Thursday, February 16, 2017

What we're reading: Experimental teen fiction

I recently read the young adult novel Every Day, by David Levithan, because I was so intrigued by the premise of the book: A person called "A" wakes up every day in a new body. The character is genderless, because one day the body might be a guy, the next day a girl. The body is always age-appropriate, though--this has been happening as long as "A" can remember, but when "A" was five years old, the daily jump was into other five-year-olds, while now that "A" is a teenager, all the bodies are correspondingly the same age. There are also other parameters than age, such as distance/ proximity, that create some interesting challenges.

It's a strange existence, to say the least, and some conversation goes into talking about how "A" gradually figures out what's happening--at first, it seemed to the young person like "A" stayed the same, while all the other personnel changed daily; parents would say to "A" (only those parents thought, of course, that they were talking to their own child, not realizing that "A" was in control of the body), "Oh, tomorrow we will do such and such," and "A" would cry and say "But you won't be here tomorrow!" It took "A" a little time and some growing up before the realization struck that all those people would be "there" tomorrow, and only "A" would not.

The book opens when "A" is 16, and after a long life of waking up in new bodies, suddenly something has changed. "A" woke up this morning in the body of Justin, a rather hulking specimen of teenage boy, and when "Justin" gets to school, his girlfriend, Rhiannon, is there waiting. Justin (the real Justin) isn't very nice to Rhiannon--"A" can both pick up old memories from Justin's mind, and also sense this from her tentative manner around him. "A" decides, at first somewhat arbitrarily (being in a giddy mood today and not wanting to be as careful as usual), that "Justin" is going to give Rhiannon a good day. So they cut school, and go to the beach, and have what turns out to be a dream day for both of them. "A" wishes, more strongly than has ever happened before, to stay in this body and in this relationship with another person for whom "A" believes "A" could come to care. But, inevitably, the next morning comes and "A" wakes up as someone else.

Instead of going passively into that good night, though, "A" decides rebelliously that this is the moment to be a little selfish, to pursue the relationship that beckons, so "A" uses the next body to seek out Rhiannon, and the next, until finally "A" decides to disclose that all these people who have been running into Rhiannon and initiating some kind of contact are the same person inside, even if they look completely different on the outside. Rhiannon's reaction leads to the rest of the story.

I really enjoyed the multiple directions this book explored. I liked that it persisted with the lack of traditional gender roles--sometimes "A" was a girl with a boyfriend, sometimes a boy with a girlfriend, but also a boy with a boyfriend and a girl with a girlfriend. The descriptions of being inside uncomfortable "hosts"--a drug addict, a clinically depressed person--were powerful and interesting, and made the reader almost able to feel those things in first person. The idea of loving someone for their insides and not their outsides, or completely regardless of their outsides, was a challenging one, not just for Rhiannon but for the reader. And the ethics that "A" must confront each day--do I mess with this person's life so that it goes off on a tangent the person never intended? or do I continue to be careful and quiet and follow the inclinations of the host? are addressed when "A" encounters someone who seems to be like "A" but is taking a different, supremely selfish path.

There is a companion book, called Another Day, that is the exact same story, but from Rhiannon's viewpoint, that sounds intriguing; and Levithan will release an actual sequel, called Someday, that continues with "A"'s existence, "someday" in 2018.

It is gratifying to know just how innovative young adult literature can be; reading Every Day reminded me about another book, called Maybe I Will, by Laurie Gray, whose protagonist is named Sandy. But is it short for Sandra or Sandford? Those were the two names the parents considered before their child was born, but we the readers have no idea for which name Sandy is the nickname, because Gray manages to write the entire book without revealing the gender of the protagonist! I read most of it before I consciously realized this, which tells you how well written it is; just managing to get through the above review of David Levithan's book without using a gender pronoun felt so awkward to me that I honestly don't know how either of them pulled it off.

Maybe I Will is not speculative fiction like Every Day; rather, it is a painfully real book about a regular teenager, a sophomore in high school who cares about grades, about family, about friends, about theater. And then this teenager is brutally assaulted, and must find a way through the feelings and emotions generated by this violation, must choose between continuing a downward spiral or working towards recovery.

Although this isn't a book that I would say I loved, I did admire it greatly, and would echo other reviewers who have called this an "important" book, a ground-breaking book, a book that both parents and teens would benefit from reading. The gender issue really threw me for a loop, because I had made one assumption throughout the book and then the ending made me see that perhaps my assumption should have been different--or there shouldn't have been one! I'd like to go back and read the book with the opposite assumption--or with none. Reading it without knowing or caring about the gender subtly alters your view of the violation, as you realize that it isn't about sex, it's about power, and it can happen to anyone. I predict this book will take its place with Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson, with Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher, and with other books that feature teens who must choose how to deal with pain.

No comments: