Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Pulled in Opposite Directions: David Levithan's TWO BOYS KISSING

Have you ever read a book and found yourself feeling both incredibly moved and incredibly unsettled by it? For me, reading almost anything by Rudyard Kipling evokes this powerful mixed response. I'm in awe of Kipling's facility with language, the joy of it as his words dance and fly from the page to my eyes. But I'm equally appalled by the "white man's burden" and "the female of the species is more deadly than the male" ideologies that undergird much of his writing. Reading Kipling is a double-edged sword, on one edge the pleasurable sting of a language jubilee, on the other the painful hack of dehumanizing ideologies that undercut values I hold close to my heart.

I'm having a similarly ambivalent response to David Levithan's latest YA novel, Two Boys Kissing, but for reasons less clear-cut than the language/ideology split I see in Kipling. I hope you'll excuse me as I use this blog post to try and tease out the whys and wherefores of my ambivalence to this emotional, fascinating novel.

At first, Two Boys Kissing seems something other than a novel—a eulogy? A celebration? A defiant shout of affirmation in the face of a world that would deny the right of gay and transgendered boys to exist? The narrator is a most unconventional "we," a we readers soon are told is the voice of "the ghosts of the remaining older generation" (3), the gay men who died of AIDS. "We" alternates between offering advice to plural second person "you," the boys attracted to other boys growing up in the age of the Internet, and relating brief snippets from two days during the lives of eight adolescent boys in the present.

Matty Daley and Bobby Canciello, the world-record-
breaking college students who inspired Levithan's novel
Providing the framework for the novel is the quest being undertaken by Harry and Craig, former lovers but still friends who respond to the gay-bashing of Tariq, a fellow student, by deciding to publicly attempt to break the world record for the world's longest kiss. Harry's parents are completely supportive of their son and his sexual identity; Craig's family is unaware of his. Similarly, another couple, Neil and Peter, who have been dating for more than a year, interact with one supportive family and one in which the boy's identity is an "open secret," something everyone knows but everyone silently agrees not to mention. In contrast, Ryan and Avery are just beginning a relationship, which may be derailed by Ryan's angry response at being verbally gay-bashed in front of Avery. Finally, we have Cooper, filled with disgust both for his own sexual desires and for the those of the men he can't seem to stop interacting with on Internet chat boards, deeply disturbed and deeply depressed by how distanced he feels from everyone around him, as well as from his own self.

Like Levithan's Boy Meets Boy, Two Boys Kissing is in many ways a deeply affirmative book. The Greek Chorus "we" narrator sings the body electric, offering hymns of praise to the wonder that is gay boy life in the early 21st century:

Things are not magical because they've been conjured for us by some outside force. They are magical because we create them, and then deem them so. Ryan and Avery will say the first moment the spoke, the first moment they danced, was magical. But they were the ones—no one else, nothing else—who gave it the magic. We know. We were there. Ryan opened himself to it. Avery opened himself to it. And the act of opening was all they needed. That is the magic. (8)

Boys looking for positive role models for how to navigate gay or transgendered identity will find a welcome variety of possibilities in Levithan's collage. And they will find a plethora of advice and wisdom from the chorus, guidance backed by the authority both of past experience and current all-seeing observation. For example, on the lighter end, "We often believe the truest measure of a relationship is the ability to lay ourselves bare. But there's something to be said for parading your plumage as well, finding truth as much as in the silly as in the severe" (40); on the darker,

    You think there is no point.
     You think you will never find a place.
     You think your pain is the only emotion you will ever feel. You think nothing else will ever come close to being as strong as that pain.
     You are certain of this.
     In this minute—in this, the most important minute of your life—you are certain that you must die.
     You see no other option.
     You need to wake up, we cry.
     Listen to us. (188)

At the same time, the book clearly acknowledges the difficulties that still remain for gay youth, despite the many changes that have occurred since the AIDS generation fought its battles: "We know that some of you are still scared. We know that some of you are still silent. Just because its better now doesn't mean that it's always good" (6). Before the book opens, Tariq is senselessly beaten; Ryan's classmate Skylar torments Ryan in small ways almost daily to make himself feel bigger, as tossing the taunt "faggot" is still the easiest, and most popular way for straight boys to assert their masculinity. Cooper's father reacts with anger and disgust when he discovers his son's Internet life; Craig's father refuses to allow his family to offer support for his son's record-breaking quest after he discover's Craig's sexual orientation. Sexual identity is only intermittently a problem for some contemporary gay youth, but for others, as it was for many of the AIDS generation, it continues to be a rock-strewn road to travel.

Levithan's choice of the first person plural narrator clearly gives the book much of its power. To have an entire group of men, men lost through to the plague of AIDS but able through Levithan's words to return and both observe and comment on the lives of boys in the present, serving as one's narrator gives said narrator a degree of authority uncommon in the YA genre. Yet I think it is just that authority that is giving me pause, causing me to draw back a bit from the strong emotional reaction Levithan's novel evokes in me, urging me to for just a minute to think a bit more about what's at stake in evoking such narrative authority. The benefits seem all too clear; what, though, are the drawbacks to such a narrative choice?

