Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin
Balzer + Bray, 2016, 352 pages
YA Realistic Fiction
Jeff Garvin’s Symptoms of Being Human tells the story of Riley, a genderqueer* teen who struggles with their identity especially as they deal with their father’s political campaign, a new school, and all the usual challenges of being an American adolescent. To help deal with some of these challenges, Riley starts an anonymous blog about their life as a genderqueer teen. It’s not long before their identity is discovered by someone at school, though, and Riley has to contend with the harassment and bullying surrounding them.
Jeff Garvin uses masculine pronouns on his website and I saw him speak at the NoVa Teen Book Festival, so based on what I heard there and his site, I believe he is cisgender (which means he was born and assigned male at birth and identifies as a man). There’s quite a bit of contention around the majority writing about the minority. This is especially true when the content of the writing focuses on the specific issues involved with the identity at hand. It’s one thing to write, as a white man, for example, about a black man who is working through the grief of the death of a pet. It’s another thing to write, as a white man, about the specific racial oppression he encounters as a black individual in the throes of job searching. So, right off the bat, Garvin stats off with the deck stacked against him because Symptoms isn’t just about a teen who happens to be genderqueer. It’s about how at teen lives their life as a genderqueer individual.
That said, I don’t want to tear Garvin down for writing about a genderqueer teen when he is not one. He’s brought into the world a representation of someone who is rarely represented. And while we certainly can and should be doing a better job of representing all kinds of people, there’s something to be said for at least making a start of it, even when it might be misguided. Some readers who are genderqueer have weighed in on Garvin’s book, and I highly encourage you to read their thoughts rather than rely on my own above. Like Garvin, I’m cisgender and really don’t have the authority to speak at length on this. I’ll leave it at: this is potentially problematic and Garvin certainly gets some things wrong according to some readers who would know better. I think that’s valuable information to have going into the book, especially if you might find that content triggering.
But I’m never one to slam a whole book based on one aspect (I see that as an attack on intellectual freedom), so moving on from that one admittedly large issue – one of the main concerns Garvin had writing the book was how to make the lack of pronouns feel natural in Riley’s story. Garvin does not ever reveal Riley’s biological sex – nor does he need to. Garvin even avoids letting the perception of characters around Riley interfere with the lack of gender the readers experience with Riley. There are only a handful of lines where the lack of gendered pronoun feels obvious and unnatural from a writing perspective. Garvin avoids using the non-gendered “they,” too, which works well, most of the time.
None of this takes away from the rawness of Riley’s story. In a scene which graphically depicts an assault (warning, for readers who might want to avoid sexual assault content), the immediacy of the moment makes for a powerful passage that demands the reader’s attention and investment. The authenticity with which Garvin describes this scene helps bring it home and achieves an extraordinary amount of empathy in the reader. At the same time, the scenes following this one tend to be toned down in the authenticity and, frankly, basis in reality. The change which takes place in Riley as a growing human seems too stark a change for them (or most humans), and left me a bit disappointed in the conclusion.
One final piece is this: I did not find Riley a very compelling character overall. They lacked a personality I could get my hooks into. I suspect this has something to do with Garvin not wanting to inadvertently favor one set of traditional gender expectations over another and therefore vaguely indicate Riley’s biological sex one way or another. I can see how doing so might hurt the narrative, but with enough balance and editing, I think that could have been avoided. Still, Riley is a person who makes mistakes and, when they do have a personality, isn’t always reasonable or likable. This was a nice twist on the typical YA character who often cannot do wrong.
For an exercise in empathy and an opportunity to read about a group of people who are too-frequently overlooked, Symptoms of Being Human isn’t the worst place to start. I’d still recommend reading accounts from people who aregenderqueer. But sometimes, we’ve got to work with what we’ve got. In this case, Garvin’s novel seems to be fairly well-researched and he clearly is dedicated to giving these voices a platform.
*I am using this specific terminology because that is how Riley describes themselves in the book. I recognize this is potentially problematic due to the issues discussed in the second paragraph, but I hope with this note, readers will understand my intent.
❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