigsberg manages to invoke Sedgwick’s ideas of closetedness, especially as they are experienced by contemporary youths. Given that the novel takes place in a time where homosexuality is becoming more and more acceptable by mainstream society, I was delighted that Openly Straight explores the nuances and effects of closetedness in our brave new world. As evidenced by the novel’s protagonist, closetedness can still haunt even those who are out, open, and accepted.

Rafe is born into a family that readily and openly embraces his gay identity. However, Rafe is unable to appreciate his privilege because he deems that his homosexuality eclipses the other identities that he can embody–to the point where all he is able to see when looking in the mirror is the gay subject he is expected to perform, rather than the self:

Where had Rafe gone? Where was I? The image I saw was so two-dimensional that I couldn’t recognize myself in it. I was invisible in the mirror as I was in the headline the Boulder Daily Camera had run a month earlier: Gay High School Student Speaks Out. (3)

Rafe realizes that decision to hide his homosexuality and to pass as straight do come with certain perks. He is quickly accepted by the jocks at his new school, he is able to shower with his soccer team without worrying about the repercussions of the “straight gaze,” and traits other than his queerness are recognized. His ability to keep his self-imposed secret, however, is thwarted as he grows closer to Ben, a fellow jock and philosophy enthusiast who studies at Natick. As Ben begins to show signs of fluid sexuality, and as the two boys grow closer, Rafe reflects on how the perks of his reinvention come with the cost of being able to love truly and openly.

My favorite aspect of the novel is the complex relationship between Rafe and Ben. This relationship makes you feel all the warmth that you expect in young adult novels, yet this warmth is accompanied by realistic depictions of frustration and heartache. This is unsurprising, since Rafe and Ben’s relationship is based on experimentation and sexual confusion, even though one of the two characters definitely isn’t confused. This complex relationship ultimately leads Ben and Rafe to reflect on the nature of love–how it is possible to love people in different ways, and how it is possible for different types of love to overlap. This reflection leads to my favorite passage in the novel, in which Ben contemplates his non-normative affinities with Rafe:

I guess I’d like to think of what we have as agapeA higher love. Something that transcends. Something not about sex or brotherhood but about two people truly connecting. (225)

One another note, Openly Straight, in its essence, is about gazes, and how they control how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us. Rafe’s decision to go back into the closet is driven by the fact he is tired of being viewed as a queer object by his friends, family, and peers. Rafe’s views are not entirely unfounded–he is constantly asked by friends and teachers to give his input as a queer subject. His attitudes, beliefs, and actions are constantly being traced back to his homosexuality by other characters. Rafe, understandably, feels the weight of queerness on his shoulders–and this weight is unshakable.

Rafe, nevertheless, complains about the gaze that others fixate on him, without coming to grips with the ways he gazes at others. In one of the later chapters of the novel, Rafe finds himself scrutinizing one of his queer peers at a Gay/Straight Alliance meeting–remarking on everything from his peer’s clothes to his haircut. As Rafe’s eyes remain fixated on his peer, he remarks how this other boy could pass for a woman if he wanted to. When Rafe’s peer notices that he is staring, Rafe becomes self-conscious about his gazing. It is at this moment that Rafe realizes that he is guilty of performing the very act of “straight gazing” that drove him back into the closet in the first place:

I was staring at this effeminate kid, and judging my own masculinity, or lack thereof. And was I so different from everyone else? Who was to say that Mr. Meyers in Boulder was thinking about when he looked at me? How come I was assuming that his staring at me had anything to do with me? (306)

Gazing, according to Rafe, is not a fixation based on rejection, pity, or disgust, but rather, it is a discursive relationship between the self and an other. Thus, the gazer reflects on his or her own selfhood as contrasted to another person–which leads Rafe to deduce that he could “spend a little less time worrying about what people thought about [him], since they probably weren’t thinking about him at all” (307). In other words, Rafe realizes that the fault and blame lies in the eyes of the gazer and not on the person being gazed.

