YA Topic Essay for Los Angeles Review of Books
Authors of YA have become a YA authority, constructing characters who are themselves in the process of self-construction alongside their implied readers, whose own individuations teeter on the cusp of autonomy. Presumed to be less tractable, these readers’ developing bodies may daunt them with physical changes outside of their control—especially now, amid mass media’s deluge of airbrushed bodies dissolved in meaning-stripped slogans and hyper-generalized jargon for easy swallowing. Some YA novels choose to battle these dragons directly. Take Donna Cooner’s Skinny or Erin Lange’s Butter. But I’ve noticed another trend: circumlocuting the bars of corporeality. These novels choose to utilize nuances of the first-person narrator convention—the literary “I”—as a toolkit to circumnavigate the physically-dictated contours of selfhood and crack into their characters’ actively nucleating cores. After all, without their abstract individualizations, what are characters but ink on a page?
Whereas we readers may be moored to our singular existences, through the vantage of the fantasy genre, characters can confront their actualities from some radically unfamiliar angles. A, the body-bouncing narrator of David Levithan’s Every Day, talks about the importance of affirming bodily compulsions rather than eschewing them altogether, because “if you demonize a person’s pleasure, then you can control his or her life” (223). But even A, who has never spent longer than a day bound to the same body, has difficulties in approaching these sorts of desire. The essential hardships are familiar; it’s their exotic manifestations here which gives us a fresh look at the issues they address. A’s anti-triangulations with respect to his inamorata, for instance. A’s transient existence discourages acting on the immediate interest taken in Rhiannon, who is dating Justin (A’s marionette for the day). But through Justin’s performance of A’s bidding, A admits, “I feel myself connecting” (10). More bizarre is the day A wakes up in Rhiannon’s body: “I feel naked … looking in the mirror and seeing Rhiannon’s face” (190). What are we to make of such an alien experience as gazing on the object of one’s desire through the object’s own eyes? Personally, I’m grateful for the interpersonal partition keeping me apart from my admirees’ perspectives. A’s time spent “in” Rhiannon (which, incidentally, is never physicalized) also provides a telling illustration of memory’s relationship to identity from a foreign perspective when the next day Rhiannon recalls:
Not the things I’d usually forget, like waking up or brushing my teeth. But climbing that mountain. Having lunch with Justin. Dinner with my parents. Even writing the letter itself—I had a memory of that. It shouldn’t make sense—why would I write a letter to myself for the next morning? But in my mind it makes sense. (203)
The world-building here reminds the reader that transience isn’t something assigned to A alone; we’re all discarding and retaining bits of information that makes us us on a daily basis. The world of Every Day also somewhat alleviates the ponderousness of the “what exactly” question of human consciousness by demystifying the “where exactly” when A describes the pain of being ripped from one network of nerves to the next. But the biochemistry of A’s hosts do not define A’s character. Physically, A champions bodies consumed by addiction or by severe depression through sheer willpower, setting an illuminating (if unrealistically ambitious) example. But even mentally A retains independence, able to access the brain’s memories but not subjective feelings. And integral to the plot along A’s saltatory procession through hosts of various (perhaps too deliberately-represented) genders and sexual orientations, A explicitly dis-identifies with any—a stance framed by the ambiguously-gendered paratext. Of course validating A’s steadfast ardor for Rhiannon, this moreover implies that, at least for the disembodied spirit who goes by “A,” sexuality is not a function of hormones and chromosomes. Rhiannon’s misgivings about this cues to Eve Sedgwick’s discussion in “Axiomatic” of the “taxonomic energies” (248) people invest in the formation of a few go-to templates for when in doubt. Sedgwick aptly refers to the categorization of people as an attempted “world-mapping” into one gender moiety, one sexual orientation, and so on, for a “binarized identity” (245), which seems to me an oxymoron; how can anyone claim an “identity” without erasing or at least smudging the rigid contours which would reduce him or her to cipherhood? (And yet here am I with my “him or her” binary…)
The characters of realistic fiction operate under the protocol of physical law, but that doesn’t mean their philosophies can’t challenge assumptions about identity and meaning in profound ways that strive to transcend flesh and blood. Miles “Pudge” Halter, heartbroken protagonist of John Green’s Looking for Alaska, reckons with the ultimate implication of bodily life as he mourns losing Alaska Young, puzzling that “She wasn’t even a person anymore, just flesh rotting, but [he] loved her present tense” (151). Alaska had glossed the “labyrinth”—a central motif adopted from the final words of Simón Bolívar—as suffering, but from how the other characters address it [her friend Chip, in particular, who maintains, “The labyrinth blows, but I choose it” (216)], I read it as a barrier-connoting symbol of corporeal life, in particular resembling the (similarly unidirectionally meandering) gastrointestinal tract through whose walls the exogenous becomes endogenous. In Every Day’s resolution, Pudge’s address to the labyrinth issue tracks his enlightenment from thinking about Alaska as “a body being eaten by bugs … as something’s meal” (219) to believing that “There is a part of her greater than the sum of her knowable parts” (220). He deconstructs her “genetic code … her life experiences … the relationships she had … and … the size and shape of her body,”claiming that there is something else that makes her her, but appropriately enough he does not attempt to incarnate that “energy” into words which would have subjected it to the same artificiality and imitability of descriptions like, say, “if people were rain, I was drizzle and she was a hurricane” (88). He kindles an unverbalized, elusive hope (“elusive” insofar as it cannot be fettered) that transcends physicality and mortality. Not that death is encouraged; Pudge’s conclusion carefully conveys the novel’s ideology by decisively rejecting Alaska’s “Straight & Fast” (155) outbreak through the labyrinth’s walls, and further dismisses his own previous opinion “that the way out of the labyrinth was to pretend that it did not exist, to build a small, self-sufficient world” (219). In other words, the solution is not to break the body, but you don’t have to let it be your prison either.
So, be it a mind-hopping consciousness or a lovesick Average Joe, the first-person narrative voice can be effectively crafted into a sexton for YA readers to hopefully better apprehend the ramifications of their corporeality, endorsing that the generation of selfhood may have roots set in the “nurtures” and “natures” passively acquired, but that it thrives off reading (read: interpretation) and need not be sculpted by external forces. It’s the characters’ thoughts that define them, not their bodies. But doesn’t that mean that, even though we’re doing the thinking for them, that they are as much merely “ink on a page” as we are but 206-boned cages of nerves and skin? That they are just as real as we?