Wednesday, October 2, 2013

YA Guy Reviews... TWO BOYS KISSING by David Levithan

YA Guy found David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing both inspired and a bit tiresome.

Here’s the inspired part. Narrating the story of two gay teens who try to break the world record for longest kiss is a chorus of gay men who died of AIDS. Their disembodied voices speak to the characters (and the readers) of the joys and sorrows they knew, the discoveries they made, the pain they suffered, the excitement, hope, and fear they feel for the younger generation. It’s a daring narrative choice, and at its best it yields passages of transcendent loveliness and sadness like this one:

Harry, of course, knows he is being looked at. But what he looks like is the farthest thing from his mind. When your body starts to turn against you--when the surface value of the skin is nothing compared to the fireworks of pain in your muscles and your bones--the supposed truth of beauty falls away, because there are more important concerns to attend to.

Believe us. We know this.

At the same time, however, it’s this narrative choice that can make the book tiresome. When the chorus rails against the injustices they suffered--the indifference of governments quite happy to let a “gay disease” run its course; the hatred of fellow citizens; the apathy or antipathy of their own families--or the injustices gay youth still suffer, the book feels less like narrative and more like polemic, or even screed. Here’s an example:

There is power in saying, I am not wrong. Society is wrong. Because there is no reason that men and women should have separate bathrooms. There is no reason that we should ever be ashamed of our bodies or ashamed of our love. We are told to cover ourselves up, hide ourselves away, so that other people can have control over us, can make us follow their rules. It is a bastardization of the concept of morality, this rule of shame.

Though I don’t disagree with anything stated in such passages, I nonetheless found them problematic. In ancient Greek tragedy, the chorus plays a dual role: they are both the collective voice of social wisdom and the befuddled dupes of events beyond their comprehension. They are at once in the story--as characters--and beyond the story--as commentators. As such, there’s a delicate irony in their addresses: they don’t always know what they think they know.

In Levithan’s book, by contrast, the chorus, being dead, cannot participate in the events unfolding before their eyes. They’re not characters; they’re only commentators. And what they’ve earned through their unmerited deaths is an absolute moral authority, an ability to speak the Truth. I struggle to find an ironic undercurrent in this ghostly chorus: they seem to voice the author’s convictions without the slightest trace of distance. They are the author’s stand-ins, a contrivance that allows the author to speak directly to the reader.

This makes them powerful agents of social commentary. But it also makes them rather dull agents of fictional narrative.

Levithan’s experiment was a risky one, and he’s to be applauded for pulling it off as successfully as he did. But for me, the narrative voice ultimately did a disservice to the story it was meant to sustain.


  1. Interesting review. I understand the point of choruses in Greek tragedies but can't say I've ever been a super huge fan.

    1. Yeah, it's definitely an acquired taste.... It does lead to some interesting choices in modern stage versions of ancient Greek plays, where the chorus takes all kinds of forms: a group, a single individual, the tragic hero talking to himself, etc.