Three Utterly Unconnected Books With Gay Protagonists

by Wardog

Wardog fails at themes.
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By accident, rather than design, I just read three young adult books with gay protagonists. They're not really thematically related at all, nor do they have anything in common, but I found the coincidence harmonious enough that I've decided to review them in a bunch regardless.

Boy Meets Boy

I picked this up from a discount bookshop, remembering absolutely nothing about it except that someone might have told me it was good once, well, either this or a different completely book, which is the sort of thought process you find yourself having when you're unleashed in a space where everything is £2. Things you pick up in discount bookshops because there's no reason not to, rather than because you had a set reason for wanting to read them, can be surprisingly delightful. They can also be unbearably dreadful but I'm glad to say that Boy Meets Boy fell into the former category.

It's basically a coming-of-age tale, and a love story, so simply and straightforwardly told that it's almost banal – the message here seems to be that the experience of being a teenager is universal, and that sexuality shouldn't be something that marks difference between people who might otherwise find points of connection. Because of this, and setting elements I'll address later, it subtly addresses issues of acceptance and tolerance. The book itself is a vehicle for them, but mainly it tells a story about a recognisable teenager undergoing recognisable teenage experiences who just happens to be gay. Its very existence, in a way, emphasises the normality of gay experience, while leaving the book at liberty to simply a story in an entertaining way. To be honest, though, the story of Boy Meets Boy didn't interest me all that much, although I did care enough about the protagonist (Paul) to want a happy ending for him. But then it's self-unconsciously unremarkable – as the title itself suggests it will be – and charming enough to carry its own deliberate ordinariness. One of the things I did very much like about Boy Meets Boy is that it successfully creates a transitory space (being a teenager at school) that both owns its own transitiveness and yet doesn't undermine the importance of events and experiences within that space. So, for example, we are never expected to believe that Paul's love for Noah is Forever, but we still recognise its value, and even savour it because there is something uniquely delicate, perfect and intense about that kind of teenage romance.

Boy Meets Boy inhabits its adolescence almost to a fault – it's told in the first person, by Paul, so we are rather trapped in his often rather limited and flawed perspective. It struck me as being so realistically teenage that I found it rather stifling sometimes – his arty whimsicality strays perilously close to pretension. But as close as I came to rolling my eyes on occasion, self-irony is something adults impose on the excesses of adolescence and Paul's earnestness is genuinely endearing. Part of the problem with the book being so grounded in Paul was the less flamboyant characters don't really come through as clearly as they need to – Paul has an interesting circle of friends, including his bisexual ex, Kyle, who is working through his own confusion, and Tony, also gay, who is struggling with the restrictions of his parent's religion. Noah, Paul's love interest, never really develops his own identity – yes he is charming, like Paul, and whimsical, like Paul, and arty, like Paul, and somewhat vulnerable from a relationship gone wrong, like Paul, but although I believed in Paul's attraction to him, I found it rather difficult to believe in Noah as a person in his own right. But, then, I think Boy Meets Boy is more interested in love in general, than the specifics what makes a particular relationship work, so there's an extent to which it doesn't really matter.

The thing I loved most about Boy Meets Boy, however, was the setting. Because I didn't quite realise what I was reading, the fact that it is essentially set in a utopia of complete equality, where all sexualities are accepted, came at me completely unexpectedly. Basically the text presents you – in a very delightful way – with an increasing level of tolerance, up to the point at which it becomes absurdly unrealistic and then you feel deeply sad that what should surely be a basic level of human decency comes across as ludicrous idealism. It's never really “explained” in the text why this small town in America has embraced so wholeheartedly the tolerance it should not be unreasonable to expect from society as a whole but equally that shouldn't require explanation. This setting comes absolutely shining out the book, and some of my favourite passages are when it allows for things like this:
It was with Joni's help that I became the first openly gay class president in the history of Ms Farquar's third grade class.

Joni was my campaign manager. She was the person who came up with my campaign slogan: VOTE FOR ME... I'M GAY!

[…]

My biggest opponent was (I'm sorry to say) Ted Halpern. His first slogan was VOTE FOR ME … I'M NOT GAY, which only made him seem dull. Then he tried DON'T FOR HIM... HE'S GAY, which was pretty stupid, because nobody likes to be told who they can (or can't) vote for. Finally, in the days leading up to the election he resorted to DON'T VOTE FOR THE FAG. Hello? Joni threatened to beat him up but I knew he'd play right into our hands. When the election was held he was left with the rather tiny lint-head vote while I carried the girl vote, the open-minded guy vote, the third-grade closet case vote and the Ted-hater vote. It was a total blowout and when it was all over Toni beat Ted up anyway.

