“I want love to conquer all. But love can’t conquer anything. It can’t do anything on it’s own.
It relies on us to do the conquering on its behalf.”
“i feel my life is so scattered right now. like it’s all these small pieces of paper and someone’s turned on the fan. but talking to you makes me feel like the fan’s been turned off for a little bit. like things could actually make sense. you completely unscatter me, and i appreciate that so much.”
― Will Grayson, Will Grayson
Five years ago today I told my mother I am gay. I don’t think I know anyone else who has their coming out anniversary marked on the calendar on their iPhone, but I certainly do – my coming out was perhaps one of the most significant moments in my entire life. When I look back I am surprised by just how much I have changed in the past five years. Five years ago I hated myself, I feared Hell on a daily basis, and I knew a pain that transcends the physical that I think only someone who really knows the inside of that awful closet can understand.
I came out nearing the end of high school. I lived in a small town and, while I had a couple lesbian friends, I didn’t really know any gay men, certainly none that I felt I could befriend. So if you’ve assumed that at that point in my life I was unfathomably lonely, you’d be right. I didn’t know anyone like me, and I didn’t have any influences in my life other than a small handful of incredibly supportive people to reaffirm my value. So much of our media had presented me stereotypes and negative representations of queer people, making me feel not only alone, but also worthless and bad – like I was an infected limb needing amputation. That is until I read David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy.
Looking back, I now find Boy Meets Boy overly simplistic and unnecessarily utopian. But at the time I read it, it was perhaps one of the most important and helpful things I had ever encountered, and no matter the criticism it might otherwise warrant, I will always remember the hope and happiness it gave me – reaffirming my value and my queer identity as something beautiful. (Another novel I found incredibly helpful was Alex Sanchez’s The God Box, but we’re here to talk about Levithan).
Since then I have read two more of Levithan’s novels: Everyday and Will Grayson, Will Grayson (co-written by John Green).
Reading both novels was a similar experience for me. I read both of them in just a couple sittings, spending all day in my comfy leather chair just reading and reading and reading, skipping meals just so I could find out what happens next. I could not put either book down, and found the reading experience absolutely wonderful. In fact, while I realize John Green is an amazing author who probably deserves the success he’s gained, I frankly found Levithan’s scenes far more enjoyable in Will Grayson, Will Grayson. When I finished both books, I had to take a moment. I teared up at the end of Everyday, pacing around my room, while Will Grayson, Will Grayson left me still and contemplative for several moments.
However, after several days of thinking the books over, I came to realize that both of them have some issues that I’m not altogether ok with.
Everyday is the story of A, a supposedly gender-less and race-less entity that wakes up in the body of a different person every day. They are always their own age, so as the story takes place when A is sixteen, every person who A “possesses” so to speak, is also sixteen. They are also within reasonable proximity to each other. While the story of a person who does not have their own body, but moves from one person to the next instead, is fairly interesting, there are several flaws with Levithan’s approach.
In one scene A argues that all people, deep down, are the same. This “we’re all human” approach is incredibly problematic as in a systemically white supremacist society it instead argues that we should all instead be white. While A supposedly has no race, their experiences as a white man are no different than their experiences as a black woman. Thus, while this text presents itself as a person who gets to live every range of human experience, they do not seem to face any sexism, racism, et cetera. In fact, in one scene, A is in the body of a gay boy who sees anti-gay protestors at a Pride parade – and while A disagrees with their politics, A does not seem to feel the experience of homophobia or heteronormativity.
This scene with the gay boy was perhaps one of the most frustrating for me as a gay reader. In this story, A falls in love with a girl named Rhiannon. While in some scenes A explains how integral the body is to identity, how a person with depression is influenced so deeply by their mental health, just as a person with diabetes is shaped by their physical health, or in so many scenes ugliness or beauty deeply affect a person’s identity – yet sexual orientation does not seem to be a factor. While A is at gay Pride with another boy, A spends the entire time looking for Rhiannon. In another scene A is in the body of a girl, and kisses Rhiannon, who is, understandably, uncomfortable with this, but A is unreasonably offended by her response. While many people have argued that their sexuality is fluid, others have fought hard to have their sexuality understood as an integral, unchanging part of their identity. The idea presented in Everyday that the body is irrelevant when it comes to topics of love, sex and romance is an injustice to the queer community, and supports the idea that homosexuals can be just as happy in heterosexual relationships as homosexual ones. It furthermore, by extent, agrees with the ideologies of ex-gay camps and ministries.
While body is argued as an incredibly important part of identity in Everyday, Levithan fails to demonstrate how different bodies have different experiences in North American society; and furthermore fails to include sexual orientation as a part of one’s body. Thus, while the novel is beautifully written, the protagonist did not read as gender-less or race-less, but instead felt very much like a white, heterosexual man.
Speaking of white men, let’s shift the focus to Will Grayson, Will Grayson – which, as far as I can tell, is like most queer fiction and features a primarily (if not entirely) white cast of characters with male protagonists. This is a novel about the daily lives of two boys with the same name with one person they both know – Tiny Cooper.
Tiny Cooper is John Green’s Will Grayson’s best friend, and becomes the boyfriend of David Levithan’s Will Grayson. Tiny Cooper is perhaps the flattest and most stereotypical gay teenage boy I have ever seen in fiction. Tiny Cooper is the glue that holds this story together, as he is the only thing that connects the two Will Graysons, who only meet twice in the whole novel.
While I am often frustrated by how frequently a person is only understood or represented as queer if they are in a same-sex relationship in fiction, and thus there are very few whole, single queer people in literature, television and film – I struggled with the ending of Will Grayson, Will Grayson. Spoiler Alert – John Green’s straight Will Grayson ends up with everything he could want, a better relationship with his best friend, a supportive girlfriend, popularity, and a fulfilling relationship with his parents. He ends up surrounded by people who love and support him. For David Levithan’s gay Will Grayson, things are a bit more ambiguous, the story ending with him single, the status of the majority of his few friendships left in the air, and the relationship with his mother conflicted at best. So, while I can appreciate Levithan’s Will Grayson is presented in the conclusion as a whole queer person without needing anyone else to fulfill his worth – in comparison with John Green’s character the novel finishes feeling like heterosexuals are better off than homosexuals.
So what can I say about both of these novels, knowing beforehand that I am personally invested in the works of David Levithan, and that I sincerely want them to be rewarding and enriching novels for all who read them. I can say that they are enjoyable reads when not closely analyzed, and that they are poetically and eloquently written while still accessible. I can say that Everyday is beautifully tragic, while Will Grayson, Will Grayson is motivating and inspiring. However, at the same time, I must say they both feel as if written for privileged readers who cannot think critically. However, for those who can think critically and are looking for a romantic book for February, all I can say is this: Levithan’s works are romantic, and while I myself disagree with the ideologies presented in them, I am at least grateful for the opportunity to think about and fully realize this and I cannot say I regret reading either novel.
So I am left wondering: if a book can make you think, even in opposition to it, does that make it worth reading?