Monday, September 14, 2009


I just read (Re)Cycler by Lauren McLaughlin, the sequel to Cycler, which is a novel so original on the subject of gender identity that I'm teaching it for the second time this fall in my sophomore-level class on "Relationships and Dialogues." (See my review of Cycler.) (Re)Cycler follows some of the main characters from the small New England town of Cycler to New York City after their graduation from High School.

The slightly older characters of (Re)Cycler have fewer questions about sexual identity, so the premise of the sequel is a little less fraught, but it does offer some amusing viewpoints on gender stereotypes, as in this dialogue between Jack and a guy he's met in a bar who keeps a chart of which girls he's had sex with and then traded with his male friends:
"Just because a girl's no good for you doesn't mean she's no good for your friends."
My stomach turns over. "That's your philosophy?" I say.
"It's not a philosophy," he says.
"No," I say. "You're right. Truth, justice and the American way is a philosophy. Live and let live is a philosophy. Never bring dog meat to the party? That's not a very good philosophy."
"Jesus," he says. "Do you cry at the opera too?"
"I hate to break it to you," he says. "But you sound like a girl."
Part of the comedy of this dialogue lies in the fact that, for the better part of each month, the speaker who is accused of sounding "like a girl" IS physically a girl, although he is physically a boy at the time this conversation takes place.

Later, when Jack recounts the conversation to his girlfriend Ramie, the following dialogue ensues:
"Why are guys like that? Why do they think it's cool to be mean to girls?"
I shake my head. "Beats me."
"Thank God you're not a guy."
"I know," I say. "This one dude, Alvarez, actually referred to girls as dog meat. Wait. What do you mean I'm not a guy?"
"You're deeply not a guy," she says.
"How am I not a guy?"
"Duh," she says. "There is nothing guylike about you."
"Excuse me?" I say.
She looks right at me with those dark eyes. "Jack, please. Trust me. You're not a guy."
"Do you mean I'm not a perverted girl-trading jerk, but I'm still, like, a man?"
She looks at me with narrowed eyes.
"Wait a minute," I say. "You have to think about this?"
"Jack," she says. "Stop being so conventional. Jeeze."
But Jack isn't the only one.

Pretty much all of the characters in this novel seem overly conventional when it comes to gender roles. Since the novel is set in contemporary Brooklyn, a girl being criticized for dressing in gray clothes that look androgynous is incongruous, as are some of the sexual stereotypes presented to Jack and his female alter ego, Jill:
"Once, this guy named Brett stole her wallet when she refused to give him a b.j. He justified said action by claiming it was 'false advertising' for her to let him pay for dinner, and he was merely getting a refund.
The weirdest part about that that Natalie concluded, after the shock wore off, that he sort of had a point.
'I did let him pay for dinner,' she says. 'I didn't even pretend to reach for the check.'
My inability to comprehend any part of this twisted tale is, according to Natalie, damning evidence that I am operating under a 'naive paradigm,' which I should reconsider if I'm going to have any success operating in the treacherous waters of the New York dating scene. When I protest that the world can't possibly be as brutish as she describes, she reminds me that we've met today to discuss a guy who, until recently, used to trade girls with his friends."
At this point, the novel buys into (yes, literally) the no-longer-shocking equation of dating with sex for money (e.g. prostitution) without offering any new ideas about how dating should proceed in the 21st century.

It's hard to believe that it takes until the end of this second novel for it to even begin to occur to Jill--and Jack--that her bisexual love interest Tommy could be the answer to all their dating problems.

But this is YA literature, and it deals with how it feels to be young and trying to sort out who you love from who you're attracted to. In hindsight, yeah, it's easy. But when you're still living through it, it can be as hard as Jack's leaving Jill's brand-new boots beside a trashcan in a Brooklyn alley probably seemed to her the morning after.