The next day at lunch, Cody O'Brien traded me two Twinkies for a box of raisins – clearly an equal trade. The next day I gave him three Yodels for a Fig Newton.

This was my first flirtation.


Or when the universal tolerance of the setting is playfully juxtaposed against the general intolerance of high school society:
Infinite Darlene doesn't have it easy. Being both star quarterback and homecoming queen has its conflicts. And sometimes it's hard for her to fit in. The other drag queens in our school rarely sit with her at lunch; they say she doesn't take good enough care of her nails and that she looks a little too buff in a tank top. The football players are a little more accepting, although there was a spot of trouble last year when Chuck, the second-string quarterback fell in love with her and got depressed when she said he wasn't her type.

It seems to be telling us we have enough to worry about it without also stressing about other people's sexualities. I'm also just glad there's a bisexual, and a real bisexual, in the book. And although his confusion ends up causes a bit of conflict, it is sympathetically presented.

There were a few aspects of Boy Meets Boy that fell a little flat for me – Noah, as I have said, and I was a bit sad that the story of the straight best friend is essentially one of loss. Joni gets into a relationship with an apparently rather controlling guy but we never really get any into her side of things (because Paul doesn't have any) and Paul is never quite able to reconcile with her. For a book about love, in all its forms, this is fair enough, since love and loss travel hand in hand, but it does mean that the one straight person in the entire book abandons her friends the moment she gets into a relationship. This is even more problematic because Boy Meets Boy is dependent on archetypes, rather than characters – what Boy Meets Boy, hopefully unintentionally, seems to be saying through arc is that gay-straight friendships are impossible to sustain, especially since the friendships he maintains, and the new ones he forms over the course of the book are all with gay people. The other thing that made me a little uncomfortable was the fact that Gay Tony's parents, who are unable to accept his sexuality, are highly religious. Of course lots of people who are religious have trouble with teh gay but it always seems to end up being a short-cut for blind homophobia. To Levithan's credit they are not obviously evil, and genuinely love their son, but just as there are problems in your only straight person fucking off into an unhealthy relationship there are problems in having your only homophobes be people of religious conviction.

Minor issues aside, Boy Meets Boy is basically an adorable piece of fluff. It is a hug in a book and I really enjoyed it.

Hero

I feel really bad about Hero because I honestly expected to love it, but as it turned out I just didn't get on with it. Thom Creed's father used to be a super hero but following a National Disaster (the collapse of the Wilton Towers while fighting off an alien, apparently) he's an outcast, a single father trying to raise his son. Thom is gay, and starting to manifest a superpower, two things he knows his father can't stand, and both of which are aspects of himself he feels he has to hide from his father for lose his love and respect. Unexpectedly, Thomas receives an invitation to try out for the League, the official syndicate superheroes, and finds himself on probation with a bunch of other aspiring superheroes.

One of the first books I reviewed for Ferretbrain back in the day was Soon I Will Become Invincible, the first superhero “novel” I'd ever read, which I ended up rather enjoying and is told from the perspective of a supervillain. I remember that Jamie and I had a rather tangled discussion – enacted from a perspective of mutual confusion – about the very concept of a superhero NOVEL. Soon I Will Become Invincible was clever and stylish enough that the inherent problems of the form Jamie articulated in his comments didn't become more than a minor issue. Unfortunately, they bugged the crap out of me in Hero. I felt that the narrative was constantly straining against itself – it wanted, and needed, to be a comic. Or about something else. Equally, the tropes of the genre, which are a vital part of any superhero story, are primarily visual, and largely present to bridge the gap between the images and the words. When there are only words these tropes come across as clumsy and lacking in subtlety – instead of bold, dramatic and exciting.

There is a lot to find likeable about Hero, really. The being-gay arc is nicely paralleled by the being-a-superhero arc; in fact as far as metaphors go it works pretty well, feeding into similar feelings of difference, and a pressure to conceal aspects of your identity. I also thought Thom was very well portrayed, in all his confusion, his foolishness and his charm. The scene in which he first meets Goran is particularly effective. Thom works for a mentoring programme for encouraging literacy:
I turned round and saw one of my new students, about my age, standing behind me.

