Why It’s Fantasy When Boy Meets Boy

Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan (co-author of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist) is not a work of speculative fiction.  Or so I thought until I turned the first page.

Nothing in Boy Meets Boy defies the laws of physics.  The novel doesn’t feature any technological advances beyond cell phones and instant messaging.  It’s not just a clever title, it’s also a handy plot summary: Paul is a high school sophomore who falls for Noah, the charismatic boy who’s new in town.  Paul pursues Noah while navigating the complexities of friendships, ex-boyfriends, and high school life.

And yet as I began reading Boy Meets Boy, I got the strange feeling I was reading fantasy.  Maybe because Paul’s high school is not quite like any high school I know.  The star quarterback of the football team, Infinite Darlene, is also the homecoming queen; she has trouble getting along with the other drag queens in school because they feel she doesn’t care for her nails properly.  Paul’s kindergarten teacher helped him understand that he was gay, and when he came home to tell his mother, her reaction was to yell to his father, “Honey … Paul’s learned a new word!”  Paul helped found a gay-straight alliance in the sixth grade, mainly to help the straight kids with their fashion sense and dance moves.

With telling details, Levithan creates a world without homophobia, a town where everyone accepts everyone else for who they are.  And that is a speculative element if I’ve ever seen one.  In that sense, the book is part of a small sub-genre of works that create a secondary world that is much like our own contemporary world in both natural law and technology, but with a culture that is unfamiliar in some way.  I’ve read a few short stories in this vein, but Boy Meets Boy may be the first novel of this sort that I’ve encountered.

Early on in the book, when Noah and Paul are on their first date, Noah brings Paul over to his house, and leads him through a secret passage in his closet.  As they venture through layers of clothing, Paul asks, “Are we going to Narnia?”

Yes, I thought when I read those words.  We are going to Narnia. This book is taking me to another world.  When I read the Chronicles of Narnia as a kid, I drew tremendous pleasure from entering a world where children could become heroes.  Reading Boy Meets Boy gave me a similar vicarious pleasure, bringing me to a world where my own high school experience would have been completely different, where I might have worried not about getting called “faggot” in the hallways, but instead about whether my new boyfriend will hear that I accidentally kissed my ex-boyfriend.

But was that vicarious joy all there was to it?  Was that the only reason this book seemed like spec fic?

Taking a step back, it’s helpful to look at Boy Meets Boy in the context of LGBT literature.  In early gay-themed fiction, especially before the 1960s, gay characters were usually tragic, lonely figures, with suicide their typical and apparently inevitable fate. Later, especially after the 1969 Stonewall riots (seen as a watershed for the gay movement), LGBT authors developed new narratives, particularly the coming out story – a uniquely gay variation on the coming of age story.  Other narratives were still tragic, but in more complex ways. Several gay novels of the seventies focused on gay men whose lives centered on dancing, drugs, and sex. With the eighties came the AIDS epidemic, and an entire literature that sought to grapple with its overwhelming consequences. The romance also became an important narrative, especially in lesbian literature. In recent years, the budding genre of gay young adult fiction has focused on the experience of being an outcast, and of finding community with one’s fellow outcasts.

In this context, Boy Meets Boy is something of an outlier.  It does fit squarely in the romance category, but it’s not quite like any other gay romance. Even when works of LGBT fiction don’t directly deal with homophobia, the backdrop of a homophobic world pervades the text.  The coming out story is the story of unlearning the homophobic messages that gay people internalize while growing up. Any narrative of HIV takes place in a world where AIDS was ignored for years in part because it was initially perceived as a gay disease.  Even in the stories of dancing, sex, and drugs, homophobia’s specter is there, lingering ominously in the background.

Given all that, it would be easy to argue that Boy Meets Boy is trivial, that it fails to grapple with the challenges facing the LGBT community.  Some critics have more or less made that case.  We have important social issues to tackle – why waste our time with a novel about a town without homophobia?  Why waste our time indulging in fantasy?

But that’s always the question asked about speculative literature, usually by people who don’t quite get the genre.  Mimetic fiction (i.e., “realistic” fiction) seeks to imitate life, to capture the realities of our daily lives in some meaningful way.  But fiction – like all art – can do more than imitate.  It’s also a space where we can imagine new possibilities.  Speculative fiction, maybe more than any other genre, embraces that aspect of art.  We imagine the possibility of flight long before the Wright Brothers make it a reality; a distant planet where gender operates completely differently; worlds where heroes use extraordinary abilities in the service of justice.  Some of these things have already happened, and some may never be, but only after we begin to imagine them do they enter the realm of possibility.

And so David Levithan has imagined a community without homophobia.  Levithan knows what he’s doing, and it’s no starry-eyed dream.  As with all good SF, Levithan’s speculative element is also an essential part of the narrative.  Paul’s best friend, Tony, is from the next town over, a town that’s much more like the ones that you or I grew up in.  As the novel climaxes, Tony’s conservative parents ground him and forbid him from seeing Paul because he’s such a bad gay influence.  Paul’s utopian world comes head-to-head with Tony’s homophobic world, a clash as intense as any interplanetary conflict in speculative fiction.

At one point in the midst of this clash, Tony tells Noah, “The first time I met you, I honestly couldn’t believe that someone like you could exist, or even a town like yours could entirely exist.” When Tony speaks, I can’t help but feel he’s speaking for all of us – whatever our sexual orientation – who grew up in towns much more like his than like Noah’s.  Tony’s life changes because he sees that a place like Noah’s town is possible; Boy Meets Boy does the same for its readers. By imagining a place like that, we’re brought one step closer to making it a reality.

There’s just one other reason the novel feels like SF. From the Gaystafarian dance concert that opens the book to the invented language that Tony and Paul use when English words just aren’t enough, the book leaves you with a feeling that’s difficult to describe.  It might not be all that different from the feeling you got on your first trip to Narnia. That thing you’re always hoping for when you open a spec fic book.

A sense of wonder.

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