I love this novel. I have been reading queer YA fiction for years, and I must say that Openly Straight astounds me on many levels. It is a testament to how much queer YA literature has evolved over time, and it makes me feel very optimistic about the present and future of the genre. I foresee that young readers will be particularly drawn to the humor and cleverness of this work. I also admire the fact that this novel offers readers the opportunity to explore a compelling, funny, and heartfelt narrative that doesn’t shy away from the complexities of contemporary queerness.

Works Cited

Konigsberg, Bill. Openly Straight. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2013. Print.

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

You can purchase a copy of Konigsberg’s novel by clicking here.

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Queer Resistance in Rita Mae Brown’s [Rubyfruit Jungle]

Front cover of Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle

Front cover of Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle

If you want to get a sense of the views and attitudes that permeated lesbian life soon after the gay rights movement, this is the book you are searching for. Originally published in 1973, Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle is approached by many readers as the quintessential lesbian coming-out and coming-of-age novel. It centers on the growth and development of Molly Bolt, a headstrong and precocious girl who is aware of her queerness from an early age, and who strives to embrace a life of unconventionality in a society geared towards heteronormativity and sameness. Growing up with her somewhat cruel and vindictive adoptive mother, Carrie–Molly learns to lose her fear towards authority and power as she struggles to make a name for herself in a world designed and driven by masculinity and chauvinism. Driven by her hunger for fame and recognition, Molly works hard at school and eventually earns a full scholarship to the University of Florida. Her scholarship is nullified after she is caught having an affair with her wealthy female roommate, so Molly hitchhikes to New York and finds a low-paying job as a waitress. Living in poverty and struggling to finish her degree in film at New York University, the narrative focuses on Molly’s exploration of her sexuality in a more open and free city–while realizing that social mobility and power are not easy to obtain when one belongs to multiple disenfranchised communities/subcultures.

As mentioned above, this novel was groundbreaking due to the fact that it introduced issues of lesbianism and queer culture to mainstream society during the 1970s. The problem when reading this novel today is that its age definitely shows. Although it is perhaps obvious that a lot has changed in terms of the proliferation and acceptance of LGBTQ cultures in American society, this novel creates a snapshot of a time in which patriarchy reigned supreme and in which queer voices were still struggling to be heard (issues that still linger today). The novel was also written and published during the peak of second-wave feminism the radical feminism, in which concepts such as women’s reproductive rights, patriarchy, and motherhood were being actively deliberated and contested. Thus, I can see why the novel’s protagonist may be seen as too radical and extreme to some readers. Rubyfruit Jungle questions, and to some extent, attacks notions such as marriage, motherhood, monogamy, and gender binaries–even at the expense of some of the lesbian characters within the text.

A particular passage that made me very uncomfortable takes place when Molly goes to a lesbian bar during her first night in New York, where a butch lesbian tries to woo her. Molly states the following after rejecting the advances of the butch lesbian:

What’s the point of being a lesbian if a woman is going to look and act like an imitation of a man? Hell, if I want a man, I’ll get  the real thing not one of these chippies. I mean […] the whole point of being gay is because you love women. You don’t like men that look like women, do you? (130)

Now, Molly’s anger and disdain for butch lesbians stems from the fact that she deems that they uphold the very gender binaries that she tries to resist–in which one person in a relationship is designated as the “masculine” figure, whereas the other is designated as the “female” figure. In her questioning of butch lesbianism, she seems to be inquiring why certain people feel the need to rely on heterosexual models of courtship and sexuality rather than following a queer route. While her views may be approached as a desire to deviate from binaristic thinking, one must also admit that her views are insensitive, and they do not do justice to the multitudinous and diverse nature of gender expression. Thus, rather than viewing butch figures as people who thwart or parody gender binaries, she views them as people who embrace the binary altogether.

