Welcome to my first 2017 read – Two Boys Kissing!
New York Times bestselling author David Levithan tells the based-on-true-events story of Harry and Craig, two 17-year-olds who are about to take part in a 32-hour marathon of kissing to set a new Guinness World Record—all of which is narrated by a Greek Chorus of the generation of gay men lost to AIDS.
While the two increasingly dehydrated and sleep-deprived boys are locking lips, they become a focal point in the lives of other teen boys dealing with languishing long-term relationships, coming out, navigating gender identity, and falling deeper into the digital rabbit hole of gay hookup sites—all while the kissing former couple tries to figure out their own feelings for each other.
I have way too many mixed emotions about this book. On a narrative level, I didn’t like it at all. On a personal level? Well…we’ll get to that. Sorry that this is just going to be a big list of complaints, but…I was primed to love this book, and I was really disappointed that I didn’t.
To start with, there were way too many main characters. In less than 300 pages, Levithan tries to cram in the stories of:
- Craig and Harry (the kissers)
- Peter and Neil (been in a relationship for a year, Neil is Korean and his parents are a bit in denial about his sexuality)
- Avery and Ryan (two boys who have just met, Avery is transgender)
- Cooper (a suicidal grindr addict)
These are not pared-down summaries of the characters. These are literally the only facts about these characters that we get. I wish that Levithan had focused on Craig and Harry, maybe also Avery and Ryan, because their story was written with a little more life than the others. I get that he’s trying to give a rounded view of the gay experience, but…surely that’s kind of self-defeating? There is no ‘gay’ experience. There are the experiences of queer people, which is a completely different thing.
He also attempts to do this in the narration, which is a sort of Greek chorus of gay men who have died of AIDs. I…have mixed feelings about this. At first, I really enjoyed it, because I think it gave a really good sense of history, and the struggles of LGBT+ people without being too heavy. But then I had a think about it, and Levithan really sanitised everything about AIDs experiences in a book that is supposed to pay homage to the struggles that people went through. Surely it should be heavy material? Also, it feels like the chorus is only made up of white, cis, gay men. I understand that Levithan is gay, and this is the experience of being LGBT+ that he is most comfortable with, but would it have killed him to have some other voices in there? Especially considering the complete lack of bisexual, lesbian, or other voices in his main narrative.
HOWEVER. For all of that, this book destroyed me.
“I need to hear you say it,” he tells them. “I need to hear you say it.”
Mrs Kim throws down the paper and hits the table. “What? That we’re sorry? For not turning off the radio when some idiot said something idiotic? You’re acting like a baby.”
“No.” Neil tries to keep control of his voice. “I don’t need you to say you’re sorry. I need you to say that I’m gay.”
Neil’s mother grunts and looks at his father. You deal with this.
“Neil,” he says, “is everything okay? Why are you acting this way?”
“Just say it. Please. Just say it.”
It’s Miranda who speaks up. “You’re gay,” she says with complete seriousness. “And I love you.”
Tears spring to Neil’s eyes. “Thank you, Miranda,” he says. Then he looks to his parents.
“Neil…” his father says.
“Why is this so important to you?” his mother asks. “Why are you doing this?”
“I just want you to say it. That’s all.”
Sorry for the length, but I had to include it. Levithan absolutely pinpoints what little queer me always wanted. Not acceptance necessarily, but – naming aloud. I was sobbing when I read this section. Overall, I don’t like this book, but it is haunting me days later.
Please let me know if you’ve read this, or any of Levithan’s other books. I’m really interested in your thoughts!
NB: This is my choice for the own voices square of diversity bingo 2017.