Beautiful Music for Ugly Children: Gender- and Genre-Bending

A couple weeks ago, I was in a Barnes & Noble — a physical bookstore! they still have those, sometimes, for now! — and I saw a book on the “local authors” table that seemed really interesting. It was set in a fictional town that was eerily similar to Mankato, Minnesota, which is where I was (and I happened to be starting a… potential novel set in a fictional town that’s eerily similar to a smaller town not very far from Mankato, Minnesota). The protagonist of this book I found was a young transsexual — a female becoming a guy — and a music geek who aspired to be a radio host. I hadn’t ever read, or didn’t think I had, a novel with a trans individual as a main character. It had a title that the relentlessly nerdy nonconformist kid still residing in me really liked: Beautiful Music for Ugly Children.

I didn’t buy it at the bookstore, because really, there’s a reason brick-and-mortar bookstores are barely hanging on; but I did add it to my Goodreads “To Read” list right then and there, and last weekend, I saved a couple bucks by downloading it from the Kindle store. Started reading it on Friday, and finished on Monday. It was short and easy to read, but more importantly, it was a good story, and I just never really felt like putting it down for long.

In short: high school senior Gabe Williams has been called the wrong name — Liz, or Elizabeth — his whole life, has only recently revealed his true name and identity as a male to his family, to his best friend since kindergarten, Paige (with whom he’s also in love), and to his seventy-something neighbor and musical mentor, John. John has gotten him a radio show, where he gets to explore his new identity invisibly…only it turns out Gabe is really good at this, and starts to get a loyal following (the “Ugly Children Brigade”), including among people at his own high school, who also know “Liz.” Things get complicated; he experiences basically the full range of reactions as people start to figure out “who he is,” including instances of frank and immediate acceptance, the cold-shoulder and denial from his family, and some ugly and violent and scary ones too. It’s a really well-crafted, fast-moving story; Gabe’s character is beautifully deep and broad, a person you’d really like to know, and really, every character — save perhaps the two brainless thugs who just want the freak to go away and die, and their appearances are brief — has a good deal of depth. It pulls you into Gabe’s world, and into Gabe’s desperate need to get out of that same world.

There were little things that bothered me about it, though: some difficult concepts that were glossed over a little too quickly, some dialogue that seemed just a bit too simplistic and expositional, musical references that could be kind of all over the board and didn’t seem to serve a real central purpose, and a few things (like the endearingly confused and unsure-of-himself main character almost immediately and effortlessly having really realistic romantic chances with not one but two beautiful and brilliant young women who knew all about the Gabe/Liz thing) that came together just a bit too neatly.

It wasn’t until about halfway through, and then not until I read a bit more about the book on Goodreads and Amazon, that the truth hit me: I was reading a YA novel. Meant mostly (though certainly not exclusively) for high school students and written by a college professor, it even has a little student-geared primer on sexual identity issues (and one that I’d guess is very helpful for someone who’s just learning about these issues) tacked on as a kind of epilogue.

But the thing is: I’d never intentionally read YA.

That’s not quite true. I eventually started the Harry Potter series (which…may qualify) sometime in the summer of 2001, after three years of nonstop lectures from my fiancee-turned-wife about how much I was missing, and I was immediately hooked, reading all four books in under a week and each of the three that hadn’t been released yet as quickly as I could get my hands on them.

But that was it.

Until, that is, I was on a trip and desperate, and I’d heard so many good things from so many people about the Hunger Games series that I decided to give it a try. I flew through book one, loved book one; found book two slightly forced and a bit of a letdown after the first, but still engaging; hated the third so utterly, found it so hopelessly groundless and pointless, that it actually ruined the whole rest of the series (and, I suppose, the very idea of adults reading non-Rowling YA fiction) for me.

And that was it, ferreal. No teenaged vampires or any of that, ever, thanks. To be honest, with a handful of other exceptions (A Song of Ice and Fire is the only one that comes to mind), I avoided fiction that fit well into any genre; I stuck to classics, John Updike, Philip Roth, David Foster Wallace. I’d had some bad experiences in the “mainstream” — Dan Brown, Tom Clancy, John Grisham, the wretched little bits I’ve seen on the internet of Twilight and Fifty Shades — and I’d decided that nothing that wasn’t likely to be taught in a literature class somewhere could teach me anything, none of it was worth my time at all. That’s changed a bit, recently — I’ve read some mysteries, some thrillers, and each of them (more or less) has had something in it somewhere that’s driven me batty, but I’ve enjoyed the hell out of quite a lot of them. I’ve found that while I love really, really good, inventive, one-of-a-kind writing, so-called “literary fiction” doesn’t have a monopoly on that, and that I also really love a really well-crafted story, even when it follows certain conventions and doesn’t necessarily break new ground or make you feel smarter just for reading and kind of getting it.

Still, though: no YA. Never YA. Twilight is YA. Nope.

Until this one, by accident, because I saw it on the “local authors” table and nothing about it immediately screamed YA (sure, it had a high-school protagonist, but Updike and DFW have both used youths as protagonists of very adult novels). And you know what? I loved it. In fact, once I’d uncovered its dirty little YA secret, I enjoyed the book a good deal more than I had been, because those little things that were bothering me no longer bothered me. They were just a part of this genre I’d had almost no experience with. I learned to take those things for what they were, get into the rhythm of the story for what it was, and appreciate what was a really beautiful, important sort of message and story in the context in which it was meant to be appreciated.

You should probably check out Beautiful Music, especially if you’re looking for a character you can really pull for with a perspective you probably haven’t seen a ton of before. And me…well, what’s occurred to me is that there are a lot of great stories out there, and they don’t always all take the form of 600-page masterworks that make your head hurt. I’m going to stop reading books that make me feel smart and start looking for stories that make me feel good, for one reason or another. Which, for me, still generally means crisp, witty, lasting writing and vibrant imagery — I’m probably going right back to marching laboriously through Moby-Dick now, in fact. But because I want to, not because it feels like a thing I should be doing. Reading should be fun, and Beautiful Music for Ugly Children (while it has its dark and difficult moments) is a whole lot of that.

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