“You scared me.” I shut the file cabinet.

“What are you doing in there?”

He had a thick accent, so his family must have only moved here recently. One of the many English-as-a-second students who came to the centre to learn English … I always felt bad for the ESL students. I couldn't imagine what I'd do if I had to take chemistry in Bratislava...

“Oh,” I was just looking for something for us to read tonight,” I said, slowly enunciating each word. “Do you like books?”
He stared at me. He didn't blink.

“See, that's the great thing about learning English. You get to read some cool books and stuff, so it's not all about boring homework.”

He still didn't blink. “Books and stuff?” He repeated the words like he was spitting out poison.

“Yeah,” I said. “It's pretty fun when you get into it. Reading and all.”

Phyllis hurried back in the room...

“I see you've met Goran,” she said.

“Yes.” I smiled. “I have the feeling he's going to pick up English in no time.”

Phyllis looked at Goran to see if I was serious and then looked back at me.

“Thom, Goran founded the literacy programme for the older kids here two years ago. I asked him to show you the ropes tonight.”

[…]

Goran, arms folded, stared at me with contempt.

Sometimes I am the world's biggest loser.

I did, in fact, really like Thom. He's unflinchingly presented with all his flaws and vulnerabilities, right up to and including his mushy fantasies about Uberman, the most famous superhero in the league. He's nicely complex too, so he's always a very real person, not a stereotype. I liked the fact his fantasies about Uberman are as romantic as well as sexual (heh, being gay is not ONLY about sex), that Thom is quite athletic and his with Goran friendship develops over the course of basketball games, and that his first kiss is something he shares with a stranger because he's basically gone out to pull, and that it's okay that he does this. He doesn't come to any harm as a consequence, he doesn't have a horrible time, and it isn't presented as anything other than the act of a hurt and bewildered teenager.

What didn't work for me at all were the superhero aspects of the text. Although they function well enough on a metaphorical level, in practice I found them banal, overwrought and unsatisfying. It's possible I just missed the point. There are plenty of comic-related in-jokes and references – Uberman is clearly Captain Planet, Justice is Superman by way of Dr Manhatten, and his alienness and loneliness is rather affecting in the few scenes he dominates – and it's amusing enough, I suppose, but the dark-man-dark aspects don't sit very well with the more comedic ones. For example, Thom has a team-mate called Typhoid Larry and I think we are expected to care about him as a person, but Moore doesn't put in the effort necessary to make him anything more than a one-dimensional joke about hilariously unpleasant superpowers. Miss Scarlet, equally, is an angry bitch because her superpowers have horrendous side-effects but she's also incredibly boring. It's a shame because the style and complexity with which Moore depicts Thom, his father and, strangely enough, Justice is completely lacking in the supporting cast. They little more than dull, sub-Watchman stereotypes who obligingly die when it is time for us to feel sadness.

I initially liked the fact that Thom's superpower (healing) is a second-order power – it is far from traditionally glamorous and it is also not the sort of power we might instinctively associate with a man. It also ties in nicely to Thom's development from a self-conscious, self-absorbed teenager to an empathetic adult who cares about the people around him. Unfortunately it soon turns out that super-healing also comes bundled with aspects of super-blowing shit up – so something that could have been genuinely interesting and a little bit subversive basically becomes standard superhero fare. Blah.

The other inherent problem with the superhero format is that it's embedded in short-term, dramatic gestures. Thom's father is another example from the “excellent” spectrum of Moore's characterisation – as a disgraced superhero, the guy clearly has issues, and I thought the complicated, messy and frustrating relationship he has with his son was depicted with sympathy and subtlety. He manages to be an admirable man, a good father and a terrible father all at once; he is also, of course, homophobic but he never becomes a strawman bigot. Thom's father eventually comes to accept Thom's homosexuality but only directly before plot requires him to make the traditional superhero self-sacrifice. This was all very moving but I actually thought it was a cop-out. It is probably pretty easy to come to terms with your own internalised homophobia if you're about to die. Acceptance and tolerance are long-term prospects. They are not about short-term gestures. I would have been much happier if Thom's father had shown his commitment to these values through living with his son, not making an "i wuv you" speech and conveniently dying. I know this probably sounds perilously close to counter-factual criticism but since these issues are a major theme of the novel, it is frankly cheap to offer resolve them via trope.