A similar occurrence happens near the end of the novel, when Molly’s mother, Carrie, discusses her father’s infidelity, and how she was unable to bear children because her husband had a case of syphilis. After opening up to her daughter wholeheartedly for the first time in the novel, and after expressing her inability to understand why her husband cheated on her, Molly thinks and says the following about the news and her mother’s misery:

Thirty-one years ago and [my mother’s] life froze that year. She enameled the sharp edge of misery into a pearl of passion. Her life revolved around that emotional peak since the day she discovered it and now she was waiting for me to share it. “I’m sorry, Mom, but, well, it doesn’t make sense to me to stay with only one person either.” (210)

This moment can definitely be approached as an instance of radical queer resistance. If Molly would’ve sympathized with her mother’s woes, it probably would’ve led to a greater connection and bond between the two. However, seeing as monogamy is antithetical to Molly’s being, she tells her mother exactly how she feels to be true to herself–which prompts her mother to speak “with less conviction and emotion since [Molly] wasn’t supporting her” (211). Molly’s quest for embodying non-normativity ultimately prevents her from recognizing her mother’s pain and sorrow as legitimate, mostly because the mother’s pain is ignited and fueled by forces and influences that Molly deems repressive and restrictive. What manifests in this exchange is a blockage of recognition: Carrie’s age and traditional views prevent her from accepting Molly’s lesbianism, and Molly’s rejection of normativity prevents her from recognizing her mother’s pain. This blockage epitomizes the feeling of stagnancy, failure, and immobility that haunts the entire novel.

Molly’s lesbianism and her strides against the status quo often leave her in a position of failure and futility. All of the relationships she has with other women end abruptly, she loses all the friendships she develops with other people, she is unable to find a job as a film maker even though she graduates from NYU with highest honors, and she only begins to mend things with her mother after she finds out that Carrie is about to die. Rather than viewing these failures as consequences reified by her queerness, I would argue that these failures are critiques of the standards and restrictions imposed on Molly by her culture and society. The novel may seem (and at times, is) problematic in terms of its depiction of gender, race, and family–and I can see why some of Molly’s thoughts and actions might leave a poor taste in reader’s mouths. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that this novel is symptomatic of attitudes and ideologies that were heavily present during the era in which is was produced. The novel is definitely insensitive according to current knowledge, ideologies, and standards–but at the time, a radical and headstrong approach was needed to begin collapsing the patriarchal forces that have influenced the shaping of our society (these structures still haven’t collapsed in the present; however, feminism is definitely a bigger part of our contemporary political consciousness than it was in the 1970s).

I have mixed feelings with this novel. It is a funny, entertaining, and well-written book that really gave me insight into perceptions of lesbianism, femininity, and masculinity during the rise of second-wave and radical feminism. However, some of the novel’s perspectives are insensitive, dated, and at times irrational. Molly’s courage, outspokenness, drive, and embrace of queerness at all costs is paradoxically what makes her simultaneously attractive and frustrating as a character. I was also taken aback by the exaggeration of Molly’s beauty and her very unrealistic ability to obtain the love and affection of every single man and woman she’s attracted to. Rubyfruit Jungle presents a world in which every person is potentially queer–and apparently, Molly knows the secret to unlocking this potential (what is your secret, Molly?!). However, her ability to entice any and all people she desires helps to propel the novel’s queer and antibinaristic themes and help to emphasize the problem that the novel seeks to challenge: “People have no selves anymore (maybe they never had them in the first place) so their home base is their sex–their genitals, who they fuck” (175). Rubyfruit Jungle, thus, is an account of Molly’s attempt to find a sense of self that goes beyond societal expectations, that goes beyond genitalia, that goes beyond the constrictions of heteronormativity.

As advice to future readers of this book, I would recommend approaching Rubyfruit Jungle as a historical account of lesbianism in the 1970s and as a non-normative manifesto and not as a prime example of contemporary views towards gender, sexuality, and personal development. As I’ve mentioned many times above, the novel does have some problematic aspects–but it also presents us with an opportunity to critically compare and contrast attitudes towards sexuality from the past and the present.

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

Work Cited

Brown, Rita Mae. Rubyfruit Jungle. Plainfield: Daughters, Inc., 1973. Print.

funhouse

John Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse”: A Postmodern Critique of the Developmental Narrative

“Lost in the Funhouse” is a short story in John Barth’s book of the same name, originally published in 1968.  The stories within this collection are typically approached as postmodern due to their self-reflexivity, their self-awareness, and their use of self-reference. The short story “Life in the Funhouse,” in particular, is known for its active destabilization of truth, linearity, and structure, and it is an ideal text to study when engaging in the frustrating exercise of defining postmodernity as it pertains to the study of literary texts.

