28 December 2017

Voice and Genre in Young Adult Literature: Two Boys Kissing (2013)

Trade paperback, 200 pages
Published 2015 (originally 2013)
Acquired November 2016

Read March 2017
Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan

It has been argued that YA literature is all about voice: that it can be about anything if it signals the voice of a teenager and an audience of teenagers. (I discussed this in my commentaries on The Outsiders and Forever..., among others.) I find Two Boys Kissing fascinating, therefore, because it doesn't have the voice of a teenager. Covering a period of about twenty-four hours, the book centers on two gay teens trying to set the record for world's longest kiss, but they're just two of many characters in the novel, which takes in a mosaic of different gay teens during the same time span. But the narrator of the book is a first-person plural of gay men who died of AIDS, commenting on the differences between their generation and the next.

It's an interesting move, and I'm still not sure what I think of it. It seems like the kind of thing that's aimed at adults who read YA more than actual young adults; I'd be curious to know how a gay teen boy received the novel. But the only experience I can directly access is my own, so I will explore the question here in a couple different ways. How can a novel be narrated by such a voice but still claim to be YA literature?

Partially, it allows the novel to deal with issues of representation. At this point it's a commonplace of YA fiction that we need diverse books.  But even when a "diverse book" is published, it often bears a burden of representation: its protagonist's experience is the gay experience, or the black experience, or the Muslim experience, or whatever. Taking in a diversity of characters like Two Boys Kissing allows Levithan to represent the diversity of experience within the community: we have boys who are accepted by their parents, and boys who are not; we have boys who form solid relationships, and boys who fall into self-destructive ones; we have boys who are cis, and boys who are trans. This is irrefutably "a gay story" but it does not have one gay story. You might be bullied, and so you can see yourself reflected here, but you might also not be bullied, and why should every gay story be about that? So that's here too. The multiplicity of voices enables and enhances this.

Partially, it's a way of signalling that this book is being told by the community it depicts. Jacqueline Woodson writes in her essay "Who Can Tell My Story?" that "[a]s publishers (finally!) scurry to be a part of the move to represent the myriad cultures once absent from mainstream literature, it is not without some skepticism that I peruse the masses of books written about people of color by white people. [...] This movement isn’t about white people, it’s about people of color. We want the chance to tell our own stories, to tell them honestly and openly. We don’t want publishers to say, 'Well, we already published a book about that,' and then find that it was a book that did not speak the truth about us" (38). She's talking about race, but I think it can be applied to the LGBT experience as well. With its gay narrators, you get the sense that this is the gay male community itself getting to "tell [their] own stories, to tell them open and honestly." The way the narrators speak emphasizes both the tragedy and the triumph of gay life, and implicit in the novel's celebratory picture of 2013 gay life is a tragic narrative of how things used to be, and that honesty makes the celebrations more celebratory.

Partially, it allows the book to teach its readers. This is always a wonky proposition in YA literature. The genre's foundational text in The Outsiders is all about not having lessons from adults to teenagers. It's a teenager telling a story about life as it is (supposedly), where you learn something from seeing yourself represented, but no one, especially no adult, turns up to give you a moral about good behavior. Mike Cadden (who I cited in my discussion of Forever...) worries about that, though: "the YA novelist often intentionally communicates to the immature reader a single and limited awareness of the world that the novelist knows to be incomplete and insufficient" (146). He likes narrators who are distinct from the characters within the novel: they help YA readers "identify[ ] potentially debilitating world views in the text" (153). Well, the narrators in Two Boys Kissing do that to excess, especially with the story of Cooper, a suicidal gay teen rejected from his parents. While he's doing his thing and having his horrific adventures, the narrators are constantly railing against his choices: (apologies for the long quotation, but I think I need it to get my point across)
Love, he thinks, is a lie that people tell each other in order to make the world bearable. He is not up for that lie anymore. And nobody is going to lie to him like that, anyway. He's not even worth a lie.
     We want him to take a census of the future. We want him to consider that love does make the world bearable, but that does not make it a lie. We want him to see the time when he will feel it, truly feel it, for the first time. But the future is something he is no longer considering.
     In his mind, the future is a theory that has already been proven false.

What a powerful word, future. Of all the abstractions we can articulate to ourselves, of all the concepts we have here that other animals do not, how extraordinary the ability to consider a time that's never been experienced. And how tragic not to consider it. It galls us, we with such a limited future, to see someone brush it aside as meaningless, when it has an endless capacity for meaning, and an endless number of meanings that can be found within it. (154-55)
On the one hand, I understand why Levithan does this, but on the other hand, I'm like, Enough already! I get it! Be optimistic! Whoo, future! I would think one doesn't read YA fiction to be preached at by adults, yet in some senses, this book is one long homily. And honestly, though the story of Cooper is one of the book's most effective, I wonder if it would be more effective if we just stayed inside his head the whole time and saw what he was thinking directly, instead of having someone constantly railing against him for what he was thinking-- which the climax of the novel already does more than enough to dispel.

Partially, I think this works better when the novel is call to positive action instead of negative action, when it's suggesting what you ought to do instead of what you ought not do. The book highlights (as I've said) how 2013's gay teens have it better than those who died of AIDS, but it also points out that things can be even better if the reader acts to make it so: "If you play your cards right, the next generation will have so much more than you did" (195). The first half of the book is pretty upbeat, but the second half gets darker, showing that as far as we've come since the 1980s, there's still a lot of work to do. Levithan came to fame for writing Boy Meets Boy (2003), which takes place in a high school where all forms of queerness are completely accepted. Of it, he once said, "I basically set out to write the book that I dreamed of getting as an editor – a book about gay teens that doesn’t conform to the old norms about gay teens in literature (i.e. it has to be about a gay uncle, or a teen who gets beaten up for being gay, or about outcasts who come out and find they’re still outcasts, albeit outcasts with their outcastedness in common.) I’m often asked if the book is a work of fantasy or a work of reality, and the answer is right down the middle – it’s about where we’re going, and where we should be." Two Boys Kissing feels like it falls between reality and fantasy; it's a book about how we are getting to where Boy Meets Boy was.

Partially, I'm just thankful that the book recognizes its own limitations with this self-aware sentence: "The minute you stop talking about individuals and start talking about a group, your judgment has a flaw in it. We made this mistake often enough" (128). Two Boys Kissing lets us see the individuals within the group, even if the group over-dominates at times.

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