Thursday, March 21, 2019

Somewhere Between Cigarettes and Promise Rings: David Levithan's the realm of possibility

Review and analysis of David Levithan's verse novel the realm of possibility...
as part of my graduate coursework in Young Adult Literature. 

Somewhere between the cigarettes and the promise ring, I fell in love with David Levithan's verse novel(?) of vignettes, the realm of possibility. It happened at two particular points. The first came about a third of the way in. The second about a third from the end. And I suppose that is both the gift and curse of such a book, that it is largely forgettable and twice completely the opposite.

It seemed at first to be a collection of random, beautifully written free verse, offering wisps of connection to my high school days (sharing sneaked cigarettes with friends, the feeling of holding my first real girlfriend's hand for the first time, worrying about who says "I love you" first, brooding over the one you want but can't have).

Then, I found Gail's "Gospel" and found myself whisked away to a teenage bedroom of the early-aughts, wondering how far it might go with my "good girl" girlfriend, timid about what now seems a fleeting series of embarrassments. I am Anton, the boy she took to church, figuring out how to fit in while dealing with an inability to understand my own beliefs, bridging the divide between the secular and the religious.

Then, I realized that that one poem was alphabetical and was taken by the form, and I saw the form, the structure of this thing, an interconnected web of teenage angst, dramas, experiences, and revelations, revealing itself.

Then, I read "The Patron Saint of Stoners" and stopped dead cold in my tracks, quickly drying tears as my class finished up their independent reading time. Up until that point, I had hardly been moved at all by this thing. And make no mistake: this little piece of brilliance is the best thing I've read this semester by a mile. It is not fully a poem, though it may be the most poetic of any piece in this book. It is more of a short story with poetic virtue, one that feels like Raymond Carver or something I once heard Russell Banks read on This American Life. I loved it so much, I read it aloud to my wife. She cried. I cried.

We cried at Clara's story, of her need to score some "pot" that she promises "isn't for me," only for that to turn out to be true in the most beautiful love note to a parent a writer could write. Clara's Mom could've been mine, pining for her days of concerts and cool t-shirts and getting stoned. Clara's Mom could've been my Dad, gone too soon but full of life and fun..and drug stories. I am Clara, knowing so much, achieving so highly, realizing the difference between "smart" and "intelligent," learning perhaps more than I needed to from my parents' pasts but without much issue. I stayed "intelligent" and maybe haven't yet reached "smart," even now. Man! This one!

The poet in question here, David Levithan, has a certain way of evoking an emotional response, even in the bits that don't land. That this novel (?) was published in 2004, which is just two years after I graduated from high school and thus situates it in a place that feels right for me (see: the generation of parent Clara has in "The Patron Saint of Stoners"). It is about my teenage experience, not today's. In that regard, I began in the last third, to question this book's place in the "realm" of YA Lit. This book felt more like it's for an adult looking back. It felt like a book teachers should read if they want to understand their students (Charlotte's story "Writing" says a lot about those girls with markers all over their arms all the time and has taught me no longer to question it...). This is not a great book as a whole. Most of it, I forgot as soon as I moved to the next one. But there are those two that "linger." Perhaps that's the point.

On Teenage Sex and Love and Psychoanalytic Feminism

"I cannot say that I am, although I would prefer to live in a culture with entirely different values regarding sexuality" (Trites 95).

There is a conversation that film critic Roger Ebert used to stir up sometimes when blasting the MPAA movie-rating system for favoring violence over sexuality in terms of deliver R-ratings to movies. Crazy shoot 'em ups get the PG-13 stamp of approval for all and the thoughtful films that teach teens about being teenagers get the R, forbidding an audience the right to really see themselves on-screen. One such film, and one of the last the late Ebert reviewed, is an adaptation of the YA novel The Spectacular Now. Here is what he says about it:
"Here is a lovely film about two high school seniors who look, speak and feel like real 18-year-old middle-American human beings. Do you have any idea how rare that is? They aren't crippled by irony. They aren't speeded up into cartoons. Their sex lives aren't insulted by scenes that treat them cheaply. The story requires them to make love, but it doesn't insist we see her tits. Sutter and Aimee are smart, but they make dumb mistakes. They're more confident on the outside than on the inside. They're very serious about life, although Sutter, the boy, makes an effort to conceal that." 
"When they make love the scene is handled perfectly by the director, James Ponsoldt. Neither is a virgin, neither is experienced. They perform the task seriously and with care, Aimee hands Sutter a condom and he puts in on and enters her carefully and they look solemnly into each other's eyes. None of that wild thrashing about that embarrasses older actors, who doth protest too much."
Roberta Trites' chapter on sexuality in the YA novel evoked a lot of thought about some of my favorite movies, specifically when it comes to the discourses that rule their lives. This, to be sure, is what Roger Ebert is writing about--the fact that teenagers can and do talk about and thus figure out this life through thoughtful, honest discussions and experiences. David Levithan's The Realm of Possibility, a novel of beautiful and beautifully interconnected verse vignettes, is much the same. Characters in this novel, these movies I love as well, have a discourse about sex, and, as it has been pointed out here, there, and everywhere these days: Sex is about discourse.

