a garden in riotous bloom
Beautiful. Damn hard. Increasingly useful.
"They ask, who are you? And I got 75% on that." 
I thought about posting this either on the Whatever or on my PW blog, but eventually I decided it was best put here, since it's a very personal response to a book. If you're not familiar with the idea behind Lauren McLaughlin's Cycler, you can get a synopsis at that link.

I found Cycler profoundly frustrating, full of exactly the behaviors that are perpetuated by present-day gender roles and stereotyping: denial, lies, desperation. None of the characters' clumsy realizations have to do with anything other than the practicality of getting a date or fitting in; they never seem to reach any deeper understanding of gender or sexuality or why they matter. To me this is completely implausible.

I grew up in the company of other queer teens and we talked about Stonewall, the difficulties of coming out, how the queer rights struggle is modeled after other civil rights struggles, the pros and cons of monogamy, and safer sex. We weren't brilliant and insightful all the time, or even often, but we weren't stupid or blind either. That was fifteen years ago; I'm privileged to know a few present-day teenagers and they're more thoughtful and well-informed on issues of sex and sexuality than I ever was at that age.

There's nothing to like or admire in any of the protagonists in Cycler. Perhaps the intent is to set them up as unlikeable and unadmirable and then let readers draw their own "don't be that girl/guy" conclusions, but the key to maintaining the reader's interest through that sort of parable is creating deep, nuanced, interesting characters. Instead you get these cardboard figures: The Best Friend, The Love Interest with a Secret, and The Conformist Who Eventually Learns to Just Be Who They Are. Those aren't even gendered notions, because gender isn't the real issue here. It's a red herring. The worst stereotyping in Cycler is the stereotype of the airheaded, shallow, gonad-driven teenager, and it's the one that never really gets punctured.

Most of all, this book left me really angry, because it looks like a book that queer teens can enjoy and identify with, and it isn't. It's a lesson for straight kids, conformists, and people in denial, and along the way it is downright cruel to the people it ostensibly supports. The opening scene is of Jill being glad and grateful that her father has taught her meditative techniques that let her suppress all memory of her time as a boy. I can't even express what a gutpunch it was to open a book that claimed to be about celebration and investigation of gender nonconformity and find instead a chatty monologue about the joys of self-inflicted forcible reeducation. Imagine if 1984 had started with "I love Big Brother".

I wanted a book where someone is queer and it's okay, where there is no mob of classmates shouting "Lezzy!" in the lunchroom, where the solution for the girl is not to get the boy by Just Being Herself. I would love a slashy book where the bi boyfriend dates both Jill and Jack, or a thoughtful book about what happens when Jill wants to break up with him and Jack doesn't. I want interesting metaphors about how there is no such thing as someone who is just one person, about how everyone cycles from one mindset to another and back, about how people change and project themselves differently in different circumstances and can't always even say who they are. There are so many books this book could have been and wasn't, and in a way I feel betrayed by that. When there are hundreds of books for teens with queer or genderqueer protagonists, then heteronormative gender stereotyping can have ironic value. Until then, it's just a slap in the face.

McLaughlin is reading at next month's KGB Fantastic Fiction event. I suspect I won't go; I don't think I'd be able to be polite.
27 August 2008 18:09
I remember you mentioning this book to me last week. It sounds like a great concept with really lame execution.
27 August 2008 18:54
It's not just that. I mean, I don't use words like "betrayal" lightly. I felt lured in and assaulted by the way the topic was treated.

It's like... imagine seeing a book that says it's all about a thoughtful exploration of what it means to be a Jewish teen in a predominantly Christian town, and being so glad that someone is finally writing about this because all the books about teens have these subtle, unexamined Christian assumptions, and then opening it up and reading the first chapter, where the protagonist says "Thank God my Baptist friends showed me that my salvation lies in Jesus! I jump up and down on my kippah every night to show how thoroughly converted I am!". It doesn't matter whether he eventually reconciles with his family and his heritage and decides to become a rabbi, because nothing can make up for that first shock of going to a place where you expected to be welcomed and instead having a door slammed in your face.
28 August 2008 06:15
Hans Christian Anderson wrote that one, by the way. And yes, it was a sucker-punch.
27 August 2008 20:07
Oh yes, you mentioned that! I shall have to add it to the list.
27 August 2008 20:10
I second the nomination.
28 August 2008 09:27
Every time I hear someone mention that book I think of Olaf Stapleton's ancient sci-fi "Last and First Men". I know the resemblance is at best superficial, but it still sticks with me.
27 August 2008 22:31
I was also disappointed by the book's premise -- I admit I haven't read the book, only the author's writeup on Whatever -- because it seems to me that being completely male for a few days a month is hardly a huge psychological trauma. The four-day blackouts, though, would require some adjustment.
29 August 2008 09:28
Someone on The Whatever made the comment that if that is the book you want, then you should write it.

