Beginning in the late 1990s, with single-issue, self-published comix, later picked up by Slave Labor Graphics and collected into the graphic memoirs Awkward, Definition, Potential, and Likewise, recently republished by Touchstone, each chronicling, as she experienced it, one of her four years at Berkeley High School, Ariel Schrag produced the most compelling rendition of adolescence by an adolescent I have ever read. The books blended raw emotion and laugh-out-loud humor, conscious artistry and intellectual curiosity. They encompassed drugs, romance, parental divorce, college acceptance, and, most centrally, her exploration of her emerging lesbianism.
Then Schrag ceased creating graphic novels. (She wrote, in Likewise, that the comic had overtaken her life. Her daily experiences were being shaped by a “predetermined” view of how they would fit into her book-in-progress. Perhaps, that is why.) She graduated from Columbia, in 2003. She wrote for the television series The L Word and How To Make It In America. She did some stories in comic form. But after publicly chronicling the most intimate details of her life, she was essentially quiet. Now Schrag has returned with a “non-graphic” (in the pictorial sense) novel, Adam (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
Again, her protagonist is a Bay Area teenager. Again, sexual exploration is her major concerns. But now her major figure is male, Adam Freeman (a risky name choice, granted; but if repeated rapidly a dozen times, immunity can be acquired to its bludgeoning “Get-it?” aspect). Now his quest relocates quickly to New York City and is complicated by his exposure to the crossed-over (MTF and FTM), those who remain in-transit between arrival, and those at play with the varied permutations spread upon the table.
The cast features Casey, Adam’s gorgeous lesbian sister, a Columbia sophomore who is painfully in love with Boy Casey, a transexual male; Casey’s roommate June, a shaved-headed, nose-ringed lesbian, who is in painfully love with Casey; their other roommate, Ethan, a Craigslist pick-up, who spends most of his time behind his closed door watching a film he has made of Rachel, an ex-girl friend with whom is painfully in love; and Gillian, the 22-year-old, with whom Adam is painfully in love, but who is repelled by the idea of being “with a bio guy.” The romantic problems that ensue and the plot hurdles to be overcome for Eros to run smooth dwarf anything Oscar Wilde or Barbara Cartwright ever tackled. The angst, the aches, and the confusion are familiar, but the sets before which they play out, including a women-only orgy club, an L Word party, and Trans Camp, will remind any septuagenarian straight white guy, like this reviewer – if he still needed reminding – “Hey, it’s a different world!”
Not every character strikes me as successful. Casey, though billed as funny and smart, presents as unduly dour and unaware. Ethan, perhaps because he is positioned to resonate “mysterious,”presents more as coat hanger than coat. And the book’s resolution raises an issue of political incorrectness I will leave for others to debate. The richer point for discussion to me is Schrag’s decision to write from the point-of-view of a 17-year-old, and one with a 2.6 GPA and “abysmal” SAT scores at that. This gives Adam’s tale bite but deprives it of depth, so that if you’re seeking a novel against which to bang your brain and dislodge truths, you’re better off sticking to Javier Marias. Coming from an author who, as a teenager herself, had been wowed by Ulysses, this avoidance of density is somewhat a disappointment. Sure, Salinger played a similar hand, but The Catcher in the Rye held cards of life or death. An entire world and the possibilities for an individual’s existence within it was at stake there. Holden’s best end was institutionalization; the worst Adam faces is some lonely Saturday nights.
But I do not intend to be dismissive. The plot catches one quickly and carries one swiftly and smoothly along. Adam is funny – very funny – garrot the sacred cows, stick a satirical fork between their fatty ribs, and flip them over on the barbie funny. Adam snares your heart. You enjoy seeing how he avoids the traps Schrag sets for him as he maneuvers to bed Gillian. But at the same time you care and root for Adam, you realize his success depends on his committing a morally compromised, potentially pain-inducing act. And as he approaches that end, the book’s laughter leads to chills and shudders.
While Adam may not aim for the pantheon of Great Literature, it is admirably serious. Schrag has always aspired toward the instructional. She told one interviewer that she doesn’t “trust” fiction. “Even in (it), I’m always looking for elements of non-fiction. I feel like the made-up part is junk.” She threaded her comix with gleanings from scientific journals. Now, in her novel, one will learn about “tranny cocks,” safe sex for lesbians, what it means to be “packing,” multiple ways to deliver testosterone, metoidioplasty, scrotoplasty, phalloplasty, and which insurance plans will cover what. One will develop a fluidity with which to discuss and distinguish between trans-dykes, butch dykes, queers of color, manly lesbians, girly lesbians, cis guys, femmes, genderqueers, the “retardedly” gay, “she-males,” “chicks with dicks,” the straight trans, the gay trans, and the heteronormative trans.
And, by its end, Adam, through its varying quests for the completion love brings, has prepared one for an important lesson. Each of us, Schrag nicely instructs, sees a different world, and “love is finding the world you want to face with your own.” That understanding leads her to an exhilarating call for inclusion. If I have it straight (no double meaning intended), human beings are all the same, because all human beings are different. We stand side-by-side, along a vast spectrum, each in a body, each with a gender and a sexual identity, but no one of these necessarily, unalterably determines one of the others, and none of it makes any of us less anyone else’s brother or sister or sis/bro – bro/sis.