I'm glad that adult writers like Lauren McLaughlin are writing novels about how hard it is to sort out adolescent feelings in a world where gender stereotypes are changing. Even if some of it seems dated before the novel can even be published, many of the adolescents I know are reassured to read that some of what they're going through has been experienced by other people; that they're not alone.

Did you read a book (or two) that made you feel less alone as an adolescent? Like millions of other preadolescent girls, I was grateful for the character of Margaret in Judy Blume's Are you There God? It's Me Margaret, and Barbara Kingsolver's absurdly tall teenage girl with unfashionable shoes (Codi in Animal Dreams) helped me get through the last of my absurdly tall and mostly unfashionable adolescence.


Nymeth said...

I didn't read much YA when I was an actual teen, but even as an adult I find that feeling less alone is part of the appeal of literature.

Cycler has been on my radar for a while, but I hadn't heard of (Re)Cycler. I agree that even the things that seem easy and obvious now did not feel easy back then, and I tend to like books that capture that.

Amanda said...

Wow, this sounds really interesting. I've been trying to read more books about gender issues lately, and I haven't even heard of this or the first book.

Lass said...

I can't think of any Y.A. characters from my youth to whom I could relate...except Harriet the Spy, who was not really a young adult. As an adult, I have enjoyed reading what my nieces and nephews are reading - there is some good Y.A. fiction out there. Have you read Sherman Alexie's two YA books?

Jeanne said...

Lass, I haven't read Alexie yet--but I started when I saw the name, because I have a volume of poetry by him Lace, sitting on my pile to be read!

Harriet M. Welsch said...

I don't remember getting that into young adult lit as a teen, although maybe it's just that they were generally less memorable. I know dozens who responded to Judy Bloom's Margaret, but I was not one of them. Reading it just made me feel more alienated, because everyone else seemed to get it but me. Harriet the Spy was the one who got me through, but not really a young adult and I first read that way before puberty. The other book I loved, and again not strictly young adult, was Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon. I read it over and over and over again in high school. I also read a lot of historical fiction -- Anya Seton and the like. But the novels aimed at contemporary teens just made me feel more freakish. The one exception I can think of is Ellen Conford's The Alfred G. Graebner Memorial High School Handbook of Rules and Regulations. I don't remember it at all, but I know I read it a bunch of times, enough that I still have it. And that it was funny -- that was key. The overearnestness of teen stories bothered me even then. But I do remember that Conford's book was much closer to my experience of jr high and high school than I'd seen elsewhere. I was also obsessed with Madeleine L'Engle's books -- all of them, not just the ones aimed at kids or even just the fiction. I read her religious writing and journals as well as the Murray canon. Oh, and Bruce Brooks' Midnight Hour Encores about a girl who wanted to be a cellist was another one. But I think I actually found that at a used bookstore my freshman year in college, so maybe that's too late.

Jeanne said...

Nymeth, You're right. I just said that I felt less alone when I read Julie and Julia!
Amanda, More people should hear of Cycler--it's one of a kind. Like its hero/heroine.
Harriet, I'll look up the ones you mention that I haven't read. I loved all the L'Engle books, but didn't really identify with them (I did wish for a bigger family when I read A Wrinkle In Time).
And I don't think freshman year in college is too late to qualify as part of adolescence. I had just turned 18 that fall, and I even continued growing taller after that! Anyway,I didn't read Animal Dreams until, um, 1990, so I was out of anything I could realistically claim as adolescence.

bermudaonion said...

I totally agree - adolescence is so difficult to live through! If there were great books like this available when I was that age, I wasn't aware of them.

Jeanne said...

Bermudaonion, one of the great things about the new-ish "YA" category in libraries and bookstores is so older kids and younger teens have a chance to notice more of these books!

Jodie said...

Man do I ever remember being in that situation where you feel you 'owe' the guy something for buying drinks when I was a teen. Thanks for dropping by to let me know this review was up, checked out your Cycler review too and I'm so glad I got the book (still not thrilled about the paperback cover though).