Plot-wise, not much occurs within this narrative. In a nutshell, a teenage boy named Ambrose travels with his family to Ocean City, Maryland, where they spend most of their time sunbathing at the beach, going on amusement park rides, and entertaining themselves with games at the Ocean City boardwalk. Ambrose is nervous because he really likes this girl named Magda, and wants to develop the courage to confess his love for her. Although he eventually invites Magda to go into a funhouse with him, Magda eventually trails off with Ambrose’s brother, Peter, leaving him alone and isolated within the dark confines of the funhouse. The rest of the narrative traces Ambrose’s thoughts and dissatisfaction caused not only by his inability to express his feelings, but also  by his inability to escape from the funhouse.

This plot, however, constitutes a really small part of the narrative. “Lost in the Funhouse” is peppered with moments of self-reflexivity and meta-awareness, and the narrator often deviates from the plot in order to make claims regarding the intricacies of language, the difficulties of writing, and the impossibility of literary innovation. Within this narrative, we have a triangulation of three perspectives: the perspective of the protagonist, the perspective of the author, and the perspective of the speaker/narrator (who also shares most of the meta-fictional elements within the short story). Given the fact that this text is a meta-fiction, the elements within the story should be approached not only by how they develop the plot, but also by their commentary as pertaining to the acts of writing and reading fiction. This is particularly why close-reading and deconstruction are crucial in terms of determining what the text is trying to achieve. In an attempt to highlight the complexity and richness of this story, let me turn my attention to unpacking the following passage:

One reason for not writing a lost-in-the-funhouse story is that either everybody’s felt what Ambrose feels, in which case it goes without saying, or else no normal person feels such things, in which case Ambrose is a freak. “Is anything more tiresome, in fiction, than the problems of sensitive adolescents?” And it’s all too long and rambling, as if the author. For all a person knows the first time through, the end could be just around the corner; perhaps, not impossibly it’s been within the reach any number of times. On the other hand he may be scarcely past the start, with everything yet to get through, an intolerable idea. (88)

Although plot-wise there is an actual or concrete funhouse, the term is also being invoked as a symbol for narrative, fiction, or perhaps even the mind of the protagonist. “Lost in the Funhouse” is an exploratory narrative that delves into the woes that Ambrose faces when analyzing his own precociousness, and when confronting the confusing and contradictory issues that arise when one grows up–making the story, in essence, a coming-of-age narrative. In the passage above, the narrator uses quotation marks to bring up the tired and overwrought nature of the coming-of-age genre. Furthermore, the quote asks readers to reflect on how sensitive protagonists within this genre suffer from the woes of over-thinking, and how they often share thoughts that are deemed to be too advanced or “unrealisitic” given the protagonist’s age.

It becomes important to question why Barth shares this critique of the “lost-in-the-funhouse” narrative when the story itself incorporates every single element that is critiqued: the protagonist of the story is a sensitive character, who often offers long, rambling, and contradictory interpretations of himself and the people that surround him. The text explores the perceived incongruity of sensitive adolescents expressing ideas that surpass their faculties, at least within fiction: “Is it likely, does it violate the principle of verisimilitude, that a thirteen-year-old boy could make such a sophisticated observation?” (70). Despite this questioning, the protagonist still  engages with intense philosophical and existential ideas, leading the reader to come with their own answers to the aforementioned question. Not only can this be approached as an attempt to destabilize stereotypes in terms of what adolescents are or are not capable of deliberating, but it also pushes the reader to question the foundations that generate these so-called truisms and verisimilitudes.  Is it possible for a teen to conceive of sophisticated ideas? Is there a specific age that a person must reach before being able to formulate complex ideas?

It can be said that the narrator considers the coming-of-age genre to be important or useful given its universality, but at the same time, the text makes overt critiques on the use of conventions and patterns to portray universal themes. Growth, development, and linearity (both from a textual and non-textual perspective) are thus prominent themes that are scrutinized within the depths of the funhouse.

Narrative

Figure 1. This graphic is a replication of the diagram found in page 91 of “Lost in the Funhouse,” in which the narrator discusses the general pattern that most fictional narratives follow: exposition, conflict, complication, climax, and resolution.

