Beautiful Music for Ugly Children
Author: Kirstin Cronn-Mills
Publisher: Llewellyn Worldwide
DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review. The chance to read a new book is often reward aplenty!
This novel, one of several which plays the world 'ugly' against the word 'beautiful' in its title, is very much like The Best Boy Ever Made by Rachel Eliason, which I favorably reviewed last September. Beautiful Music for Ugly Children preceded that one by two years; however, unlike Kirstin Cronn-Mills, Rachel Eliason is actually a transgendered person - and also a bisexual - just to prove that sexual orientation has nothing to do with gender identity!
Kirstin Cronn-Mills, OTOH does seem to have made a career out of writing about transgender issues, as her website will testify. On balance, though, I have to declare that the later novel is the better novel. There was a lot to like in this novel, but in the end it wasn't enough, and it was spoiled by the frittered-away ending.
Just like in the more recent novel, the main character here, Elizabeth Mary Williams does not in any way identify as female even though he technically is one for all standard societal purposes. Instead, he identifies as Gabriel Joseph Williams, although that's not his legal name. He does insist that everyone call him Gabe, although some people have a much harder time with that than others, including his parents. For eighteen years, he's been Elizabeth and Liz. It's a hard habit to break.
Like in the other novel, he's been best friends with a girl since kindergarten. In this case, her name is Paige, and she's completely on-board and comfortable with his gender change. As in the other novel, Gabe really does feel a major attraction to his BFF. Sometimes she appears to feel the same for him, but he's not sure. What he is sure of is that he's terrified that it will screw-up their friendship if he makes overtures and they're not welcome, or if they are welcome, but things fall apart later.
This feeling of gender error isn't a rarity in nature as Joan Roughgarden reveals in her book Evolution's Rainbow: Diversity, Gender and Sexuality in Nature and People, which I highly recommend. But onto the story. Gabe is about to graduate high school - and once he picks up that graduation certificate, it will be, he vows, the last time he will answer to Elizabeth. The problem is that there are problems. The biggest problem turned out to be Gabe himself.
One really annoying thing about this novel was that each chapter had a chapter header and every one of these was in the form: "X is the new Elvis because Y" and after the first one, they were nothing but pointless and irrelevant irritations. And whilst I'm on the topic of irritations, I concluded that the cover was one of the ugly children! Unfortunately, writers have absolutely no control over the cover they're saddled with by their publisher.
I admit that it's possible, but I also I contend that it's highly unlikely in 2012 (when this novel was published) that someone of Gabe's age, especially someone who identifies a male, would be that completely obsessed with Elvis Presley. I submit that it's far more likely that a middle-aged author would have such an obsession and project it onto her character! Thus was further amplifed by the absurd if not outright schizophrenic 'A' side and 'B' side nonsense. Gabe was playing CDs - an already outdated technology. There is no 'A' side and 'B' side. Yes, the old vinyls which John owned had those, but how many radio listeners would even know about that, let alone care about it? if this novel had been set in the sixties or seventies, it would have made more sense.
This, it seemed to me, was how we arrived at Gabe's entire musical make-up, and it really didn't work. There seemed to be no consistency whatsoever to his musical choices, and no explanation for why he made them or even how he got his musical tastes, unless he had simply been brainwashed by John, his aged mentor. A lot of his choices were bog-standard and not the out-of-the-ordinary and off-the-beaten-track selections that we had a right to expect given what we're told in the story, and given that our main character is hardly Mr Everyman.
Gabe's close friend John was, long ago, a DJ who played Elvis Presley's first single on the air before any other DJ (so we're told). Now John is old, he nonetheless finds a mutual interest with Gabe in all kinds of music - from any era. John has a midnight show on public access radio, and Gabe has just begun working with him, starting to run the show and make it his own as the story begins.
He starts to develop a minor following, and a Facebook page is opened, and as Gabe rambles about his thoughts, emotions, and the reasons he's playing a given set of disks (each of his shows has a theme), the group grows and begins responding with public displays. For example, one night they set up a bunch of garden ornaments as though they're heading into the local supermarket for a shopping trip.
Gabe has one fan, Mara, who calls in to his show with requests. Eventually she asks Gabe on a date, but she soon realizes that Gabe is - or was - Elizabeth and is living a lie - so Mara declares, and in some ways she's right. Gabe is a complete wet blanket on this date. He never once tells Mara - not before the date or during it, that he's a transitioning female to male, which seemed thoroughly disingenuous to me. It didn't surprise me that he ran into trouble because he can't seem to own his transition, or to be open and honest about it.
