[Abrams; 2023]

A rock critic walks into a rock star. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. It’s Lester Bangs and Richard Hell, sometime in the 1970s, and they get into an argument. Hell thinks that teenagers’ painful vulnerability and intense feeling are intrinsically admirable. The struggle, he argues, is to remain the same person one was as a teenager in a world determined to make us all grow up and sell out.

Bangs doesn’t like that at all. He thinks teenagers are just sad, messed-up, under-formed people. Maturity is, almost tautologically, a matter of transcending who you were as a teenager and finding a deeper peace. To paraphrase the Apostle Paul, who was less invested in Richard Hell’s music than Bangs was, there comes a time to put childish things away.

This is the perennial debate about teenagers. Are they interesting, or just irritating? Often at parties I bring up The Catcher in the Rye, and I’m shocked to discover that many of my friends are over Holden Caulfield. Not just over him, but angry at him for being whiny and self-indulgent. Some folks have insinuated that only an emotionally immature reader could find him tolerable. I stagger away, almost in tears.

Despite the protestations of these sane and stable adults, consumers of all ages seem to find teenagers compelling. Witness the never-ending production of media labeled “teen” by genre: teen novels, teen movies, teen TV series. For years I’ve had a pet theory on the topic. I don’t think teen novels are interesting because of any intrinsic quality of teenagers, but for the same reasons that Jane Austen novels are interesting: Their characters, freed from the necessity of remunerative labor, can dedicate all their time and effort to self-exploration and finding love. A novel whose young characters are faced with other kinds of issues—poverty, genocide, vel sim.—might be about and for teenagers, but it wouldn’t be a teen novel, at least not in the sense that Mean Girls or Dope are teen movies. When would the characters go to the prom?

By this criterion, I would say that James Frankie Thomas’s Idlewild is decidedly a teen novel, although it’s not exclusively either for or about teenagers. In the style of Curtis Sittenfeld’s 2005 classic Prep, much of the teenage material is narrated from the perspective of the characters as adults in their early thirties, looking back. Their retrospection is wry, wistful, and searching, and just smacks of incipient maturity. But the book is pretty heavy on intense feelings and painful vulnerability. And more importantly, just like in Jane Austen or any great teen novel, the momentum of the plot inheres in the questions of who will pair off; whether those pairings will help or hinder their members in becoming the people they ought to become; and whether some of the characters are not the upright gentlemen they appear to be.

So that’s Idlewild as a teen novel. It is also, of course, a trans novel, in the jagged, introspective-yet-self-deluding tradition of Imogen Binnie’s recently reissued Nevada. In Thomas’s hands, the fusion of teen and trans novel makes sense. Adolescence, sexual awakening, and transition are all processes of becoming who you are. All three are fraught with terror at the indeterminacy of that target and the possibility of missing it. A deft author can interweave them seamlessly as metaphors for each other. And that’s what Thomas does, in a way that brings out the universal implications of very different queer experiences without losing their specificities.

The stars of the show are two teenage—let’s say girls, shall we?—who are obsessed with what we now, but they in the years 1999-2003 usually don’t, call queer culture. Their names are Nell and Fay, and their whole world is Idlewild, a tiny Quaker high school in lower Manhattan. Nell is a lesbian, an identity that is legible and stable enough to serve as a rock through her many travails. Yet her lesbianism is in some ways restricted to identification with its tokens (Willow and Tara, But I’m a Cheerleader, you know the kind of thing). Her actual desires are too wrapped up in her best friend Fay to have much to do with so vast a group as “women.”

Fay, on the other hand, is obsessed with the gestalt of gay-maleness. She watches the gay arthouse canon religiously, writes slogans in polari, and develops an idiosyncratic cult of the fag (her word, not mine) as trickster god-cum-Nietzschean übermensch. It’s as intense as it sounds. Here are young Fay and Nell offering their thoughts on the selection of Othello as the school play for the term:

What we mean to say . . . is that Iago is gay in the way that all the best fictional murderers are gay—Norman Bates, Tom Ripley, the titular Third Man—and he was the original. Iago is gay like a black leather whip, like Paris in the 1920s, like calling non-food things delicious. Iago is gay like cold eyes and bony hips, like a pearl-handled pistol tucked in one’s suit pocket, like delicate fingers that could play a Chopin prelude or crush a throat with equal grace. Iago is gay in the way that we the F&N unit aspire to be gay, but it’s harder for girls.

The ”F&N unit” is the single hive-mind into which Fay absorbs the love-wretched Nell. It—they?—trades off narrating duties with the adult Fay and Nell throughout the novel. Given the power dynamic between the two, its fixations are mostly Fay’s. That means female homosexuality, with all its own delightful aesthetic connotations, is shoved to the side, secluded to Nell’s solo narrations. Women do nothing for Fay, and she makes a grim art of avoiding Nell’s feelings for her.

