Intollerable Illuminations: Discovering Monstrosity in Every Day and Brooklyn, Burning

           For weeks, articles were the bane of my existence. The months painfully scribbling and memorizing Spanish and Italian words with their feminine or masculine qualifiers (a table is masculine but its chairs are feminine;use il or la; it ends with –o not –a) are still sharp in my mind. Still, I never truly appreciated the power of those genderizing terms, never understood how much I relied upon them in imagining a novel’s world, until I encountered a book that lacked any. In literature, I found that those qualifiers – “she” or “hers” – don’t just designate gender. They fabricate a character’s entire being, from the type of clothing she must be wearing to what her insecurities must be.

            So, when confronted with the ever-changing gender of nomadic protagonist “A” in David Levithan’s Every Day, I felt both intrigue and, strangely, alienation. I wondered whether this estrangement and consequential dissatisfaction stemmed from my inability to identify with the evolving gender of the character, or from simply not liking the plot. When Brooklyn, Burning – in which the author, Steve Brezenoff, never explicitly states the gender of his protagonist, Kid– fostered a similar disaffection with its ending, I decided understanding my disengagement necessitated delving closer. I found that both authors created intrinsic barriers designed to promote disconnect between the reader and the characters.

            Impossibilities pervaded Every Day. Rather than based in any single event, the novel’s “complication” derived from the very premise on which Levithan founded A – not only A’s inherent gender evolution, but also A’s nomadic nature. In the constraints of our world (versus a fantastical one), the former can be reconciled; moreover, it offers a unique Young Adult novel perspective. The latter, though it enables A to consider our universe objectively, is irreconcilable within its boundaries. Readers can sympathize with the former; the latter, not so easily. In order for A’s unadulterated perspective to exist, Levithan had to fashion an entire new species, segregating A both mentally and physically!

            A’s inability to stay in one corporeal body creates an equivalently irresolvable disconnect with A’s stationary, “normal” paramour, Rhiannon. When A first “comes out of the closet” to Rhiannon, she responds with “disgust in her voice. The fear [was] there in her face, in her body…’It’s not possible,’ she whispers” (Levithan 95). Indeed, her “fear”, “disgust”, and incredulous response all starkly define A as “an unnatural body,” reacting to A similarly to how she would if he was a “monster” (Strkyer 2). And yet, her eventual acknowledgment of A does not temper their disconnect. Physically, A has no consistent physical representation Rhiannon can attach herself to; representing the “normal” perspective, Rhiannon peppers her dialogue with negativity – “weird,” “not,” “different,” and “can’t” (Levithan 131). Unfortunately, a mental disconnect further exacerbates this physical one: A cannot understand what she means by “You’re different”, apparent in his naïve response, “But I’m not” (Levithan 131). We, the implied readers, can. Coming from Rhiannon’s world, we can more easily identify with her position and paradigm. Insinuating that our prejudices similarly parallel hers, this easy identification worries more than it comforts.

            Brezenoff’s novel forms a similar estrangement in the author’s depiction of the setting. Brooklyn, Burning is set in New York, a city stereotyped for its estranging qualities, and paired with a non-didactic narrative. Kid walks with familiarity that remains contained to Kidsself. The paratextual material most clearly evinces this distinct separation, most specifically with the map in the front cover. It’s generic, bereft of novel’s specificicities – the warehouse, Fish’s bar, and so on. Instead of enabling an imaginative entrance into the novel’s world, Brezenoff’s illustrations distance us. An inability to see Brooklyn through Kid’s eyes fosters disconnect with Kid’s fate – one waxed by the frustratingly unexplained plot points (like Kid’s mother’s relationship with Kid, spanning a conversation summed in two sentences: “I had to start talking. So I did”) (Brezenoff 122). The lack of exposition cripples readers’ ability to experience and identify with Kid’s life. But Brezenoff avoids exposing more than plot points; his narration focuses on anything but gender until perhaps the most heart-breaking of moments: “And what if we don’t want Kid…[Dad] paused I’ve got the only kid I know who doesn’t know whether to be straight or gay or a girl or a boy or what…” (Brezenoff 121). That disgust-laden sentence – again, from a representation of the “normal” perspective in contrast with Kid’s unstable life – qualifies the rest of the novel; that Brezenoff then continues to ignore it, never rebutting it, only underscores the “monster….less than fully human” representation Kid’s Dad insinuates.

            Both novels refuse to rely on gender conventions, but both novels also end far from “home”. Stryker writes, “To encounter the transsexual body, to apprehend a transgendered consciousness articulating itself, is to risk a revelation of the constructedness of the natural order” (Strkyer 11). To bypass that revelation, both Levithan and Brezenoff take their transgendered[1] characters out of the “natural order” of their worlds; they only offer resolutions through necessitating their escape from the society they desire to exist in. A’s only solution to staying with Rhiannon is learning how to subjugate another person from Reverend Poole, his nemesis. Levithan forces the moral conclusion onto A, leaving running “far away” as the only solution (Levithan 319). In Brooklyn, Burning, Kid can only attain his love by leaving Brooklyn with Scout to go to Scout’s home – so distant and distinct from the normality of Kid’s daily life that Brezenoff must call it “the end of the world” (Brezenoff 195). That the novels’ resolutions require leaving insinuate that this similarly remains the only option in our world; transgendered peoples must be enveloped in another world, a subsection or dividend of the society they live in. Worse, these endings are meant to satisfy, to fulfill the reader’s desire for a happy ending – that, there, becomes the true monstrosity.


[1] I mean “transgender” in the same sense that Susan Stryker did – an “umbrella term that refers to all identities or practices that cross over, cut across, move between, or otherwise queer socially constructed sex/gender boundaries” (12). 

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