The most obvious is the line the narrative walks between welcome advice and overbearing preachiness. For the most part, the litany of narrative "can'ts" and "shoulds" feels supportive, affirming: "You should never feel doomed" (5); "you can't always expect your partner's love alone to fill you" (181). But at times, the "we" can feel overly admonishing, even dictatorial: "We know that gratitude is the last thing on your mind. But you should be grateful. You've made it to another day" (22). Something about this authority makes me want to resist, to wriggle free of such heavy-handed manipulation, despite the guilt I feel at rejecting the authority of the tragically deceased speaking voice Levithan adopts.

On the one hand, giving voice to one's dead ancestors, whether figurative or literal, especially ones who have died so tragically, is a deeply respectful act of veneration. But at the same time, it's a choice with disturbingly coercive implications for a reader. How do I avoid being plagued by guilt if I want to disagree with the authoritative assertions of men who died in large part due to the homophobia of the society of which I am a part?

I'm also disturbed by the homogenizing effect of the "we" voice. The narrator tries to acknowledge that within his "we" lies a multiplicity of voices, of opinions, of values: "We are rarely unanimous about anything," he notes early on (8). But that narrative "we" works in opposition to such an assertion, because "we" speaks far more often in one voice here, expressing one point of view, one way of looking at the world, than "we" speaks of differences. Can "we" have the narrative cake and eat it, too? Or even if "we" are aware, as Levithan surely is, that we is multiple, does the very usage of the first person plural function to urge readers to forget such multiplicity?

Hints of homonormativity in the novel also give me pause. The one boy out of the seven who is portrayed as deeply unhappy is Cooper, who, along with Tariq, are the only two boys not currently in, formerly in, or about to be in, a monogamous romantic relationship. We are given little idea of Tariq's former or present love life, but we are shown Cooper exploring his sexuality in online chat rooms. The narrator frame's Cooper's search not as positive exploration, but as a desperate attempt to find something genuine amidst a sea of artificiality. But when Cooper actually hooks up with a rather nice young man he meets online, his own self-loathing prevents him from finding the genuine, from taking that leap into the vulnerability of "opening" oneself Levithan praises Avery and Ryan for making. Casual hook-up sex, and the Internet culture that enables it, is thus connected to despair, to self-loathing: "All of these men and boys trying out this new form of gratification. All of these men and boys still lonely when the rush is over, and the devices are off, and they are alone with themselves again" (65). In contrast, monogamous pairing is presented in a far more positive light. Now, I am far from an expert on the AIDS generation, but wasn't it true that for many of those men, casual sex was part of the appeal, rather than a negative aspect, of their sexual identities? What's at stake in erasing that aspect of gay culture?

Levithan's book is chock-full of lines I want to paste upon the wall so I won't forget them. One of my favorites:

     People like to say being gay isn't like skin color, isn't anything physical. They tell us we always have the option of hiding.
     But if that's true, why do they always find us? (36)

But even in the midst of my admiration, I can't help but find myself a resistant reader at other points in the novel. Is it because as a straight-identified woman I am not part of the "you" the book addresses? Is it because of my own homophobia, or my fear of confronting head-on the horrors of the men who died from AIDS? Or is it because the use of the narrative "we" has both amazingly positive and disturbingly negative aspects? Or all of the above?

I'd love to hear from other readers of Levithan's book, to see if you had similar or different responses to this innovative, powerful, and deeply thought-provoking book.

Are there other romance novels you've been moved by, have admired, but have felt ambivalent about, as well? Why?

Photo credits:
Daley and Canciello: Metro Weekly
The Aids Generation: The Human Rights Campaign
Queers Questioning Gay Marriage: To the Exclusion of All Others web site

David Levithan, Two Boys Kissing
Knopf, 2013


  1. I really love your analysis! So many reviews I've read of this are straight up praise, so it's nice to see an ambivalent reaction. I haven't had a chance to read it yet, and I've been nervous to, because as much as I like the way Levithan uses language, his books have never been a hit with me.

  2. There is lots to love about this book, but . . . like you, I felt the Greek chorus was overly preachy.

    Of course, the experience of gay men living through the AIDS crisis is important, but if there were a book written about girls' lives today and there was a Greek chorus of suffragettes telling girls how good they've got it now and how bad it was then, how would they take that book?

    For most of my students, it's ancient history, and while it's still important, to have a whole book that keeps telling you repeatedly what the differences are . . . well, it gets tiresome. IMHO.

    I'm a straight woman with a gay brother who had AIDS (karposi sarcoma - the whole nine yards). He lost tons of his friends during the 80's, but ask him now what it's like being HIV positive or openly gay, and he pretty much shrugs. Of course, he's lucky, He has benefits and the AIDS drugs worked so well that the virus is not even detectable in his system. I'd love to get him to read this book to see what he thinks of it.

  3. I was also conscious of being excluded by the protagonists and the narrators in "Two Boys Kissing". As opposed to his latest one "More than this" which confronts the gay issue of course, but has a diverse small group of other kids involved in the post-disaster world - very moving, where i just felt distanced from "Boys Kissing" - partly because why would you even want to do something as crass as try and break a Guinness record? It's a bit like gay marriage - sure let them, but these days hardly anyone marries anyway - it's not the thing with hetero couples now. Commitment is sufficient. Why all the fuss? Virginia

  4. I could go on forever. I literally loved every single word of this book. I was hooked instantly. There was never a dull moment. It is gorgeous, entertaining, and a work of art. I highly recommend it.