There's a lot of really good stuff in Hero, and I did enjoy it when I wasn't being frustrated with it. But it really is its own worst enemy and the superhero trappings interfere with the story I was interested in reading.

Ash

This book is so utterly different to the preceding books that makes even more of a mockery of this review collection than it is already. Oh well. Ash is basically a Cinderella-retelling. It's charming but I found it rather insubstantial, but then there's also an extent to which fairy-tales are supposed to be insubstantial. The writing is elegant but in many ways it's a very suppressed book – Ash, is after all, subsumed in grief and despair, following the death of her father, and spends most of the book essentially trying to escape her own life. Left at the mercy of her stepmother she is not horrifically abused, but she is reduced to servant status and her wants and needs become completely irrelevant to those around. As a consequence of this, she is a rather difficult character to find in the text – she is, essentially, suicidal for most of the book - and the overall effect makes reading Ash is somewhat alienating. I did, however, appreciate how anti-dramatic is is. With such a depressing take on the material, it would have been easy to turn it hysterical - but, bleak though it is at times, Ash is very controlled, almost too controlled, since we come so close to losing hold on our central character.

It was not quite what I was expecting in a fairytale retelling but it did grow on me. And though it may be subdued, it is thankfully not self-consciously dark-man-dark about it. There's quite a sophisticated world underpinning this simple story, although it's incredibly lightly sketched, it's less world-building than world-suggesting, which I actually rather enjoyed. The magical elements of the story become entwined with Ash's desire to escape, rendering them both sources of solace and threat. Ash yearns to become part of the fairy world, a world not meant for humans, because the human world offers her nothing, and she sees the annihilation of herself as being a release from pain and grief and loneliness. Her fairy godmother is actually a rather sinister fairy called Sidhean and although her attraction to him, and his world, is understandable, and he is certainly fascinating, it is also never portrayed as anything but unhealthy.

Ash's “handsome prince” is not, however, a prince; it is actually the King's huntress, Kaisa. There is a handsome prince in the story, and Ash does end up dancing with him, but he's delightfully incidental. The romance between Ash and Kaisa unfolds beautifully – the fact they are both women is neither here nor there. Ash is very much framed as a love story, not a coming out out story. Being gay is very deliberately Not An Issue. I liked Kaisa very much, she is strong and sensitive, and clever and, quite frankly, she could have me any day. Unlike Sidhean, and, initially, Ash she is very much a part of the natural, human world. As her friendship with Ash develops, it is significant that one of her first acts is to teach Ash to ride, drawing her back towards the world she wants to leave. For all Kaisa's strength and love though, Ash must ultimately choose to rescue herself.

As I said above, Ash was not quite what I was expecting – a fairytale about a depressed girl who must choose whether to reject fairytales and live in the real world. I appreciated it more, in retrospect, since it is rather a slow and quiet read. On the other hand, the relationship between Ash and Kaisa is awfully romantic. And yay for lesbians.
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Comments (go to latest)
Frank at 04:09 on 2011-01-14
Hero is likable. It was easy to escape into without thinking too hard on any possible reveals though the main villain was obvious from the get go. Moore's Aquaman family is sickly funny, and his Superman's (Justice's) superolfactory is a cool twist. What was way unlikable and absolutely did not work in the story was the writing because suddenly I found myself counting how many times Moore used 'suddenly' in the text and was suddenly struck plum dumb after reading it twice in the same paragraph.
I couldn't read it again. But I would see the movie or mini-series if it ever came about.
Robinson L at 03:02 on 2011-02-19
Oh dear, Perry Moore, author of Hero has died, and at a ridiculously young age, too. That's sad.

I might read his book sometime, or one of the others. They all sound moderately-interesting-but-not-essential-reading. (I might read Boy Meets Boy just for the writing style, if it's all like that.)
Wardog at 11:20 on 2011-02-19
Oh no - I feel kind of low key guilty now, for not liking his book.

I'm kind of with Frank actually - I didn't really fixate on it but the writing style was incredibly pedestrian.