The narrator of the story makes a critique of patterns by illustrating the conventions that narratives usually appropriate in order to assure that they are effective. The text painstakingly depicts the usual structures and conventions that narratives employ to deliver a story (see Figure 1). “Lost in the Funhouse” deviates immensely from the conventional and linear plot, and it is self aware of this deviation: “The beginning should recount the events between Ambrose’s first sight of the funhouse early in the afternoon and his entering it with Magda and Peter in the evening. The middle would narrate all relevant events from the time he loses his way; middles have the double and contradictory function of delaying the climax while at the same time preparing the reader for it” (74). Although the narrator stresses that this is how stories should be structured, “Lost in the Funhouse” deliberately refutes these conventions by delivering a narrative with a prolonged exposition that is contradictory and that does not follow typical patterns of resolution. Details of the plot’s so-called climax, introduction, and conclusion are also scrambled throughout the text, and are not found within the expected locations. Although the narrator admits that this deviation forsakes “the effects of drama” that are possible in the short story, he also makes it clear that this deviation of narrative conventions “can better effect” the dramatic possibilities of the story (91).

With this in mind, it can be argued that the narrator is not necessarily refuting the importance of fiction with sensitive adolescents, but rather, he is contesting the usefulness of a linear narrative to do justice to the multifaceted, complicated, and fragmentary nature of the issues that are faced during the coming-of-age process. I thought this notion was particularly apparent as Ambrose ventures through the maze of mirrors in the funhouse. As Ambrose sees multiple selves being reflected as he tunnels through those mirrored paths, he realizes the futility of trying to approach the self as a single, atomized unit:

Stepping from the treacherous passage at last into the mirror-maze, he saw once again, more clearly than ever, how readily he deceived himself into supposing he was a person. He even foresaw, wincing at his dreadful self-knowledge, that he would repeat the deception, at ever-rarer intervals, all his wretched life, so fearful were the alternatives. (90)

The passage above is one of the most overt critiques on linearity, development, and the conventions that are usually invoked when writing developmental narratives. It attacks the notion of teleology and fulfillment, going as far as to argue that development is not always achieved by following points A to D. Furthermore, this passage refutes the notion of self-fulfillment by highlighting the cyclic nature and the folly of trying to pin down a clear and clean definition of the self. The self is always more fragmented and unreachable than narratives of development usually convey, and the self is always found in a state of constant change and growth. Thus, “Lost in the Funhouse” offers an alternative way of thinking about and approaching the process of development. The narrative implies that it would be foolish to approach an individual’s development through how well he or she complies with conventions of growth, maturation, and development–just as it would be equally foolish to judge this text by how well it adheres to narrative conventions.

When it comes to truth, perhaps the narrator is right when asserting that “we will never get out of the funhouse” (74).

Work Cited

 Barth, John. Lost in the Funhouse. New York: Bantam Books, 1980. Print.

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).

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.

Ear_of_rye

J.D. Salinger’s [The Catcher in the Rye]: A Brief Analysis

Front cover of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye

Front cover of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye

Experience is the greatest enemy of meaning and significance. When I first read J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye during my late teens, I was absolutely captivated by the novel’s passive anti-hero, Holden Caulfield. I felt his loneliness, his distaste towards all of the “phoniness” present in the world, and his constant state of utter helplessness in an uncaring world. It had been a couple of years since I’ve last read the text, and I must say that revisiting the text was a difficult and heart-breaking experience… not only because the content of the text is charged, but also because I realized that I was no longer able to connect with Holden in the exact way that I used to. As I re-read the first half of the novel, I was disturbed to see that I was perceiving Holden as an annoying, whiny, and repetitive character. I found myself rolling my eyes and at times even groaning as I encountered some of his thoughts and actions.

