Synopsis: Told in alternating chapters by two of today’s best selling young adult authors (John Green and David Levithan), Will Grayson, Will Grayson is the story about two boys figuring out how to live in this world in way that is true to their own sense of self. Praised by critics as one of the first major cross-over works of LGBTQ fiction, it is a deeply self-conscious work that is as edgy and as angry as it is humorous and celebratory. In the end, it is a book about friendship and sexuality and the bonds that hold us all together when the world around us is fraying apart at the seams.
Review: Well … let’s get the obvious stated up front so we can move on to actually evaluating the book. This is not a review of “alternative lifestyles” or a referendum on human sexuality. Rather, this is a review of a significant work of LGBTQ fiction; and as such, it will be focused on the book and how it handles its central themes. Now admittedly, some might argue that a Christian reviewer has no business reviewing such a book, as such a book is bound to be “deviant” and/or nothing more than “propaganda.” To people of such persuasion, I will simply say this: you and I share a different perspective on what it means to engage culture. Moreover, we share a different perspective on what it means to listen to others, making room for them to speak of their humanity. If this bothers you … I suggest you move on and read something else.
As for the rest of us who are interested in examining this work from a theologically conservative Christian worldview, I will begin by offering two initial, critical observations. First, from my viewpoint in the bleachers (which is admittedly quite a distance from those that are on the field wrestling with these issues every day), Will Grayson, Will Grayson seems to be a bit … lazy. If this book had been published 20 years ago, the mainstream culture would be hailing it as a groundbreaking novel of lasting, cultural importance. But on the other side of the Ellen DeGeneres outing, on the other side of Glee, the book actually feels oddly “conservative” and more than a little bit stale. Instead of offering us any new insights into the LGBTQ community, it seems content to simply trot out the old stereotypes, with a central, larger-than-life character that love musicals and all things “fabulous.” What’s really interesting is that the authors actually set the character up as an offensive lineman on the school’s football team. How much more interesting would it have been – particularly in a contemporary context where athletes still fear “coming out” – to actually settle the character into the world of high school athletics? How much more could have been said? Sadly, Green and Levithan don’t go there. Instead, they opt for musical theater and histrionics that do little to advance the cultural discussion.
My second critical observation has to do with the interaction between the two authors. As this is now the fourth novel that I have read by John Green (book reviews for the first two here and here), I feel fairly safe in asserting the fact that Green is a “gentle” author. That’s not to say that he’s not funny. It’s not to say that he’s not edgy at times. But by and large, he is a “kind” author that seems to want us to care about the characters and the journeys that they are on. In Will Grayson, Will Grayson, we get to see Green in contrast with David Levithan, who appears to be a far angrier individual. And what I couldn’t help but notice in this book is that Green’s authorial instincts seem to be swallowed up and subsumed by Levithan’s darkness. So in many ways, the book doesn’t actually come off sounding as if it was partially written by Green. Instead, it comes off sounding like … like something less than what Green would normally pen.
This is not to say that the book is without its own charms or even merit. Take, for example, the narrative on reconciliation. Amongst all of the various characters both straight and otherwise, perhaps the most interesting relationship is developed between two of the long-time friends who are not attracted to one another. And in one of the more poignant passages in the novel, the one friend espouses a view of friendship and sexuality that many high schoolers today would do well to consider. I offer it here for your consideration:
“Grayson, are you coming out to me? Because I’m – I mean – don’t take this personally, but I would sooner go straight than go gay with you.”
“NO. No no no. I don’t want to screw you. I just love you. When did who you want to screw become the whole game? Since when is the person you want to screw the only person you get to love? It’s so stupid, Tiny! I mean, J—-, who even gives a f— about sex?! People act like it’s the most important thing humans do, but come on. How can our sentient f—ing lives revolve around something slugs can do? I mean, who you want to screw and whether you screw them – those are important questions, I guess. But they’re not that important. You know what’s important? Who would you die for? [p. 259-60]
In the end, Will Grayson, Will Grayson feels like a book that is “important” only because it has crossed over into mainstream success. But I suspect, as the years pass, and as more and more LGBTQ literature enters the mainstream, this will be looked upon in the future as a bit of a quaint work from another time when people were still afraid to offer fully-realized characters that challenge our core assumptions.
One final note for those who are concerned about the “content” of the book. If An Abundance of Katherines were a film, I suspect it would be rated R for strong language and strong sexual content.
Opening Passage: “When I was little, my dad used to tell me, ‘Will, you can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose.’ This seemed like a reasonably astute observation to me when I was eight, but it turns out to be incorrect on a few levels. To begin with, you cannot possibly pick your friends, or else I never would have ended up with Tiny Cooper.”
Title: Will Grayson, Will Grayson
Author: John Green
Category: Fiction, Young Adult
Length: 310 pages
Publication Date: 6 April 2010
Notable Achievements: None