Which maybe raises the question: How does all this homosexual culture relate to . . . you know . . . sex? Maybe it doesn’t, is one answer. Neither Nell nor Fay has any sex at all during their teen years, and it’s not entirely for lack of trying. Meanwhile, two female classmates squarely in the mainstream of straight culture, whom the protagonists dismiss as too boring to be gay, are secretly having a grand old time with each other. In neither case do the symbols and the stickier realities go neatly together. But Nell and Fay feel like they should, and suffer a terrible sense that they are imposters, claiming something that isn’t theirs. Fay eventually becomes so desperate to resolve her contradictions that again and again she betrays her better instincts, and badly hurts her friends.

Like any good Austen-style drama, the novel also offers some Wickham-types: the F&N unit’s classmates and its distorted reflection, Christopher and Theo. These two, who may be sleeping together, become an instant obsession for the unit, which starts co-writing pornographic fan fiction about them. Theo seems to correspond precisely to Fay’s ideal, a slender, vaguely demonic trickster liberated from the “heterosexual concepts” of good and bad. He alone among all the novel’s characters recognizes Fay for what she is: “He regarded me unblinkingly. ‘You’re not a girl,’ he said. ‘You’re like this weird sad pervy gay guy in a girl’s body, cruising me.’”

Together, Fay and Theo often imagine the world as a dollhouse with which the queer trickster plays. For Fay this image is complicated. It has to do with her sense of her unreality in her current body. But it also offers a vague promise of freedom. If the whole world that Fay knows is a toy or a game, artifice not nature, then maybe, just maybe, there’s a way for her to slip outside of it and rearrange the pieces until she can finally be who she needs to be. Fay wants to share this dream with someone. So when Theo tells her that he sees people as toys, she is too ecstatic to think about whether he means it in the same way she does. One of the engines of the novel is the long, tense wait for Fay to realize the more obvious interpretation.

Idlewild does have flaws. The one that bugged me most: In the last third or so of the book, the construction of the plot gets a bit baroque and confusing. An odious middle-aged IT guy named Jimmy Frye comes into the matter repeatedly. His Uriah-Heep-like manipulations of the “cool kids” are in themselves well rendered. Everyone who has ever been a teenager will recognize this kind of adult. But his appearances often seem contrived to motivate plot developments that could have occurred more economically without him. He pulls the focus off the teenage characters whose conflicts, internal to themselves and to their group, are the story’s heart. It’s the only part of the novel that drags.

But what I liked best about Idlewild is that it takes something normally bogged down in a mire of jargonized theoretical and political language—namely, changes in American mass consciousness about gender and sexuality over the last thirty years—and makes it immediately, personally tangible. I’ve often heard people express confusion about (what they regard as) the sudden proliferation of divergent gender identities, and the apparent increase in number of people claiming those identities (see what I mean about the jargon?). The usual response is to dismiss this as vulgar transphobia. Often, that response is fair.

But not always. Sometimes the confused questioner is in some sense queer, and cares very much about protecting trans lives. What they’re asking may be something like: What problem does trans-ness solve? Why are we now using it as a discrete category to organize ourselves, when we seem to have gotten this far without it? Think of Pepper LaBeija in Paris is Burning. She spends a scene discussing the question of transition surgery, but not as a separate thing from gayness. Rather, she takes it to be one of many options available to gay men, and she’s pretty skeptical:

I never wanted to have a sex change. That’s just taking it a little too far, you know? Because if you decide later on in life you want to change your mind, you can’t. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. A lot of the kids that I know, they got the sex change because they felt, “Oh, I’ve been treated so bad as a drag queen. If I get a pussy,” excuse the expression, “I’ll be treated fabulous.” But women get treated bad. You know, they get beat, they get robbed, they get dogged. So having the vagina, that doesn’t mean that you’re gonna have a fabulous life. It might, in fact, be worse. You know? So I’ve never recommended it, and I myself would have never ever got it, and I’m so thankful that I was that smart. Because right about now, this next forty or so years that I’m gonna be here, I’m gonna live. And for those children who can’t take the fact that I still look youthful, ha! Suffer.

One could read this as merely transphobic. But I think it’s more interesting to see it as a questioning, a moment when we clearly need a new way of thinking, if we are to understand the choices of people that we care about.

Thomas captures this need beautifully, and painfully, by giving us a character who, on her own reckoning, missed out on recent changes in our thinking about trans-ness. Fay, as an adult, encounters teenagers transitioning. She isn’t confused. She’s almost floored with jealousy, and with a tragic sense of her own belatedness: “. . . I wish I were younger, born later. If only I’d known as a teenager what today’s teenagers know! But I didn’t know it then, and it’s too late for me to act on the knowledge now.”

Reading Idlewild, you live inside Fay’s head for a year and a half of her life. You can’t abstract away into theory or politics the question of whether she should transition. You stop worrying about why this is what she needs. You just want it for her, because it’s the only way of understanding her past that makes any sense. And without a story of herself that coheres somehow, Fay is living only a shadow of a life.

That’s a brutal thing to realize. And Idlewild is not an easy novel. Even leaving its brutality aside, some people may be put off by its teenager-y qualities (intensity, vulnerability, melodrama) or by its queer qualities (willful opacity, multiplicity, resistance to teleological plot structure). But for others, it will open up new worlds. It will teach them, by painful example, how to look back on their own past, adolescent or otherwise, with queerer eyes, and see a truth they hadn’t seen before.

Nathan Katkin is a graduate student and plays in a band.

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