This is actually where the story went seriously downhill for me because it became completely unrealistic. The reaction caused by Mara's outing of Gabe was way in excess of what would have been likely given the story framework which the writer had created to this point. Again I admit it's possible (let's face it anything is possible in fiction!), but two people in particular react in a ridiculously extreme and caricatured fashion and for me, this debased the story and robbed it of all of its appeal because it was too much, and it became completely ludicrous.
Let me note here that violence against the LGBTQ community isn't fiction. It's real and it needs to stop now, but that issue isn't helped by portraying it in a novel in the ridiculously over-the-top fashion which is shown here. Curiously enough, that wasn't even the worst aspect of this novel's fall from grace!
The biggest problem for me was the main character, Gabe. He was cheapened by being presented as the most completely lackluster, uninspired, uninspiring, unmotivated, passive person imaginable, and this never changes. Despite this, I had taken something of a liking to Gabe and felt some empathy with him, but at this point in the story I lost it all because his behavior here was so clueless and static that I actually began to despise him for his paralytic inertia and lack of intelligent thought processes. His two closest friends, Paige and John also seemed equally paralyzed, which didn't speak well of them either, and the story never recovered for me, especially given its completely useless non-ending.
I'm quite sure that the author didn't actually want me to develop negative feelings like that (quite the contrary, I should imagine), but that's how it was! I can't like or commend a person who is as clueless to reality as Gabe was here, nor can I react positively to a story which has at this point dispensed with all grey areas (as well as grey matter!), and given over to a stark and flat black-and-white, and thoroughly amateur view of the world. This isn't a Saturday morning cartoon - at least it wasn't until this point.
I should have guessed this would be such a ham-fisted story when I realized it had won an award! Stories which have won awards are rarely interesting. This particular award was named "Stonewall" and it was a highly appropriate title given that Gabe stonewalled all opportunities to change his life, or to move his lethargic self in the direction he claimed he wanted to go.
Paige was a weird character, and she really wasn't a very good BFF. She seemed far less like a good friend than a stooge, or like the Herald in Shakespeare's Henry V wandering in and out, or like a withering voice of doom calling from off-stage in some Renaissance play.
I'm not sure if I explained that properly, but she felt like she wasn't really a part of the story. She was more like a fan at a concert who keeps throwing herself onto the stage, whom the security guys kick back off, and a bit later she scrambles on again. It was like that: in and out, full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing, as Shakespeare's"Scottish Play" would have it. Incidental music was all Paige really was, which is sad, because in another context, with some work, I think she could have been the most interesting character in her own novel.
Gabe was, in the end, just as insignificant. He wasn't honestly or seriously making any moves at all to transition his self to a man or to man-up if I can put it in a rather genderist way. Instead, it seemed that he was simply playing at being a guy, dabbling in it, idolizing it, but not really serious about it. He never - not even at the end - seemed like he was going to own it and take it in both hands.
The biggest issue vis-à-vis Paige was Gabe's inability to come to grips with his feelings for her. This torpor he experiences was a serious problem which he embraces throughout the entire novel and it made him unlikeable in the end. He's also a 'real teen guy', but not in a good way, when it comes to his focus on relationships. On the one hand he's idolizing Paige, convinced that she's the only girl for him, but on the other, he's lusting after and/or going on dates with other girls, meeting Mara and stringing Heather along, but making no moves to try and pursue Paige. He's an idiot at best and a complete jerk at worst!
He was, throughout the story, consistently letting things happen to him instead of making things happen. He wasted his time, wasted his chances, showed no interest in getting serious about his gender change, and in the end, Gabe was no different and no better than he was at the start. I'm not one of those people who insists that a character change. Indeed, some of the best stories feature a character who is unshakable, but in this particular case, where the very essence of the story is change and none happens, it stands out rather starkly. The ending capped it all because it honestly felt like the author ran out of ideas and simply said, "Stick a mango in it, I'm done."
I honestly cannot recommend this novel at all. Read, instead, Rachel Eliason's novel, or better yet, read the real thing: Bumbling into Body Hair: A Transsexual's Memoir by Everett Maroon, which I favorably reviewed last October. This tells the true story of a female to male transsexual in his own words.