Okay, so for all two of you who still keep up with this blog which is kinda dead (sorry, college has been relentless this semester, and--sorry, but can we all agree that this year in general was just fucking horrible), anyway, thank you for sticking with me here!
Um, so, anyway I just finished a book.
It's a book that I'd been looking forward to reading ever since finishing up Elliot Wake's other novels Cam Girl, Black Iris, and Unteachable. It's called Bad Boy. You can buy it here.
I'm hesitant to even write this review, because, full disclosure, I just really wasn't feeling this one. Don't take that to mean this book is bad. It's not. In fact, just culturally and contextually, this book is absolutely necessary. The plot in this one revolves around YouTube vlogger superstar Ren Grant, a transgender man who is also the muscle behind the vigilante group Black Iris, itself formed in the final pages of Wake's third book of the same name. But when he's falsely accused of rape, he has to find out who has framed him and why. Characters here include Ren, his ex girlfriend Ingrid, and his new (really hot) flame Tamsin, plus the returning characters Ellis, Vada, Laney, Armin, and Blythe. Pro-tip: read Black Iris and Cam Girl first before reading this one. Then read them again, because if you're anything like me, names will become confusing for you.
This has probably the most ambitious attempt at weaving in social commentary, transgender discourse (for lack of a batter term, sorry, I really hate that word), and surprisingly nuanced looks at masculinity and the patriarchy, of any of Wake's books. I really loved that Ren struggles openly and internally with his views on masculinity and how that intersects with him transitioning in gender. How does one cope with becoming a person who's body is seen as being inherently part of a patriarchal oppression? How much agency does one lose and gain when they do so? Are they worthy of that agency or is that agency imposed upon them? These questions are raised implicitly and explicitly by Ren himself through narration and some YouTube vlog excerpts dispersed throughout, and I found all of that fascinating. Ren was at his strongest as a character when he was struggling with these questions.
I loved that Ren went in-depth about his transition. It would've been so easy to just gloss over this and trust that the reader would be able to parse this out from the actions of the plot and the climax, but by going in blatantly and talking about what it's like, what being on testosterone is like, how your brain chemistry shifts, all the surgeries and emotional breakthroughs and breakdowns, it lets us see this character fully. I liked that a lot, both in terms of yes thank goodness, we're seeing more representation of marginalized voices in literature, but also in terms of just knowing this character's story and knowing his journey. When he grapples with how this false accusation of rape is affecting him socially and mentally, when he catches himself falling into stereotypical masculine behaviors and always has to ask himself "will I prove all those misandrists and men's rights activists both right?" this is what I call a complex and wholly satisfying way of intertwining academic and feminist discourse into a work of fiction. Wake showed he had that skill in Iris and especially Cam Girl, and it's back in spades here.
The plot, and the surrounding subjects here, is the books biggest weakness, at least for me. Wake loves to go complex, he loves to go big with his plots, he likes that twist and fling of stories. And I thought he just outdid himself in Black Iris, a book so complicated I went through and rigorously read it in chronological order just to see if it all added up in the end (it did). But here, the plot's not really complex, it's just complicated. Complicated to the point that it becomes mundane, even banal at times. And it really comes down to the Black Iris piece of this. Cut that out, have it focus on Ren and his ex Ingrid, throw in a romance between he and Tamsin, and I feel that the story would be so much stronger, tighter, and more believable. What Laney and the gang do is fairly behind-the-scenes, and I feel that Ren could have figured it all out without their involvement. The one thing I will say, just to end this paragraph on a positive note, is that the inclusion of the returning characters did let us see a much better realized Armin. I loved his interactions with Ren. We got to see two men who were both flawed and frustrated with their own masculinities in ways that just really spoke to me, as someone who deals constantly with internal misogyny, misogynistic performance, etc. Really good on that character front!
The pacing in this was really rough for me. For the first half, especially, I was more surprised than irritated, because Wake is usually so good at keeping a consistent pace throughout his work. The first third is this book's weakest point, as it has to reintroduce many characters from Iris and Cam Girl, and build up this new character. And that's terrible, because I know so many people who would put this book down before getting to the good part. Again, just comparing this to Wake's other works, character introduction and allusion is usually a much more subtle process than it was here. And as such, this takes away valuable space from Ren's own story. The second half does ramp up the pace a bit, and there's a reveal in here that was pretty good. But it all just feels a little too... flat (?) coming off of Iris and Cam Girl and how driven those plots were in relation to their characters.
As I sit here digesting the book, I've been mulling over my criticisms, trying to see if they're even worth bringing up or taking into account when you yourself go out and buy this. Bad Boy is about a transgender person learning to put himself back together and become his own man. It's written by a trans author who has worked his ass off to get to where he is. A major theme in the book is that we are all put together from fragmented identities, a patchwork of various movements, views, and assumptions that both shape and are shaped by us. The pacing, the writing, the plot, the characters, they all bend to this theme too, being built out of this wonderful world that Elliot Wake has created and simultaneously adding to it in important ways. To quote Ren directly, "Being a man means being strong enough to let your fragility show," and Wake has done that. I didn't think this book was Wake at his best. But I do think this was Wake at his most honest, at his most transparent, and at his most genuine.