Raziel Reid describes his When Everything Feels Like the Movies as “Sweet Valley High meets 120 Days of Sodom”; Marquis de Sade describes his 120 Days of Sodom as “the most impure tale that has ever been told since our world began.” Reid’s assessment, then, is not far wrong, which does raise the question: What on earth were the judges thinking in awarding this novel the Governor-General’s Award for Children’s Literature for 2014? It certainly isn’t, in my estimation, children’s literature. Not even if you include YA literature therein. Middle-school protagonist notwithstanding.
The story is based on that of “Lawrence (Larry) Fobes King, an openly gay 15-year-old who was shot to death by an eighth grade classmate inside a school in Oxnard, Calif., in 2008. The incident happened after he’d asked the teen who was convicted in his murder to be his Valentine.” This is a fairly accurate synopsis of the plot of Reid’s novel. What the author has done (as is true in most such cases) is to attempt to provided a psychosocial rationale for the incident: in Reid’s case, from the perspective of the victim, not the perpetrator. So Jude, the protagonist, is in Grade 8 in an American school, the flamboyantly gay son of a stripper mother who lives with her abusive partner, Jude’s father having left early in his life. Jude’s best friend is Angela, a “hard, fast volt” who, “when she got a text from one of her boyfriends immediately got horny and said she had to go” (9).
Jude has a crush on Luke, a straight boy who hangs with the crowd who delight in bullying Jude. Apparently a sucker for punishment, Jude sets his goal to ask Luke to be his date at the high school Valentine’s Day dance. The plot swirls inexorably towards what we know (even without the news story, which, fortunately, is obscure enough for most readers to avoid the spoilers) can only be a bad scene in the movie that is Jude’s life. For that is how Jude sees himself: an actor in a movie over which he has little control, but which he can deconstruct at will, rationalizing changes in director’s instructions, costar’s caprices, and even the script. This self-deception supports him through the bullying, the slurs, the ostracizing he experiences, and this is one of the strengths of the novel. Reid manages to sustain the palimpsest of Jude’s Hollywood illusion over reality such that we see the protective artifice that he weaves around himself for what it is, while Jude does not. Even in the final moment, Jude’s spirit does not abandon the deception: “I just stood there with my arms crossed like I was refusing to film this last scene, like this wasn’t the ending I’d signed on for” (166)—which of course it isn’t.
Paralleling Jude’s self-perception as a great Hollywood prospective is his less-than-ideal reality. This is where the novel slips away, descending from “artistically interesting” into the realm of inauthenticity. Reid notes that one of the reason he wrote the book is that “a lot of teenagers think that fame is the ultimate love, and that they need to obtain it to be happy.” In this, as much else I think, he is overgeneralizing. At rare times, Jude and his fellow students feel like they might be the middle-school students that they are cast as, but Angela’s abortion-as-birth-control habit, and the characters’ explicit drug-related and sexual language (and activities) suggest not only older students, but youth who are edgy in a way that would set them farther apart from society than Reid’s characters are positioned. His characterization of Jude has aspects of an individual who might almost exist, but is inconsistent as well as unrepresentative. Unrepresentative is fine, of course: most students are not overtly and proudly gay in Grade 8, and representation of homosexuality in literature for children and young adults is not only good but necessary. Heteronormative literature still has far too much shelf-space for marginalized voices to be heard. But is Jude representative of any real psychic space? To me, it feels as if Jude were a character written by a 24-year-old gay male who cannot step outside of his own experiences to create a young gay student who thinks like, well, a young gay student. The narrative voice he has constructed uses sexually explicit language and analogy that even some adults would not follow. The allusions to Hollywood film stars and gossip are common knowledge that can be googled, but the mature content of Jude’s thoughts and responses to his world seem completely out of keeping with the lived experiences of any small-town 15 year old. (And his is a small town, despite that his mother works fairly successfully as a stripper, which seems unlikely in a town where “the movie theatre had only one screen, which played only one movie a week … The town had one newspaper… There was a mine where everyone worked…” .) Reid’s world-building is manifestly flawed; without an internally consistent narrative world within which to act, his characters are set adrift.
When I first attempted to read this novel, I stopped at page 8, less than a page into the novel, when Angela is talking about Jude’s mother:
“Forty years old and still dressing like an underage slut,” Angela laughed. “I think I’ll make a facebook fan page for her when I get home.”
I licked a picture in the tabloid I was holding. “Sorry,” I said, “I have to make the Hemsworth brothers as wet as they make me.”
“No need to apologize, dude,” Angel[sic] snapped a polaroid. “I’d do them both at the same time.”
“You’d do them both in the same hole,” I laughed. “But who wouldn’t?” (8)
This is the way the characters communicate throughout the text. As a moment of bravado, posturing for each other or their friends, such language could be understandable, but it is not just the language they use with each other that is problematic. Jude’s thoughts never crawl out of this sexual slough. He describes a classmate as wearing “glossy red lipstick that made her lips look juicy, like she had just sucked on a tampon” (19-20); he talks about his “dream of being a prison bitch” (47)—certainly not something to be glorified; he chastises himself that he was “born with a cunt in [his] head” (106); he tells us that they called Angela’s drug pipe “Liberace, partly because it was so sparkly and partially because Angela used it as a anal dildo” (109); he thinks of his father’s hands, so much like his: “I always thought of him when I looked at my hands. Especially when they were around my dick” (130). An equal-opportunity offender, Reid bases his off-colour comments on both secular and religious sources: talking about her most recent abortion, Angela notes that “the nurse looked at me as if I was masturbating with a crucifix” (25); and Jude describes his younger self as excited to live with his grandmother, who “had a pool. I could pretend I was Natalie Wood!” (34). While not sexual, that is just gratuitously offensive.
While I find the veiled stories of Angela and Luke intriguing, Jude’s persona is not just disturbed (understandably) but highly disturbing. I return to my suspicion about Reid’s possible inability to extricate himself as an author from the fiction he has created. When the announcement of his award came, Reid told a CBC interviewer, he “couldn’t help but jump out of bed to do a ‘little naked dance around the apartment,’” and that winning makes him “feel like I just popped three Molly and I’m going to dance for the rest of my life.” Check out his blog, too: Blitz & Shitz in the Daily Xtra: Everything Gay, Every Day. (There is, sadly, even a music video for the song he wrote to accompany the book.) His authorial voice is not sufficiently different from Jude’s narrative voice for me to consider Jude—as a fictional creation—to be well-conceived and objectively constructed.
The description on the back of the Advanced Reading Copy of the novel reads:
“When Everything Feels Like the Movies is an edgy, extravagant novel for young people and others, full of gender-bending teen glamour, dark mischief, and enough melodrama to incite the paparazzi. A boy who smells like Chanel Mademoiselle, calls Blair Waldorf his biggest childhood influence, and reads Old Hollywood star biographies like gospel doesn’t have the easiest path to travel in life, but somehow, Jude paves his road with yellow bricks and makes us all wish we could join him over the rainbow.”