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Naturally, once I had a publication offer from NineStar, I wanted to see who my colleagues were and get a sense of how my book would fit in among the rest of their line. NineStar is LGBTQ-centric but most of it is fiction with LGBTQ characters. My book is nonfiction but it's a narrative with (hopefully) the same kind of story arc and reader-identification with characters that makes fiction fun to read.

Anyway, one of the titles and descriptive blurbs caught my attention and I ordered it and, when it arrived, found myself quickly drawn into it. Yeah, I'm in good company :)

The main character in THE SIMPLICITY OF BEING NORMAL is a high school student named Sam. Sam's situation and experience is different on many simultaneous levels, I discovered, as that situation emerges a bit at a time. Sam's mother and teachers refer to him as "Amanda": Sam is transgender and is not out to anyone yet. Most transgender narratives follow the main character's musings and inner conflicts and put on display for us the process by which they come to realize they are transgender and need to come out and do something about it. We meet Sam as a person who has already done all that internal processing; he knows he's a guy, he's planning a post-graduation future in which he will escape the conservative Mormon-dominated Idaho town he's currently in and get himself to a more tolerant place. He's already made his way into a bar catering to gay lesbian transgender and crossdresser people (during a school field trip) and experienced what it was like to manifest outwardly as the person he is on the inside. And he's already thinking about hormones and surgeries.

In a previous review (Tea and Transition) I noted that it did not sit well with me to be deprived of that narrator's self-discovery process. In fact, it felt like I'd come in after the story's main drama, with her already self-identifying as transgender. That should, theoretically, have affected me the same way in THE SIMPLICITY OF BEING NORMAL, but it didn't. I think it works as well as it does because Sam, despite his post-questioning confidence about his identity as one of the boys, is not generally out yet and is coping with daily experiences under the tension of being in girl drag and constantly misgendered, on the one hand, while being subjected to transphobic violence from a small contingent of hostile students who know his secret, on the other.

Stryker uses a concise canvas with a handful of well-developed ancillary characters: the teacher and secondary-story-narrator Todd Keegan; his sister with her own complex past, Julie, who also gets to narrate some chapters; Scarlet, his trainwreck of a mother; and his stunted brother Stevie. Other characters pass by in the background as part of the social scenery, but the main interactive tensions are between these people.

Switching the observational viewpoint from one character to another is a sophisticated and somewhat challenging approach to writing. It can be off-putting to the reader if the transitions aren't clear, creating confusion, and doing it well requires that the reader feel adequately comfortable behind the eyeballs of each character who narrates. There's a risk of context-switching within too short a sequence, usually because the author wants to reveal the internal thinking of more than one participant. At worst, this results in what authors and editors call head-hopping. But Stryker deploys it skillfully. Within the first couple sentences of each new chapter, the reader is made aware of who is telling the story, and it's done without boldface chapter subtitles. Sam is the primary vantage point from which we experience the tale, and his story is the central plotline; when we're inside Julie's or Todd's head, it is sometimes for the purpose of developing their stories and revealing to us things that Sam isn't present to see, but also on occasion to view Sam and his situation as it appears from the outside.

If I have any negative criticism to make of Stryker's writing, it's his tendency to describe a brief action snippet and then dive immediately into a long protracted internal monologue, often with a flashback to a previous incident, and then continue with the current action. It sometimes left me confused about what was happening in the current moment, requiring me to flip back and reread; and at times the action sequences were described without enough clarity about who had said what, where they were physically located, and what they would have seen or heard, so that I had some difficulty making sense of their actions and motivations. He does quite a good job describing people's internal consciousness, but describing scenes and people from an outside observer's viewpoint is something he does less well.

But there wasn't enough of that confusion and perplexity to keep me from turning the pages. The story itself, the situation in which Sam is embedded and the intrinsic tensions and conflicts thereof, creates a dramatic flow that held me and my attention sufficiently that I carried the book with me everywhere and read it pretty much nonstop from start to finish.

As has often been noted, there aren't enough stories about female to male transitioners. THE SIMPLICITY OF BEING NORMAL paints a very likable and admirable Sam, who is very much the hero of his own story.

The Simplicity of Being Normal. James Stryker. Albuquerque NM: NineStar Press (1970). Available digitally from NineStar or in print form from major retailers such as Amazon

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