Barbara Kay: Wasted tax dollars on a values-void novel
National Post - Wednesday January 21st, 2015
Every year, as a recipient of the Governor-General’s award for best fiction in children’s literature, a lucky Canadian writer receives a $25,000 cash prize. This year Raziel Reid, creator of pop culture blog Blitz & Shitz on DailyXtra.com, won for his Young Adult novel, When Everything Feels like the Movies.
I’ve read the novel. What were they thinking? No, seriously, what were their criteria? If I were an awards committee member, I’d lean to a recognizably Canadian novel in which the protagonist’s struggles to emerge from conflict lead to self-knowledge and the promise of positive maturation. Knowing children tend to “read up” — younger children like books about older children — I’d reject works whose themes and language were inappropriate for the lowest age of their category (here 12-18).
That I wasn’t a committee member will be immediately apparent to anyone who peruses Reid’s novel.
When Everything Feels like the Movies is about a trans/queer teenager — Jude (or “Judy”) Rothesay — whose difference isolates him socially. But he has many other troubles besides. His mother is an alcoholic stripper, so absorbed in a mutually abusive, on-off relationship with her loutish partner that she has difficulty parenting Jude and his special-needs half-brother Keefer. His father is but a rare, fleeting presence.
The central motif of this memoir-style novel is the “mirror,” specifically movies, a kind of mirror that silvers over sordid reality with glamour and fame. Jude describes everything that happens to him in cinematic terms. His middle school is a movie set. “No one was real. Especially me. We were all just playing our parts.” His peers fall into one of three categories: “The Crew”— kids engaged in school life, who participate in sports and extracurricular activities; “The Extras” — “the misfits, outcasts and social rejects”; and “The Movie Stars,” who are phony, but attractive. As for Jude, “I didn’t fit into any category.” His role is “the flamer that lit the set on fire.” Life as movie begins as a clever trope, but after hundreds of references — “it wasn’t in the script,” “hoping there’d been a rewrite” — it wears thin.
Jude’s only friend is Angela, whose family life is equally dysfunctional. She has translated her misery into compulsive promiscuity, drugs and casual abortions. Jude savours Angela’s lubricious recaps of her sexual encounters, as he himself, though sexually obsessive, is still a virgin and hopelessly in love with Luke, who prefers girls. It is fair to say that Jude’s sexual yearnings, masturbating, fantasizing (disturbingly, including sex with his father) and voyeurism constitute the bulk of the narrative. Even descriptions of neutral attributes are sexualized. A kind, but overweight waitress’s neck folds “remind [me] of a vagina.” A girl’s red lipstick “made her lips look juicy, like she had just sucked on a tampon.” Anti-Christian images are thrown in gratuitously. Here is Angela on her abortion: “’I asked the doctor if he could suck out some fat when he took the fetus, and the nurse looked at me like I was masturbating with a crucifix.’” Jude’s first experience in anal penetration is graphically described. We’re not in Green Gables anymore, Toto.
Jude is a reverse Peter Pan: sexually adult, but socially infantile. His egoism is unapologetically absolute
Indeed, we’re not anywhere recognizable. Province? State? East? West? Jude’s town isn’t even named. As for moral growth, there is none. Jude begins and ends as a liar, a thief (steals from mom and the Salvation Army), a sex-teaser of strange men, a stalker, a masochist (he deliberately incites bullying episodes) and a narcissist. He claims to love and want to protect the innocent Keefer (there are wannabee Catcher in the Rye vibes here), but endangers him to satisfy a whim. He also claims to love Luke, but when spurned (not unkindly), Jude does him intentional harm.
Jude is a reverse Peter Pan: sexually adult, but socially infantile. His egoism is unapologetically absolute. When a teacher confides he and his wife are hoping to conceive a baby, Jude recoils: “But think about how horrible it’ll be to wake up every morning and think about someone else before you think about yourself” (which sounds like campy self-parody, but isn’t). Adult authority figures are portrayed as weak, incompetent or hypocritical. There is nobody to encourage Jude’s appreciation of a world outside the self.
The message I draw — and think young people will too — is that the “authentic” narcissism of queer/transgender identity exempts one from the obligation to mature. I’d not have wasted tax dollars on this values-void novel. So I must assume that the committee took a kind of sophisticated approach to their deliberations that I am too culturally superannuated and simplistic to appreciate.