Yeah, they were all likeable books - not amazing and essential but definitely a pleasant way to pass an afternoon. In order of liking for me it would be: Boy Meets Boy (I believe he's written a book for adults recently, I'm curious), Ash, Hero.
valse de la lune at 07:17 on 2011-05-02
I'm plodding through Ash slowly. The writing style's actually easy to read, but I'm having trouble with how anvilicious the author is; your review does suggest it gets better, or at least subtler.

Lol at a fairy named "Sidhean," though.
valse de la lune at 11:56 on 2011-05-02
Okay I speed-read through it like a thing that is speedy, but what exactly did Ash do to get out of the bargain with Sidhean? "I'll be yours for one night and the curse will be broken because if you REALLY love me you'll set me freeeee" makes sense... how?
Wardog at 19:21 on 2011-05-03
I guess I just saw that as typical fairy-tale logic, and didn't really worry about it. Although truthfully I wasn't paying much attention by then, just hoping the Huntress was okay :).

Ash was one of those books I liked more retrospect than while I was reading it - Ash's frozen despair doesn't exactly make it easy or lively to get through.

I think there's a second book out now (Huntress?) and I'm almost tempted. I didn't feel massively passionate about Ash, but I'm starved enough for decent fiction with non-straight female characters in it that I'm happy to go along for the ride.
valse de la lune at 19:53 on 2011-05-03
Huntress is certainly on my to-read list, but before I get to it I'll probably read a bunch of others first. For what it's worth, here are books I've read or which I'll soon read that include gay female characters:

Disturbed By Her Song, Tanith Lee (nominated for the LAMBDA award, even, though I'm still surprised because Lee's straight and I thought their rule was "author must be LGBT")
Daughters of a Coral Dawn, Katherine V Forrest
The Female Man, Joanna Russ
Child Garden, Geoff Ryman (author is a gay man)
Fire Logic and Water Logic, Laurie J. Marks

And obviously, some of Catherynne M. Valente's stuff (author being herself bi, I believe) particularly Palimpsest and The Orphan's Tales if you haven't read those already.
Wardog at 21:42 on 2011-05-03
I find Lee pretty variable, to be honest, although I haven't read that one (adds to list). Some of her stuff I really really love and some of it, well, not so much. Valente is one of those authors I've been meaning to get round to for ages, but I've read (and liked) quite a bit of her critical stuff so I'm terrified I won't like her fiction.

The only examples I can remember off the top of my head are Kushner's The Privilege of the Sword in which the heroine is maybe a lesbian if you squint a bit and cross your fingers, the dreaded oh god no Green, and, well shit, that's it.
valse de la lune at 06:54 on 2011-05-04
I am... not fond of Kushner; couldn't finish Swordpoint and what I know of her collab with Sarah Monette (whose books I'm not fond of either)--A Companion to Wolves--is that it involves gay people and an awful lot of rape. Can't we have fantasy featuring gay people that's not so rapey all the time?

But I agree with you on Lee; she has written things I loved, and things that made me go "she... she can't write."

Valente is one of those authors I've been meaning to get round to for ages, but I've read (and liked) quite a bit of her critical stuff so I'm terrified I won't like her fiction.

Palimpsest isn't her best, IMO, though a lot of people may disagree--it's got iffy sexual politics (i.e. consent issues)--but the Orphan's Tales duology is almost universally liked.

The Female Man opens beautifully, with the female narrator introducing herself and talking about her mother, her other mother, and how she loves her wife Vittoria. Aw hell yeah.
Wardog at 18:18 on 2011-05-04
I actually quite liked Swordspoint, and to a lesser extent Priviledge. But then I think it was the first of that "type" of book I read. I might be less forgiving nowadays. I thought A Companion to Wolves was Monette and Bear (or are Kushner and Bear the same person, I really have no clue about incestuous author cults), and I read halfway through it, slightly bewildered by both the rapey and, even more objectionable (not really), the *boring*. Also I thought what was going to be an interesting examination of the mythic and the construction of masculinity seemed to just boil into who goes on the bottom ... so... yeah.

I've been trying to control my book buying habits, in that I need to read (and review) what I've already got ... but ... but ... temptation...
valse de la lune at 18:31 on 2011-05-04
Oh shit, my bad. You're right, it is Monette and Bear. These writers are all the same to me okay. Not coincidentally I also don't have much patience for Bear, and that's not just because of her part in Racefail 09: I read Ink and Steel and kept going wryyyyyy.

(Oscar Wilde said the only way to deal with temptation is to give in to it. :))
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