I thought the text had lost its magic. Many people are unable to see what’s magical about this text. The New York Times posted an interesting article titled Get a Life, Holden Caulfield, which discusses how contemporary teens are unable to connect to Holden’s character in the way that older generations of readers were able to. And while my dislike for Holden was intense during the initial half of my re-reading, this dislike began to mellow down as the novel reached its conclusion. I began to realize how much hurt Holden was facing. I began to look back and think about how I also was a whiny teenager, and how I believed that there wasn’t a single soul in the world that could understand me. I remember how I had attitude problems, how I went through phases of intense depression. I was Holden Caulfield, and now I’m a different person. This thought hit me hard, to the point that I was unable to write an analysis of the novel after reading it. I was stunned. I had to sit down, think carefully, and digest the novel before writing about it. And even though my gut reaction was to bash on the novel, after careful thought and consideration, I truly believe this novel is great for three reasons: 1) It manages to encapsulate teenage angst and anger in a way that stirs strong and polarizing emotions within its readers; 2) COUNTLESS (and great) contemporary novels have been inspired by Salinger’s novel (including but not limited to Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You); 3) It is one of the few novels that’s successfully able to tell the coming-of-age tale of a sensitive male protagonist.

Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is an interesting case within the literary world, for although it was written with an adult audience in mind, it became very popular among teenage and young adult readers. Since its publication, there have been numerous attempts to censor or ban the book from schools and libraries, and it is currently on the American Library Association’s list of banned and challenged classics, due mostly to its use of “profanity” and sexuality. Some even go as far as to classify Catcher as a precursor to the young adult book market. I believe this has to do a lot with why it was so easy for me to connect with the novel as a teen, and why it was very challenging to achieve this connection as an adult. However, during my re-reading of the book, not only did I notice/understand many aspects of the novel that I was oblivious to as a teen, but I also noticed that the book has many interesting points of discussion that are worth exploring, especially when considering how influential this novel was to the genre of young adult fiction.

What interested me the most of my re-reading was Holden Caulfield’s sexuality. Now, let me make it clear: there is no clear indication on whether this character is gay. On the contrary, the character makes it very explicit that he is interested in women, as can be seen in the following passage:

She was around forty-five, I guess, but she was very good-looking. Women kill me. They really do. I don’t mean I’m oversexed or anything like that–although I am quite sexy. I just like them, I mean. (70) [The term sexy means “sexual” in this passage].

Holden does not engage in sexual behavior with any male character (or any character for that matter) during the development of the novel. The character does express some hesitation when “fooling around” with female characters, but I don’t believe that this is a clear indicator of gayness, but rather, of overall sexual frustration and anxiety fueled by depression and loneliness. Nevertheless, I do think that it is possible to conduct a queer reading of Holden not based on his actions, but on his thoughts and opinions regarding other men and “flits” (a slang word for gay men back in the 1950s). There are many instances in the novel in which Holden thinks about people or events in a way that facilitates a queer or gay reading:

  • Holden notices (and seems to appreciate) Stradlater’s physical appearance: “He went out of the room with his toilet kit and towel under his arm. No shirt on or anything. He always walked around in his bare torso because he thought he had a damn good build. He did, too. I have to admit it” (34). Holden also points out that Stradlater has “gorgeous locks” (42).
  • There is a prolonged mental dialogue in which Holden discusses “flits,” focusing on his friend Luce, who knew “who every flit and lesbian in the United States was” (186). Luce used to tell Holden how some men are married and don’t even know that they are flits, instilling a fear in Holden that he might one day “turn into a flit or something” (186).
  • There is the infamous scene in which Mr. Antolini caresses Holden’s hair while he is sleeping, causing Holden to have an anxiety attack induced by gay panic. Holden later debates whether or not Mr. Antolini “was making a flitty pass” (253) at him, but it doesn’t change the fact that he was unable to withstand the teacher’s demonstration of affection.

The Antolini episode in particular left me with a lot of questions, especially when focusing on Holden’s reaction towards the teacher’s caress. The following passage expresses the thoughts that were going through Holden’s mind as he was escaping Mr. Antolini’s apartment:

Boy, was I shaking like a madman. I was sweating, too. When something perverty like that happens, I start sweating like a bastard. That kind of stuff’s happened to me about twenty times since I was a kid. I can’t stand it. (251)

This passage is really ambiguous to me. Is Holden referring to the fact that he’s received sexual advances from men in the past, or is he referring to the fact that he’s sexual advances from adults since he was a kid? It is possible that Holden is referring to past traumas that are affecting his current behavior as a teenager? I think an interpretation of this passage is difficult not only because of its ambiguity, but also because of its unstable use of language. What exactly does Holden mean by “perverty” or “that kind of stuff”? It is referring to gay behavior or sexually “deviant” behavior? Keep in mind that earlier in the novel, as he is looking out from his hotel window and watching a man dress in woman’s clothes, and a man and woman squirting water from their mouths at each other, he states that “the hotel was lousy with perverts” (81), which complicates a direct correlation of perversion with gayness.

