LGBTQ, Without the Q

Reviewed by Suzanne James

As an instructor of children’s literature, and in particular, queer-themed works, I draw my students’ attention to the shift in YA novels from anxiety-ridden texts such as Annie Garden’s Annie on My Mind (1982) to works like David Levithan’s confidently assertive Boy Meets Boy (2003). And like Levithan’s protagonist, the teenagers profiled in the novels reviewed here express no doubts about their sexual orientation. But what has become an increasingly poignant focus for LGBTQ-themed works such as these is a depiction of violent reactions to living as an openly queer teenager.

Adrian and the Tree of Secrets, a graphic novel with an unfortunately juvenile-sounding title in its English translation, opens quite innocuously: Adrian wakes up, showers, fusses over his appearance, and is sent off to school by an overly-protective mother. The plot advances as the protagonist, a rather stereotypically geeky teenager with a penchant for philosophy, unexpectedly develops an intense relationship with Jeremy, a popular student who appreciates his quirky intelligence. Several romantic encounters, a jealous girlfriend, a brutal bashing, a homophobic principal, and finally, an understanding aunt, round out the plot.

One striking feature of this graphic novel is the illustrator’s strategic use of colour: in a style reminiscent of Japanese block art, Caillou uses a limited four-colour palate to brilliantly depict Adrian’s shifting emotional state. A sameness is conveyed through the use of magenta shirts, blue trousers, and blue jackets for all the characters—except Adrian in the opening sections when his outsider status is conveyed through a two-tone brown argyle sweater. Colour is further emphasized in the novel’s more emotional and introspective moments, when Hubert wisely leaves the story to the illustrations.

In contrast, When Everything Feels Like the Movies provides a more complex and provocative exploration of gay teenage experience. The assertive confidence of Jude, the novel’s first-person narrator, almost overwhelms the reader in the opening chapters, and his explicitly sexual quips and descriptions of drug use, which may draw in and titillate young adults, will potentially disturb adult readers and conservative library staff. However, once we relinquish expectations and accept the narrator’s self-dramatizing and often ironic banter, the novel gains momentum, leading to a conclusion both narratively convincing and highly disturbing. Reid takes the risk of closing with Jude’s account of his murder and death at the hands of the object of his unrequited love. And ironically, the work avoids serious melodrama by embracing it through its movie-themed structure. When Everything Feels Like the Movies closes with a sentimental fantasy presented as a “Director’s Cut:” we, like the narrator, are allowed to step back from the horror of his murder as Jude, apparently brain-dead in the hospital, directs the closing sequence of his life—“And then the credits rolled.”

These two novels explore gay-bashing within a high-school context in a refreshingly authentic manner, addressing the psychological and social costs of living as an openly queer teenager, and in the case of Reid’s novel, with few illusions of a happy ending outside of the cinema.

This review “LGBTQ, Without the Q” originally appeared in Queer Frontiers. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 224 (Spring 2015): 126-27.

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