Today I want to talk about a Truly Terrible Book. Something in my last post reminded me of a book that will remain unnamed that I read probably a decade or so ago. (Alas for the naiveté of youth – today I hope I wouldn’t have finished it. I might still have, though, because hope springs eternal and I always really want to know what happens.) In fairness, this was a decade ago, and my memory of it will probably be hazy because I’m not willing to put myself through reading it again.
However, I’m still fairly confident that it was terrible. For one thing, I remember the plot being awful. It careened from one event to the next, often without a clear sense of connection from one to another. Worse, by the end of the book there were so many dangling plot threads I’d need to take off my socks and shoes to count them all.
Oh, and there was a completely unnecessary rape scene in the first chapter. Even in high school I saw it as a gratuitous attention-grab. I don’t know where this notion that rape makes a book “edgy” or provides a good “hook” comes from, but it needs to die the swift death it deserves. To make matters worse in this particular book, the perpetrator of the rape does it as a means to an end (to use the victim’s powers), but it becomes clear later that he could have accomplished the same thing simply by touching the victim. So what was the point of the assault? To show how eeeeeevil the perpetrator is? That’s made abundantly clear by the use to which he puts the victim’s powers. The whole thing is just lazy, shoddy story construction.
It is a truly terrible book, so much so that I really wish I could just metaphorically set it on fire and throw the ashes in the ocean. But I can’t help but think there were a few things it might have managed to not screw up. For one thing, the main character is gay. That might not seem like such a big deal, but even today books with gay protagonists are relatively rare and viewed as niche. A decade ago they were far more so. Furthermore, being gay doesn’t cause the main character any particular distress. He doesn’t agonize over his sexuality or relationships or worry overmuch about the reactions of others. Certainly, plenty of gay people do, but it’s still important to have stories in which being gay is normal and accepted. And again – those were rarer a decade ago.
For another thing, that rape scene is male on male. The scene is still utterly gratuitous and appalling, but the fact that men can be victims of sexual assault or abuse is normally barely recognized, if it’s recognized at all. When I think about it, I can’t help but appreciate that the book brought up an overlooked form of violence.
I don’t know to what degree the awful execution of the book harms the potential good it could have done. It’s true that for some reason the book stuck in my mind, but that was probably just because of how terrible it was. On the other hand, maybe it didn’t need to stick in my mind; often it’s the quiet, ordinary susurrus of the everyday that normalizes ideas. So maybe, despite all its flaws, this book managed to shift the tone of that endless hum just a little and do some good.