Monday, January 26, 2015

When Everything Feels Like the Movies by Raziel Reid

Gritty, funny and heart-wrenching: that's my quick summary of Raziel Reid's Canada Reads finalist, When Everything Feels Like the Movies. I've got a lot more to say.

Reid's vocabulary is rich with pop culture. On the very first page, we encounter consumer products (Louboutins, iPhone) and urban slang (werk), as well as a word that might appear on the SAT exam (coruscate). Even if it hadn't already won a Governor General award for children's literature, the language alone would have been enough to pique my interest. What I found additionally appealing is the first person narration. I can't resist a great voice.

Jude is flamboyantly gay, the lone member of an exotic species in his small-town high school, where he is bullied relentlessly. His mother dances in a strip club. His stepfather is a violent drug addict.

A powerful imagination is Jude's way of coping with bleak circumstances. Walking to school, he pretends that the shabby mining town bungalows are Beverly Hills mansions. Barking dogs are "the honking horns of limos with starlets overdosing in the back." School graffiti becomes the tabloids.

   "I was totally famous. I'd imagine that the drawing in the handicap stall of my alleged crotch with 'Hermafrodite Jude/Judy' scribbled next to it was the cover of the National Enquirer. Misspelled headline included. I was addicted to them. I'd look all over the bathroom and on all the walls in the hallway, and if there wasn't one waiting for me on my locker for Jim to paint over at the end of the day, I was crushed. I wanted them to hate me; hate was as close to love as I thought I'd ever be."

I've read a lot of gritty YA, and so there needs to be something fresh about a book in this style to draw me in. In When Everything Feels Like the Movies, what is special is Jude's voice. I admired the bravery that it takes to throw such attitude. He's not a caricature: there are cracks in his campy veneer, revealing his vulnerability.

I also enjoy the uncertainties that are part of the reading experience with an unreliable narrator. In the first chapter, Jude describes a violent event that happens in "the summer before I had my brains blown out in heart-shaped chunks." Will he end up literally getting his brains blown out? Or is it hyperbolic metaphor? Or one of his fantasy scenes?

(detail of graffiti on Oscar Wilde's gravestone)
Jude's flair for the dramatic adds a farcical element, but what lies underneath is perfectly believable. Take the following passage as an example:

   "The first person I came out to was my grade-two teacher. Her name was Mrs Schaeffer. She took me out of class because I spontaneously broke out singing Britney Spears during a test. When she told me to "Stop that racket!" I said, "It's not racket. It's Britney, bitch."
    Mrs Schaeffer didn't know what to do with me. She had already called my mom and told her she should take me to the doctor. Mom did. The doctor prescribed Ritalin for me after diagnosing me with ADHD, even though my mom said I was just an attention whore. I never did take the Ritalin; Ray got to them before I could. Mrs Schaeffer took me out in the hall and crossed her arms, looking down at me. "Every day it's the same thing, Jude. You insist on causing trouble for yourself." I tried to make myself cry because tears get you out of everything. "What's wrong with you?" she asked. I didn't know if I was supposed to answer. She looked at me, waiting.
    I looked up at her and shrugged. "I'm gay." That was what everyone else seemed to think was wrong with me.
    "How do you know that word?" she gasped.
    Mrs Schaeffer called my house that night. I heard the whole conversation because I was sitting next to my mom on the couch, helping her sew one of the broken straps of a sequined bra. Most kids had to vacuum once a week for allowance. Not me. I had to wipe down the latex."

Jude's mother calls Mrs Schaeffer a bitch after she hangs up. His inappropriate language has obviously been learned at home. And what was his mother's reaction to his news?

   "Shocker," she said, rolling her eyes. "You've only been walking in heels better than me since you were three years old."

What struck me most in the scene above is Mrs Schaeffer's gasp in response to the word 'gay.' From this tender age onward, his teacher and others make it clear to Jude that he is transgressive merely by existing. It's the root of the tragedy. It's the reality for too many students today.

"Canada Reads 2015 is all about books that can change perspectives, challenge stereotypes and illuminate issues." When Everything Feels Like the Movies is a fitting choice to this end.

Queer, gritty and darkly funny readalikes: Freak Show (James St. James); Putting Makeup on the Fat Boy (Bil Wright); The Desperates (Greg Kearney); Fruit (Brian Francis); and Look Who's Morphing (Tom Cho).

More gritty/funny/tragic readalikes, without the queer content: The Lesser Blessed (Richard Van Camp); A Complicated Kindness (Miriam Toews); You Don't Know Me (David Klass); and Lullabies for Little Criminals (Heather O'Neill).

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