After reading your review, I concur with that person.

You did not review the book itself, you reviewed your reaction to what the book was not. It would be like reading The Hobbit and feeling betrayed that there was only one hobbit because you are a hobbit and want to see more hobbit-positive novels.

You did make a couple of comments about the cardboard characters, but considering that you were not appreciative of the storyline, the actual concept, and pretty much everything else in the book, it is difficult to believe that you could critique the characters with any objectivity.

Maybe you should go talk to Lauren at the event. You may find out that she is a polite and gracious person (based solely on her reactions to people's posts on The Whatever) and that, while you still might not like the book, you may have judged it and her unfairly by having too many expectations before you even read it.

I for one will be picking up the book when I can and adding it to my stack.

And for the person who said that being a guy for four days a month doesn't sound too traumatic, I can agree with the blackouts, but seriously, being a guy (while not comparable in any way to being a woman) comes with its own traumas and expectations, like having to sheepishly tell other guys you aren't into sports when they tell you all about some player's stats or last game, or that you aren't really into cars when they tell you about the Chevy Big Block in their Mustang, or a thousand other stupid little things that make them think you less a man if you don't engage in them. Not that I generally care what other people think (I grew out of that a long time ago), but getting to this point was pretty tough, and involved a lot of beatings and emotional abuse. I know you were being funny, I just thought I would share a bit of perspective. (And the sports and cars, etc, has nothing to do with being gay or not. I have many gay friends who are into sports and cars.)
12 September 2008 21:48
Hi. As a caveat, I'm a friend of Lauren's as well.

I think what the commenter above wrote was accurate: you're describing the book you wanted, not the book Lauren wrote. The book you wanted sounds badass. I hope there's such a book out there, and, if not, I hope you or someone does write it. If you do, let me know and I'll be the first in line.

As for what the book actually IS, what you said above ("It's a lesson for straight kids, conformists, and people in denial") is true. It's a book primarily for people who have never had to grapple openly and publicly with gender issues. And therefore, it's clearly not a book written with you in mind as an audience. Someone like you, who HAS had to grapple with gender and sexuality issues consciously and publicly, doesn't need to be introduced to these concepts. But don't you think that there are piles of people out there who DO need to be introduced to these concepts?

That was, obviously, a rhetorical question. So what's the best way to intro these concepts to heteronormative/gender-normative people? Lauren's solution was to create a YA narrative so ordinary and straightforward that it would insult cliches to call it a cliche, and then make it fall apart completely. The concerns with prom and porn (didja SEE what she did there?) are so thin they start peeling immediately, but the underlying hysteria around genderfuck and queerness doesn't make it to the surface until the end.

That doesn't mean it's not there. It's this elephant under the veneer of normal concerns that pushes up more and more and more until it finally breaks through. That's the narrative arc of the novel: the underlying gender/sex concern breaking through the veneer and NOT any resolution of the gender/sex issue.

I'm not imagining this or hoping it into the narrative. It's all there if you pay attention. Over and over again Jill breaks her cover to drop hints that her split gender personality was CREATED by the "i'm all girl" meditation ... she says explicitly more than once that her personality was more integrated--had a complete mix of "masculine" and "feminine" traits before she and her family forced the split on them. Jack says it too.

Over and over again, the book tells the reader that the division of gender and sexuality into set traits and fatuous concerns is artificial and the product of hysteria. And people are criticizing the book for being fatuous, artificial and hysterical? The whole POINT of fiction is to dramatize abstract concepts ... to make them concrete. How do you make the point that something is damagingly shallow if the reader doesn't feel the shallow ... or the damage?

This part of your comment, however, was not true: "and along the way it is downright cruel to the people it ostensibly supports." In dramatizing cruelty to outcasts and outsiders, and outcasts' and outsiders' self-destructive behaviors, a novelist is not herself being cruel to those outcasts and outsiders. This is so obvious, I had not thought it needed to be said.

Again, for someone who has won self acceptance as non-normative person through a hard process, you may find a book that asks you to identify with a girl in serious denial difficult to stomach. You, in fact, may never have suffered through denial, so identifying with Jill may simply be impossible for you. But that doesn't mean that the book intends (or commits) deliberate cruelty to you or any other non-normative person. Self-denial IS cruel. It IS a gut-punch. But people who are still in denial aren't going to feel it that way, and it takes the whole unraveling process of the book to dramatize that point.

Again, the book is full of hints that this is what is going on. It doesn't take a very careful reading of the book to pull this out. I think what it takes is reading the book for what it is and not for what you want the book to be. I think Lauren did a brilliant job WITH THE PROJECT SHE CHOSE, and it's unfair to fault her for not choosing another project. If this book DOES succeed with its intended audience it may actually make attitudes like Jill's and her mother's (which, let's be honest, DO exist in modified form everywhere) harder to maintain. And that's the whole point.
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