I did not know what gender fluidity was until I heard about Symptoms of Being Human and reading it was an eye opening experience. Jeff Garvin, a cis male (born male and identifies as male) author, is audacious to write a first person novel from the perspective of a gender fluid teen. Time will tell how the LGBTQ community responds to this novel, but my hope is that they accept and appreciate this work by one of their staunch allies rather than view it as an invasion of their community by an outsider. I hope they realize that by writing this novel, Garvin is attempting to understand the community, relate to it, support it, and inspire his readers to do the same. Sadly, I have already seen a couple of reviews from members of the LGBTQ community who lash out at Garvin for being a straight, white male and daring to pretend he knows anything about what they are going through. This is as close-minded a perspective as that of those who still consider non-cis gender identity to be a mental illness. We all need friends and to shove away someone who is clearly a supporter is daft.
Garvin has stated in several interviews that he was a victim of bullying in school. I, too, experienced bullying from early elementary school through high school so I feel like I am qualified to claim Garvin’s depiction of bullying and its effect on the victim is authentic in the worst way. I felt terrible watching the novel’s charming protagonist Riley suffer those experiences. When an author creates a character they want you to like and then puts them in awful situations, they hope you squirm and feel uncomfortable. I found myself grinding my teeth to the point my jaw ached. Ah, the memories, but my experiences cannot hold a candle to what Riley endures. I was just a small, shy kid, but at least I was a boy who looked like a boy and acted like a boy. At least I think I did. Riley is subjected to a more severe brand of bullying that is all too prevalent for people in the LGBTQ community. Drawing upon a year of research and his own experiences as a victim of bullying, Garvin writes some terribly realistic scenes that quickened my heart rate and left me short of breath. I suspect this is exactly the reaction Garvin wanted to invoke.
During his book release event, Garvin says he intentionally left Riley’s birth-assigned gender unstated. As I began to read the book, my main concern was how he would do this in a believable, organic way and would not end up being a cheap trick. The task must have been monumental. We are conditioned to assign gender identity, even to inanimate objects. I feel a tremendous amount of sympathy for the translators working on the foreign language editions of this book. In the English language, the definite article the is neutral, but think about languages like Spanish, French, German. All of them have gender-specific definite articles: el/la, le/la, der/die. Gender is a part of our culture. Gender is a part of our society. When we are reading, knowing a character’s gender guides us in imagining that character. When gender is intentionally avoided, it feels odd, like something shameful is being hidden. It is a difficult trick, writing a book about not applying gender labels to people while constantly discussing gender labels. There was just one brief moment when a character said something in a gender neutral way that sounded awkward and not at all the way that particular character would talk but for the most part Garvin executes a clever and deft sleight of hand.
Allow me to add my voice to chorus of reviewers who read and write faster than I in saying Riley is a wonderful character. Riley is witty, anxious, compassionate, introspective, smart-mouthed. Riley is relatable and, most importantly, undeniably human. Garvin’s ability to write painful introspection breathes vibrant life into a character that so easily could have seemed false and two-dimensional. Riley is an important entry into the world of literary characters that inspire real people to do extraordinary things and I hope serves as a positive influence to even just one person out there who is struggling with the same situation. All of the characters in this novel are well-written –Solo is particularly the kind of person I would have enjoyed knowing—and I have a memory of each one of them from high school. Their names may be different, but they and their quirks were definitely there. Their interactions with Riley are so very chillingly, maddeningly real. Garvin even manages to generate some modicum of sympathy for the bullies, which is no small task considering most readers will want the freedom to universally revile them. The glimpses into their lives humanizes them and reminds us that, as Solo says, “high school sucks for everyone”.
Symptoms of Being Human is an important novel. It is an important book. It is honest, uncomfortable, emotionally raw and genuine. I am sending copies to my parents, to my niece, and sharing copies with office colleagues. This book needs to be read. It might not change the minds of bigots, but for everyone else open-minded enough and empathetic enough and human enough, this could be an important work of fiction that educates uninformed readers like me about a part of the real world that is only going to grow larger as tolerance, acceptance, and understanding progress.