Tuesday, April 07, 2020

We Are Totally Normal

(I was tempted to title this post "Love in the Time of Coronavirus", but a Google search instantly established that, uh, it's been done.)

As I keep muttering to myself while pacing back and forth in my living room, "The government-mandated shelter-in-place order is a great opportunity to get caught up on reading!" My main reading project at the moment is my long-anticipated "Capital and Ideology". Thanks to the indefinite closure of the county library system, it looks like I may end up having three months or so to make my way through this 1000+ page tome. Unfortunately, it isn't exactly light reading. One of countless ironies of this period is that while I feel like I ought to have plenty of time to read things, my actual attention span has been badly fragmented, so wending my way through thousands of years' worth of interwoven economic, social and political history is, uh, taking a while.

Which is one of many reasons why I was relieved when my pre-ordered copy of We Are Totally Normal landed in my mailbox last week. This young-adult novel weighs in at a much more palatable 200+ pages, and its tales of high-school drama and early loves are resonating a lot more with me now than the evolution of trifunctional societies.

As with Rahul's earlier book, Enter Title Here, WATN did a great job at transporting me back to my own high-school years and remembering long-forgotten details of that era. Where ETH mostly took place within the academic year and focused on classes and grades and college applications, WATN is almost entirely about the social life outside of school: the parties and friend groups and rumors and chats. One of many things that WATN nails is how much of high school socializing is waiting for people to show up: hearing that someone is on their way, hanging out with others by a car, talking about what you're going to do once they finally get there.


WATN is primarily a love story, but it's also deeply about popularity, in much the same way ETH was about success.  The book is a great, constant reminder that the concept of popularity is very subjective and depends on the eye of the beholder. In the early pages of this book, I thought of the protagonist Nandan as an introvert, mostly because he's following Pothan and Ken and being literally and figuratively driven by their goals. But, in his later conversations with Dave and others outside of his primary social circle, we quickly learn that he's actually on the popular side of the school: lots of other people like and admire him and want to be around him.

Throughout the whole book, Nandan has a singular focus on power and control, seeing almost every social interaction as a dominance hierarchy. Particularly in the back third or so of the story, he thinks a lot about who has power, how it's used, how it flows over the course of a night. As badly as he wants love, he seems to want power even more. One of the lowest emotional points in the book comes when someone (I think Avani?) tells him "You're not a leader" after he goes swimming in the lake and discovers that nobody followed him. This seems much more devastating to him than the romantic and sexual obstacles he encounters, which he tends to take more in stride, as opposed to his bitter fixation on whether people like Avani see him as important.

This whole concept is pretty foreign and fascinating to me! Unlike a lot of the other dynamics in this book, I have no memory of thinking that way in high school, of categorizing people into hierarchies and worrying about my place in that structure. I do think I was very fortunate to have a stable and drama-free group of friends, though; my experience was probably more like Mari's, and I get the feeling Mari is also baffled at how Nandan sees the world. It is intriguing to think that there's this whole elaborate, high-stakes fraught political game being played immediately adjacent to people who have no idea that it exists and wouldn't care about it if they knew.

While I can't directly relate to the game, though, I hugely enjoyed reading about it. There's a large number of characters making up The Ninety-Nine and other social factions in Nandan's high-school world, and each of them are vividly and crisply defined. You get a really good sense of who each person is, how they fit into this org chart, and can swiftly get caught up in their drama: so-and-so was childhood friends with her, then they drifted apart, but still want to be friends, but it's hard because she doesn't like her girlfriend, and so on.

Oh! Have I mentioned yet that this is a gay romance novel? It is!

I keep wanting to describe the story as "sweet", and compared to ETH it is, but "sweet" isn't quite the right word for it. It is really cute to read about Nandan crushing on Dave, picking up on the signals being returned, navigating the joys and awkwardness of a new relationship. But it isn't an unfettered joy, and the way the story focuses on Nandan's internal obstacles rather than external roadblocks makes this an occasionally moody, often raw romance.


I have to admit that I don't have much experience with the romance novel genre, either gay or het, so I can't easily compare WATN to other books. Reading through it, though, I was reminded of how quickly the #discourse on sexuality has changed within my lifetime. I grew up not knowing what the word "gay" meant, thinking it was just a bad word used to taunt people. I didn't personally know any gay people until I was... maybe sixteen or seventeen years old. Soon after I became an adult, the push for gay civil rights entered the mainstream political conversation, led by a "We're born this way!" push that aligned sexuality with race: it was presented as an immutable and unchangeable element, as ludicrous to deny as denying the color of someone's skin. That presentation may have helped the startlingly quick legal triumphs in courts and then in legislatures to enshrine recognition and rights for gay relationships. But today that sense of immutability is itself rejected within the movement on the left: we embrace fluidity, question rigid categorization, and look at "They're born that way!" as an embarrassing anachronism that denies people their agency and freedom.

All that being said, I think WATN is a perfect novel for the present moment. I think that in an earlier generation the act of being gay itself would be radical and exciting, plenty of drama to drive a story on its own. The stereotypical queer pop-culture story goes like "Guy doesn't feel like he fits in, then discovers that he's gay, and then everything makes sense and is better, the end." I think we've seen lots of stories where people question their straight sexuality and it leads them into discovering that they're gay, and I personally have never seen a portraying of someone questioning their gay identity after they've come out. Nandan is buzzing with uncertainty and doubt. At every stage of his relationship with Dave he questions himself: Why am I not more excited? Should this feel better? Is it me, or us? This is coupled with an occasional level of self-disgust: he feels like he's coated in an oily sheen, or becomes uncomfortably aware of what their tongues are doing, which in turn causes him to wonder if maybe he's actually straight after all.

But this story isn't undercutting or denying queerness, at all. These are all deeply human experiences. Being a teenager, being full of hormones, reconciling your lived experiences with the frameworks you've learned through culture, desperately wanting an ideal and receiving reality instead: of course that's at least as difficult for queer kids to navigate through as straight kids! It's a journey for everyone, and some details may be different for different people, but we don't come out knowing all the answers, and even if we somehow did, those answers can change over time as we and our circumstances change. And that's fine. Well, "fine". It's often stressful and confusing. But also exciting and liberating and a huge part of what makes us human.


A few final random thoughts:

This was probably my favorite passage:
He just wanted to be loved. Or not even that. Actually that's the crazy thing - it's hard to feel loved. What really feels good is when somebody else is willing to accept your love. He was walking around with all this love in his pockets and nobody to spend it on.

That really resonates with me. Nandan can sometimes get so caught up in his capers and schemes that he doesn't see what's in front of him, but he can also be incredibly perceptive and empathetic.

I don't read many YA novels, and I'm not sure how much of the youth dialogue is from how kids today actually talk, and how much is based on what they read. The word that keeps giving me pause is "LOL". Do people actually say "Ell oh ell" now? Or "Loll"? Or is it an idiomatic replacement for "He laughed," much as earlier generations of novels might have written "Ha!"? I am a dinosaur.

There is really awesome, specific grounding in the Bay Area. More specifically in the stretch around Los Gatos and along Highway 17 into Santa Cruz. I used to live and work in that area, and I loved all the accurate details that get mentioned in passing like the crashed cars off of Skyline. Stuff like this isn't explained within the book but is instantly recognizable to locals, and wonderfully connects the novel to our time and place.

Overall I think that We Are Totally Normal is a warmer and more heartfelt book than Enter Title Here. ETH had a more shocking and outrageously funny energy, while WATN has more lovable characters. I'd like to personally spend time with most of the people in this book. And that's not just the quarantine talking!

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