Part I: The Heterosexual Discourse

Twelve years ago, I wrote a paper in my undergrad YA Lit class subtitled "First Love and First Sexual Experience," which focused on two novels: Judy Blume's Forever and John Green's Looking for Alaska. Surprisingly, I brought up the very idea Trites does about Blume's classic, heavily didactic, YA novel about sex. I make a point about the language teens use about sex, focusing on how both novels use the phrase "get laid," a phrase thrown around often in the 1999 teen sex comedy American Pie, a staple of my high school years and a film I recently re-watched (more on that later...). Anyway, I wrote: "Both novels also contain discussions of the act of sex and how one should be prepared and comfortable with sex." Later, I finish that topic with the idea that both novels prove "a heightened awareness of sex as a way to express love and as a natural part of life." Both novels treat sex as it should be, that is that sex is a thing that we talk about and enjoy at a level higher than almost anything as we develop into adults. That is is a thing of Jouissance.


This is clearly there in The Realm of Possibility. I think of the most overtly sexual of all of Levithan's vignettes, Zack's verse about visiting the sex shop in town called "Experimentation." Zack talks with a lightness of his first sexual encounter with his girlfriend, Diana. His verse states, "It was not the first time for either of us, / but it was our first time with each other, / and that made it beautiful. Bright afternoon, / light of day through the shades, / basking in the sun-shadow of our affections" (174). This is precisely what Ebert wrote of, and what I felt, in dealing with The Spectacular Now. Sex does and should evoke and represent light, beauty, and joy. It can be that for teens as it is for adults. And society expects this in teenage heterosexual relationships, while also stigmatizing it (especially through America's lack of sex education) and bringing problems into the mix for many young people. Zack and Anne, a secular pair, are open about their sex life, comfortable. It is "predicated on pleasure and knowledge of that pleasure" (Trites 97).

But what about Gail and Anton? What about the societal expectation placed on the religious? This is where the discourse gets really uncomfortable. Consider the silence, the fear of Gail and Anton's encounter in Gail's verse, the brilliant "Gospel," about a girl bringing an outcast boy to church. The experience is visceral, real, as Gail pulls us into their moment of intimacy: "...He says my name / like it is the gospel itself, and then he / moves his lips onto mine. He holds me / and it's that drowning kind of holding...and he / is so flustered and lost and Lord, I am lost too, as he stammers and begins to cry / because he is so lost" (86). Here Levithan is reminding us of the fear attached to the early sexual encounter. It feels as if he is arguing that the institution of religion complicates the Jouissance of sex. Perhaps, for Gail and Anton, sex will be more powerful, more beautiful, but through religion, they have entered a discursive construct that instills a fear of sex. Thus, pain enters into their pleasure.

Part II: The Homosexual Discourse and An Argument with Roberta Trites

"...queer discourse in young adult literature creates contradictory discourses...The characters' physical pleasure is often undermined by their knowledge of homophobia..." (Trites 103).

