Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Trans-themed teen fiction: Jumpstart the World.

Catherine Ryan Hyde's Jumpstart the World is one of several recent young adult novels which incorporate trans characters or themes. Somewhat like soap operas, YAF (Young Adult Fiction) as a genre tends to deal with more challenging subjects and social issues than books targeted towards adults. Perhaps this is because of young people's curiosity and openness about the world and also, because these books are competing for their readership's attention against the onslaught of gaming, social networks and CGI-laden films. As a result, they tend to focus on twists and turns of interpersonal relationships and the challenges of maturing within an often hostile, fragmented society.

Jumpstart the World centers around just turned 16-year old New Yorker, Elle, who is dumped by her narcissistic mom into her own Manhattan apartment when the mom's boyfriend can't deal with having a teen in the house. Elle is a friendless, sullen loner who is switching high schools and holds out little hope for herself. She gets a mangy, one-eyed, antisocial cat from the ASPCA as company just to annoy her mom who puts a high value on physical beauty.

Upon moving into her own apartment (Hyde doesn't explain how a 15-year old can move into her own apartment without attracting the interest of Child Protective Services... it's more of a teen fantasy) she meets her next door neighbors, Frank and Molly. 30-year old Frank is few inches shorter than the tall, gangly Elle, is studying to become a vet and is described as sounding a bit as if he just sucked-in helium. Molly is a boho hippy-chick, social activist photographer. Frank instantly befriends the lost teen and, as they sit out on the fire escape for long talks, Elle finds she has a major crush on her mellow neighbor.

At the same time, Elle meets some queer kids at her new school including lesbian Shane, gay couple "the two Bobs" and, especially, a femme boy sporting eyeliner, Wilbur. She gets roped into inviting them to her apartment (since not too many teens have their own place, much less in Manhattan). It's during this get-together that her new high school buds meet Frank and immediately clock him as a trans man. Elle is confused and upset by this information, mostly because she longs for Frank yet, despite cutting her hair super short in an act of teen defiance, isn't especially queer-comfortable. She emotionally withdraws from Frank, not knowing how to deal with his trans history.

Without giving away too much of the relatively simple plot, something horrible happens to Frank and, yes, Elle learns how to accept difference and the part of herself attracted to one who "isn't what they seem to be." While she ultimately loses Frank (who remains with his girlfriend, Molly) she becomes a closer friend to the gender-variant Wilbur who is dealing with a not-accepting stepdad. As with all YAF books (and those ABC Afterschool Specials), life lessons have been learned.

Jumpstart the World is Catherine Ryan Hyde's
16th published novel

The best aspect of Jumpstart the World is following Elle through her voyage of self-discovery laden with entertaining doses of sarcasm and self-deprecation. The tone is somewhat similar to the 1990's tv cult classic "My So-Called Life." She comes to understand that one can only be lovable when you care for others and allow them to care for you. Hyde writes flowing prose a young adult reader will gobble down and scrounge for more.

Ultimately, though, the book doesn't go deep enough and remains a slight volume. Elle's relationships are never complex enough in the love-hate way of most teen girls. Even her feelings towards Frank seem flat and absent of hormones. The sexuality of her crush for Frank is never delved into. Does she ever masturbate about him, stalk him, is she ever hostile/resentful towards Molly? These aspects of teen lust are never explored, so it all seems so... chaste. Much of their time together revolves around taking care of Elle's cat (and by cat, I mean her pet, not her pussy). By contrast, Brian Katcher's recent book, Almost Perfect, also about a cis-teen falling in love with a trans person (in that case, a trans girl) doesn't pull any punches when it comes to the emotional/physical experiences of a teenager in love and what shenanigans they'll get into when they're in heat.

Almost Perfect, (reviewed elsewhere in this blog)
is an outstanding book about a trans teen in love

Moreover, Frank (who is seemingly still in transition and, at one point, has a top surgery party) is portrayed as a kind of saint. Most trans people will be honest that transition is an often turbulent time filled with emotional roller-coaster rides fueled on hormones and social challenges and that they're anything but easy to live with. Other than some barely mentioned fears Frank has about being in the hospital, none of this comes through. And what do we get instead? Frank is sensitive—more sensitive than other men. In other words, Hyde objectifies him as a kind of semi-woman—incapable of not being nice, nurturing and forgiving. Granted, Frank is being viewed through the filter of a lovesick, self-obsessed 16-year old girl. But such girls, if anything, tend to have powerful skills at identifying the emotional minutiae of others they're interested in. There is little in the book which shows Elle trying to burrow her way into Frank's head the way teens tend to do in the bat of an eyelash.

Jumpstart the World, for a book about trans/queer issues, feels like the work of an outsider who's afraid to get down and dirty into the realities of trans/homo phobia, bodies, sexuality or, yes, even what it's like to live in New York. Yes, Wilbur drinks beer but, other than that, the author seems afraid to talk about what else he's up to. It also plays it very safe with what the life of queer teens are like in a place like New York, both in terms of what they face and the acting out and mischief they would likely seek.

Parrotfish -- often recommended,
altogether milquetoast

While Jumpstart could be good book for 12-15 year olds, it feels a bit too 'young' for those in their late teens. Sadly, like other YAF trans-related books such as Luna or Almost Perfect (which is a much more challenging and harrowing read) it's told through a non-trans POV, as if the author couldn't hope to get into the head of a trans person and make them the central character. This creates distance from what could be the interesting core of the book (although Katchor, unlike Luna's author, Julie Ann Peters, doesn't sugarcoat any of the realities of being a young trans person). Like Parrotfish, an often-mentioned YAF book about a trans boy, it offers a 'nice' version of trans men, lacking in complexity, patiently explaining to us in guarded terms what still seems positively female about these characters and never offering anything too sexual or upsetting for fear the reader will be repulsed. By contrast, Almost Perfect gives a powerful, conflicted portrait of a transgirl, replete with profound insecurities, self-loathing, acting out and sexual longing. One wonders if the authors of Parrotfish or Jumpstart have ever really known a trans person except in passing, since they've both created altogether flat portraits of someone going through one of the most difficult of life passages.

While it's vitally important for trans people to have a place at the YAF table, especially given the profound impact these books have with their young readership, an impact which will shape their attitudes for the rest of their lives, Jumpstart the World sadly fails at its portrayal of a trans life (much less lust for a trans person). Rather than pushing her reader's comfort zone, she plays it safe: nice innocuous trans guy + safe/chaste crush = pleasant, innocuous YAF read. Ultimately, it feels as if a trans character was tossed into the plot for hip window dressing and the 'YAF plot subject of the month'... he could just as well be almost any other fill-in-the-blank minority (and, no doubt, that character would also be equally gently wry, wise and caring). If anything, trans people aren't bland and Ms. Hyde has sadly not written a book for young people which lives up to its title.