Archive for the ‘masculinity’ Category

Schmidt, Gary D. The Wednesday Wars. Sandpiper. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007.

_ _ _ . Okay for Now. Boston: Clarion, 2011.

I need to think a little about these two books by the same author because they are enough like each other to operate almost as a set of variations on the same themes–as alternative versions of the same basic story. But in fact they are even more similar than that–so very much like each other that beyond a superficial level of a different setting and such, there’s a surprisingly slight degree of actual variation or of anything significantly alternative. While Okay for Now, the more recent of the two, is about a different central character, it seems to repeat events,characters, situations, linguistic turns, etc., etc. first found in The Wednesday Wars, albeit perhaps to somewhat better effect.

Most basically, Okay for Now is, sort of, a sequel to The Wednesday Wars. Doug Swieteck, the main character of Okay for Now, appears earlier in The Wednesday Wars in a relatively minor role as friend of its main character, Holling Hoodhood. But Okay opens with Doug moving to another town, after which he has no contact with Holling, and there are no other shared characters or experiences. The first question, then, is, why has Schmidt bothered to suggest a connection between them at all? Why make this fairly slight but nevertheless obvious joining of one book to the other and then never refer to it again? Why might he have chosen to announce Okay as a sequel and thus invite readers to see it as related to a book about different people in a different place?)

Perhaps it’s just a matter of letting readers know that if they liked the one book, then here’s another connected to it and therefore likely to offer similar pleasures. But that sort of “if you liked x, you’ll enjoy y” invitation really doesn’t require an actual connection between the characters. So I think that the answer has to be structural rather than character- or plot-oriented. The connection heralded by the relationship of the two protagonists is primarily a matter of the significant extent to which they echo each other as different versions of the same story.

Here are some of the things the novels have in common (and I’m fairly sure this is an incomplete list of commonalities, because I have the sense based on what I’ve noticed so far that the connections must be fairly complete–that evidence of them could be found in almost every aspect of the novels I might find myself aware of):