What do you think about any of the ideas expressed above? What do you think about Holden being a queer-coded character, or at least as a character that can facilitate a queer interpretation? How do Holden’s views contest the notion of binary oppositions? Notice that we have an ostensibly straight character who is able to express some degree of attraction towards the same sex, while also demonstrating a fear of the possibility of being gay. This simultaneously complicates and perpetuates what it means to be a heterosexual teenage male, especially one who is sensitive, confused, and who is trying to comply with the demands and expectations of society.

In due course, re-reading this novel left me with many questions and doubts. And, although I was disliking the novel at first, towards the end, I rediscovered what made the novel great in the first place. It is an honest and unabashed depiction of a teenager’s pain. It is a depiction of a time in our lives when we all feel like the world is against us, and when we think we have all the answers. It is a time where everything and everyone seems “phony,” but we are unable to recognize our own inherent phoniness. It is a novel that posits questions that we are still unable to answer. It is a novel that continues to push us to ask questions… even if it is a question as simple as “why do I love or hate this novel?”. Thus, the text does not lack “magic” in any way… I’m just encountering a different type of magic when compared to the one I first encountered as a child. If we can move beyond the text’s apparent simplicity, repetition, and phoniness, we may find that it is truly a complex and thought-provoking read.

Work Cited

Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1951. Print. (Hardcover edition)

Front cover of Martin Wilson's What They Always Tell Us

Brotherhood, Race, and Gender in Martin Wilson’s “What They Always Tell Us”

Front cover of Martin Wilson's What They Always Tell Us

Front cover of Martin Wilson’s What They Always Tell Us

Young adult novels, generally speaking, tend to be emotionally draining reads. It is not uncommon for teens and young adults to feel angst, loneliness, and depression when trying to transcend into the realm of adulthood (as many of us know when we look back at our teen years, or as we currently experience them). I guess it’s unsurprising that many books within the YA genre tend to fully embrace these sentiments. One of my colleagues once told me that she reads books in the genre when she wants a good cry, and lately, during my immersion into many YA texts for my doctoral examinations, I can’t help but feel this immense sense of sadness and impending doom when first approaching a novel. I guess this is why Martin Wilson‘s book surprised me, for although it certainly begins on a somber note, it ends not only with a sense of optimism, but also with a sense that there are fleeting moments in life when all is good in the world.

I included What They Always Tell Us in my reading list mostly because people tend to classify this book as a gay YA novel, but in all honesty the narrative centers not so much on the topic of gayness, but rather, on brotherhood. The two main characters of this text are James and Alex, two brothers who look alike and who are similar in terms of physical and intellectual prowess. Despite these superficial similarities, the brothers are characterized by different social and emotional nuances. Alex tends to be the more emotional or “sensitive” brother while James embraces a stoic and slightly “jockish” persona. Although the brothers used to get along when they were younger, they have reached a point where they barely talk to each other, not only because of their diverging interests, but also because of their inability to understand the other’s thoughts and actions (due to a lack of communication). The occurrence that propelled this divergence between the two brothers is Alex’s recent suicide attempt triggered by feelings of loneliness and isolation. James, rather than feeling supportive of Alex, ultimately shuns him because he is unable to comprehend why Alex would try to selfishly get rid of his own life. The bulk of the novel is centered on the subtle actions and developments that lead the brothers to rekindle their fraternal relationship by understanding each other, and more importantly, by understanding themselves.

The time in which the narrative of this novel takes place is a little unclear to me, but what it is clear is that the plot takes place in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I think this last bit is interesting because Alex’s story is focused on his emerging sexuality and his fixation on James’ friend Nathen Rao, a gay cross-country star who also happens to be half Indian and half white. Naturally, Alex’s and Nathen’s sexuality is very problematic within their current location, and as a romantic relationship develops between these two characters, they become aware of the difficulties of being gay in the southern region of the United States.

