Will Grayson, Will Grayson gets so many things right it’s almost painful to read.
There are so many things to love about this book. Written by YA power duo David Levithan (Boy Meets Boy, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist) and John Green (Looking for Alaska, An Abundance of Katherines), it’s ridiculous and absurd and somehow wonderful, like a Benny Hill/Monty Python/It’s a Wonderful Life mashup suffering from ‘roid rage. It is almost everything I wish I could be when I grow up.
And, no, that’s not me being writerly and metaphorical (well, it is, but not in the crazy sense). It’s just the truth.
One cold night, in a most unlikely corner of Chicago, two teens—both named Will Grayson—are about to cross paths. As their worlds collide and intertwine, the Will Graysons find their lives going in new and unexpected directions, building toward romantic turns-of-heart and the epic production of history’s most fabulous high school musical.
Based on the blurb, Will Grayson, Will Grayson should be just another high school coming of age book. And in some ways, it is–it’s about belonging, place, owning yourself, owning your emotions, and so on and so forth. It’s also about voice.
Told in alternating–and patented?–Will View, the book switches between two incredibly different voices.
chapter one (Will Grayson 1)
When I was little, my dad used to tell me, “Will, you can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose.” This seemed like a reasonably astute observation to me when I was eight, but it turns out to be incorrect on a few levels. To begin with, you cannot possibly pick your friends, or else I never would have ended up with Tiny Cooper.
Tiny Cooper is not the world’s gayest person, and he is not the world’s largest person, but I believe he may be the world’s largest person who is really really gay, and also the world’s gayest person who is really, really large. Tiny has been my best friend since fifth grade, except for all last semester, when he was busy discovering the sheer scope of his own gayness, and I was busy having an actual honest-to-God Group of Friends for the first time in my life, who ended up Never Talking to Me Again due to two slight transgressions…
chapter two (Will Grayson 2)
i am constantly torn between killing myself and killing everyone around me.
those seem to be the two choices. everything else is just killing time.
right now, i’m walking through the kitchen to get to the back door.
mom: have some breakfast.
i do not eat breakfast. i never eat breakfast. i haven’t eaten breakfast since i was able to walk out the back door without eating breakfast first.
mom: where are you going?
school, mom. you should try it some time.
mom: don’t let your hair fall in your face like that – i can’t see your eyes.
but you see, mom, that’s the whole fucking point.
i feel bad for her – i do. a damn shame, really, that i had to have a mother. it can’t be easy having me for a son. nothing can prepare someone for that kind of disappointment.
These voices are the reason I kept reading the book. Yes, Tiny Cooper is funny. Yes, the plotline–and the ending–is Benny Hill/Monty Python/It’s a Wonderful Life ridiculous. But these things–great as they are–aren’t enough to carry a book on their own. And they’re certainly not enough to forge an emotional connection with.
I’ve read books with depressing narrators before. My own work-in-progress features a screwed-up kid with issues. But aside from Justina Chen’s North of Beautiful, where I had a bittersweet sort of reaction, I’ve never read anything quite so viscerally depressed in YA. (For middle grade, check out Ann Dee Ellis’ This is What I Did.)
Although Will Grayson2 may be the more obviously depressed guy, Will Grayson1 has issues, too. And we know they’re coming–after all, his Group of Friends are Never Talking to Him Again, and, we soon learn, he never cries. He’s distant, confused, funny, and unable to process his emotions, a perfect counterpoint to Will Grayson2 who processes so much he could beat Deep Blue in the Special Get In Touch With Your Feelin’s Edition of Monopoly.
So here’s a quick overview–truly, I can’t do this book justice, so if you want more, go read it–of the good side of Will Grayson, Will Grayson:
- Authenticity–these characters are mean. Not I hate you forever and wish a cyclops would eat your spleen mean, but the sort of mean teenagers are to each other. They cry, they shout, they insult–and they get over it, with nary a saccharine sachet in sight.
- (Dis)honesty–When we think of honesty, unsurprisingly, we think of truth. But in YA–in fiction–truth is flexible. Neither Will Grayson is honest with himself–they’re not full-on unreliable narrators, but there is a clear sense that they’re both lying to themselves, handled in a very realistic (but subtle) way.
- Humor–it’s easy to say, “here’s a lesson I learned from this book: be funny!” It’s hard to be funny. But one thing Will Grayson, Will Grayson does make clear is this: don’t go for the obvious line. Levithan
( @loversdiction ) and @therealJohnGreen could have made obvious gay jokes or fat jokes or depressed jokes. They didn’t. Instead, they went for something just shy of insane, and it worked. If you replaced the “world’s largest person who is really really gay, and also the world’s gayest person who is really, really large” line above with something more obvious and Simpsonesque, the book would’ve face-planted almost immediately.
- Language–the authors don’t shy away from bad language, but they don’t showcase it either. It’s believable, and sometimes dirty, but it’s fitting. (I’m told Sherman Alexie does an excellent job of this, too, but I haven’t read him yet.)
- Secondary characters–If voice is the greatest strength of this book, secondary characters are,well, the second greatest. The novel is full of characters we recognize–cool kids, deliberately uncool kids &c–and Tiny Cooper. And although they’re recognizable, the supporting cast doesn’t play to type. Instead, they’re realistically sketched. Not explored–that’s not the point of the book, and would slice the Will Graysons self-deceptions to ribbons–but well-sketched.
- These kids have parents–this may be a small point, but I love reading YA that acknowledges parents exist. I’ve covered some of the reasons for absentee parents in YA in the past, but I much prefer having the existence of the Really Tall People Who Make The Money* acknowledged in the books I read. Why? Because for most of us (myself included) parents are a reality: we grew up with them there. Even if characters don’t interact with them much, they’re important, because (again, for most of us) they help shape who we are. And besides, a book without even the slightest acknowledgement of the Really Tall People is like a contemporary novel set that doesn’t acknowledge the existence of cell phones or the internet: unrealistic**.
Of course, not all books are sweetness and light. Much as I love this novel, I had questions and worries, several of which I’m still trying to get my head around. So I’ll be back later with a follow up post, Will Grayson, Will Grayson: The Confusing Side.
Wondering where the names came from? Here are Levithan and Green, via an interview with Amazon.
We decided that I (David) would choose our character’s first name, and John would choose his last name. I liked the name Will because of its different, sometimes contradictory, meanings. As a noun, it can be so strong – where there’s a will, there’s a way, and whatnot. But as a verb, it’s split. Sometimes it’s just as definite (It will be done!), but that definiteness is underscored by an uncertainty – you say it will be done, but it hadn’t been done yet, has it? And put it at the start of a question (“Will you still love me tomorrow?”) and it becomes the entrance for all kinds of vulnerability. That seemed right for the characters.
I liked Grayson because whenever I would hear that name, it always sounded to me like “grace in,” which always struck me as a richly ambiguous phrase – is “grace in” the beginning of a clause or the end of it? Are we being asked to find grace in something, or to let grace in? Those questions seemed like interesting ones for the guy I wanted to write about.
*No, I am not really tall. My parents are not really tall. But when I think kid-view, I imagine things from 20 month old, 3′ Mir’s perspective–and that makes me Really Tall.
**I know, cell phones are not a reality for all contemporary novels. There are books set in places where they don’t exist, but these aren’t the majority. Technology is a fact of life; books set in era/place with digital know-how can’t afford to gloss over it without good reason.
ETA, 5:03 pm:My critique partner and friend Amitha also has a short review of Will Grayson, Will Grayson–it was our group pick last month; authors’ Twitter IDs.Read More