The pain/pleasure dynamic inherent in Trites' point here is evident in The Realm of Possibility. However, it feels as if, even in Levithan's dated text (published in 2004) that Trites' argument is a touch diminished. Pleasure seems to be winning in this novel. Take Pete for example, a character in Daniel's story and, later, a speaker himself, who deals with body issues as well as issues with the masculine expectation of physical appearance and sexual conquest over love. With Daniel, who is madly in love with Jed and out to his parents, Pete, Daniel's best friend, becomes a representation of that "knowledge of homophobia" that pervades the homosexual discourse and sexual experience. That Levithan subverts this by having Pete dismiss the fact that Daniel is clearly on a date with a boy, Jed. "You're smoking?" is all that Pete says before walking away with the rest of the guys who walk "the way jed and i don't really walk. Whether Pete is actually homophobic or not doesn't matter. What matters is that right after he leaves Daniel realizes that he doesn't need Pete's approval, that Daniel realizes that "i'm the one leaving him behind" (10). This is bookended by the beautiful final piece, the other side of the same exact story with Jed as the speaker. Jed acknowledges that "History has not been kind / to two boys who love each other like we do, but, then, in nearly the same breath, that with Daniel we are "Forgetting our gender" (198). In this way, the novel sets the tone (and then finishes it) that this is not a novel about sad, repressed teenagers. It is about thoughtful, realistic teenagers actively engaging with what would repress and sadden the YA heroes and heroines of Trites' era of study.


The relationships, gay and straight in The Realm of Possibility, are mostly positive and steadfast. They are more about love than they are about sex. "This is a book about HOPE!" is what I wrote on my copy's title page. I will stand by that. But...is it didactic? I've said this before, but Trites' text feels dated. None of the YA books I'm studying lately feel didactic about sex, and only a little, naturally, about race and class, etc. And when they are didactic, they sure aren't anything like a Forever, the type of book that reads like an after-school special. But, in the openness about sex several of these books do contain, specifically the flippant way Julia is about it in You're Welcome, Universe or the serious niceness of Starr's sexual relationship with her boyfriend in The Hate U Give, I find that we may be dealing with trouble. Is the European, anti-MPAA attitude Levithan's book has about sex itself a form of backhanded didactism? '

I fear for the teens I teach these days. They have so many books that treat sex with the type of respect I (and Trites and Ebert) seem to want, but, in America, at least where I work, true sex education is nearly completely absent and teen pregnancy feels like it is at an all-time high, when I get the annual report of which girls at the high school our middle school feeds are pregnant. It feels sometimes as if our YA lit is making sex normative, while our society is doing way worse at teaching sexuality. Can we learn, can our students learn, enough about sex from the YA Lit they have to choose from when nearly nothing else does teach them...anything? Or are these books actually for adults? I already argued that The Realm of Possibility feels that way to me.

Part III: The Mother at the Center

The argument I just made about Trites comes back around with the idea of a controlling parent, or lack of. There are almost no parents in The Realm of Possibility. The one there is happens to be in my favorite of all of Levithan's poetic vignettes "The Patron Saint of Stoners," in which a girl named Clara needs to score some pot for her terminally ill mother. Leah pointed to this story in her point about confronting and confirming gender identity, that Clara's mother, rightfully at the center of her life in the way Freud and Lacan and other psychoanalytic theorists would put her, has empowered her to be smart and thoughtful and powerfully female through Clara seeing how her mother is not those things in certain ways. Clara lets us in: "I think my mother has this line she's made for herself. / She'll tell me she's done drugs, but she won't tell me / What is was like. She doesn't want to make them sound good / But the stories with drugs are always the exciting ones" (129). Clara's narrative is about the sort of binaries that make being a teenager so difficult. Her difficulties don't stem from sexuality, but they come from places like "intelligent/smart" (129), sobriety/inebriation, and confidence/fear. Her mother walks these lines. Clara sees them. Her mother likely doesn't even know how good a job she's done. She is, to paraphrase something Leah said, a woman for the benefit of another woman.


In thinking about this book, easily the most challenging and rewarding of any of the novels we've read this semester (and I don't even fully love it as a whole), I think about those lines we all ride. I'll wrap this up with Pete, the jock with a heart. Leah brought him up and gets, through him, to where I started on this post in a lot of ways. His perspective is that sex/love idea our society gets wrong when dealing with young men. He laments: "The guys wanted to hear about my sex life, not my love life" (125). Yeah. That is age old. That still happens now. It was expected that we guys have sex stories. It still is expected. It's like Chris "Oz" Ostreicher in American Pie. He joins the choir to meet a girl to sleep with and falls in love instead. His lacrosse buddies don't get it. They still don't. Hopefully, one day they will. This book, yeah, it's about hope.


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