I was expecting race to be problematic during this point, either because the narrative takes place in the south, or because there would be issues of representation in terms of Nathen’s Indian background. Within YA fiction, it is not uncommon for authors to make their characters more exotic or interesting by given them particular physical traits or identities–what is commonly known as the token (insert identity marker here) character. These token characters’ thoughts, actions, and development are sometimes not affected in any way by markers of identity. What’s even more problematic is that the “marked” identity of these characters typically adds little or no narrative depth to the text. Perhaps the most well known case of this type of character would be Dean Thomas in the American edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, who is described as black, simply for the sake of making the novel seem more diverse and inclusive. At first, I was afraid that Nathen would be a character who was half-Indian in name only. Nathen’s cultural heritage is described by James as follows:

Nathen’s dad was born in Indian, but he grew up in England, where he met Nathen’s mother, who is white. They both have these great British accents, though Nathen–and his college-age sister, Sarita–sound as southern as everyone else. Sure, they stand out in Alabama, but Tuscaloosa is a college town with a lot of foreign students and teachers. Plus, Nathen and Sarita are good-looking and athletic and smart, and people in school have always are more about that than their heritage. (Wilson 40)

While on one hand this certainly alleviates the necessity to make race a central issue within the novel, it does feel like the issue is being brushed off completely–thus leading me to question how realistic this wholehearted acceptance of Nathen’s family truly is. Could Nathen ostensibly be a character of any other race without dramatically affecting the narrative? Nathen’s Indian heritage does come up several again in the book, especially when Alex visits his house during a weekend when Nathen’s parents are away. We find out that Nathen’s father almost tries to conceal the fact that he’s Indian, whereas his mother, who is white, tends to compensate for this concealment by decorating her house in Indian decor, and by constantly cooking Indian food. Unlike Dean Thomas in the Harry Potter series, Nathen’s heritage is explored with a little more detail– but I was expecting a little more exploration of issues of race. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that this novel is focused on James and Alex’s mental development. Nathen, after all, is a secondary character, and thus my expectations of racial exploration are a little too far-fetched and demanding when taking the aims of the novel into consideration.

Race aside, I thought the portrayal of Alex’s emerging interest in Nathen was a significant and well-developed aspect of the plot. I originally tried to approach Alex’s narrative as either a coming-out tale or a tale of self-discovery, but Alex’s development doesn’t really fit any of these narrative roles (especially when taking his sexuality into consideration). Alex does eventually come out to James, but this doesn’t seem to bother James in the least because he is more concerned about his brother’s happiness and well-being. I was also expecting to see some tension in terms of race due to the fact that there’s an interracial relationship taking place in the south, but as I mentioned above, race is presented as a non-issue within this novel. Gayness, however, is a significant tension in the plot, not only because it is implied that Alex lost his friends because they suspected he was gay, but also because it challenges James to question the extent to which his role as a loyal brother should trump his role as a friend to others. I think this was a clever choice made by Wilson as a writer, for he approaches sexual identity as a way of facilitating a discussion of family and brotherhood. It is through Nathen’s treatment of Alex that James comes to realize his flaws as a brother.

In due course, Wilson’s What They Always Tell Us is a worthwhile read because it manages to highlight the extraordinary embedded within the ordinary, while simultaneously combining seriousness with heart. Although we are not given perfect snapshots of what always goes on in the protagonists’ heads, we are given enough to debate and contemplate why they behave and think in particular ways. In other words, the novel provides entertainment, but it still provides the reader with a space for reflection, contemplation, and speculation. It is comforting to see a novel aimed at portraying both the good and the ugly present within the world, using the motif of brotherhood as a platform to discuss issues and events that bind us as humans and that simultaneously set us apart.

I guess in due course, the novel posits that what we are always told in life isn’t always true, but it certainly gives us something to hold onto, something to aspire to, and at times, something to deliberate.

Work Cited

Wilson, Martin. What They Always Tell Us. New York: Delacorte Press, 2008. (Hardcover edition)

You can purchase a copy of this novel here.