–The main character is a baseball-loving boy with a special affection for the Yankees who addresses readers in a first-person narrative, telling readers whom he seems to be aware of as his audience the story of his own life.
–He is in junior high in a small town not far from New York City.
–He has the cynical habit of always looking on the dark side, and a sardonic sort of pessimism, especially about teachers. He has strong opinions and theories about a lot of things, and tends to read the events he experiences as confirmations of his negative expectations. Indeed, they often are.
–He is quite witty about the awful ways of the world, but tends to hold back significant information he doesn’t like (nasty things certain adults say to him, for instance) and then acknowledge it later, after readers have been allowed to guess about what it is.
–He is an outsider, Holling as the only Lutheran in a town of Jews and Catholics, Doug as a newcomer to an apparently close-knit small town with a cocky sarcastic attitude that quickly gives him a reputation as a dangerous hoodlum (a reputation that survives from the earlier novel even though there was no one to convey it to new people but himself, his own cocky attitude, and his older brother’s apparent bad behaviour). As the stories proceed, however, both boys turn out to have so many friends and supporters that their outsider-liness quickly seems more theoretical than actual.
–Each boy has an older sibling so despised by him that he refuses to actually provide their name. The sibling’s name is finally revealed later in the novel, after events conspire to reveal the real feelings of love the protagonists and their siblings feel for each other–and after it becomes apparent to the protagonist that his sibling suffers as much or more than he does from the bad behaviour of his father.
–Both do, centrally, suffer from the bad behaviour of their fathers. The fathers tend to neglect their children most of the time and be harsh towards them otherwise. Holling’s father is mentally abusive, Doug’s physically abusive. Holling’s father believes that it’s up to him to decide what his children will be and become, whereas Doug’s father’s lack of ambition for his children tends to cause similar problems for reverse reasons. Hollng’s father gets angry when he believes Holling and his sister aren’t ambitious enough, Doug’s father get angry when he believes Doug is being too ambitious and so giving in to dumb rich people.
–Whereas Holling’s father is well off, a conservative conformist, upwardly mobile and ambitious, Doug’s father is decidedly lower-class man who perceives himself as as rebel and who has a huge chip on his shoulder about how guys like him do all the work while the stupid lazy bosses get all the benefits of it. But while behaving in these opposite ways, both fathers express their own self-involvement as the expense of their children. Both behave in ways that deprive their children of significant opportunities in their lives.
–Both Doug and Holling have a nickname for the house they live in that defines their father’s class and social aspirations: the Perfect House and The Dump. (These issues of class are one of the few areas in which the relationship between the two novels is inverted rather than just an echo, so that thematically they become class-related variations on the theme of paternal inadequacy.)
–Both fathers have a vested interest in the importance of appropriately masculine behaviour (which they understand in quite different, class-related ways, albeit both in terms of power and survival of the fittest) and become upset when their sons behave in ways they see as not adequately masculine.
–Both fathers, in other words, are jerks, and their being jerks is a central issue of each of the novels. Whereas Holling’s father never stops being a jerk, Doug’s father changes significantly and seems to realize the error of his ways. As a result, Holling’s parents seem to be heading for a divorce at the end of Wednesday Wars, whereas Doug’s seem to be getting closer than they have been in Okay for Now.
–Neither novel pays much attention to its main character’s mother. While she is a victim of her husband’s bad behaviour, she tend to be stoic and quietly accepting of it as just the way things are and must be. She allows her husband to support the family and behave badly to their children while she stays home and looks after the house.
–Both boys love their mothers and worry about how their father treats her.
–Whereas Holling has just one sibling, an older sister, Doug has two older brothers. One of them constantly bullies him just as Holling’s sister does him. The other has been at war in Vietnam and returns without legs and temporarily blinded during the course of the novel–thus representing a different aspect of Holling’s sister’s character, her involvement as an anti-war protester and her flight from and consequent return home. Whereas Holling helps his sister return home after her disastrous attempt to run away and find herself, Doug helps his older brother return home by encouraging him to get past his own deep version of the family’s characteristically cynical and self-defeating pessimism and get on with his life. In the process of these things happening, Schmidt manages to centrally portray a Vietnam war objector in one novel and a Vietnam veteran as equally caught up in and equally victimized by the politics of their time.
–In each novel, the main character manages without at first realizing it to make friends of his father’s enemy–Holling a girl in his class whose father is a competing architect, Doug the older man who teaches him how to throw horseshoes and who turns out to be the owner of the factory his father works in.
–By means of the friendship, the boy seems likely to affect his father’s work negatively. Holling inadvertently leaks his architect father’s plans for the school to his girlfriend’s architect father, which leads first to the plans being stolen, then to the competitor leaving the competition, but then to the girlfriend’s father getting the much better task of a redesign for part of Yankee Stadium, much to Holling’s father’s annoyance. Doug’s friendship with his father’s boss might endanger his father due to his callous treatment of Doug, but then Doug’s father’s change of heart leads to a different outcome.
–Each boy has male friends with excellent, loving, caring parents who tend to take over parental duties when his own father causes problems in his life. These parents, especially fathers, seem to operate as example of the kind of loving parenting Holling and Doug are missing.
–Both boys start out hating but make close friends with teachers who profoundly influence them–Holling an English teacher whose husband is missing in action in Vietnam, Doug a gym teacher back from the war and much emotionally wounded by it. Through their relationships, both the boys and teachers become better people, and their lives
are much richer and much happier.
–the teacher’s husband then represents a Vietnam soldier in Wednesday Wars parallel to Doug’s brother in Okay for Now. Both are missed and then return home during the course of their novel.
–The value of cultural knowledge is a key issue in both books. Learning about art and literature is the key that moves each of the boys past their cynical pessimism about themselves and their future and towards a rich and happier understanding of themselves and others. In Wednesday Wars, Holling reads and thinks about various plays by Shakespeare that his teacher has assigned him. In Okay for Now, Doug studies the prints of birds by Audubon that a friendly librarian introduces him to and helps him to understand well enough to copy accurately. In each case, the specific art works referred to are shown to relate to events in the boys’ lives, Holling seeing elements of Shakespearean plots and characters as explanations of his own life and his interactions with others, Doug reading his interpretations of what the Audubon birds are doing and thinking into his own attitudes and responses to experiences. In both books, then, the art works operate significantly as ways in which the plots are organized and come to express specific meanings.
–The boys both turns out to have previously hidden talents. Both show they are able to run very fast. Both also turn out to have surprisingly excellent acting skills, and perform onstage to the acclaim of their audiences. And Doug also discovers his talent for drawing.
–Both boys learn about the works of art that engage them at the hands of an older person employed in a sort of education-related position: an English teacher and a librarian. The novels both celebrate the passion and justify the interests of professionals who work with young people by showing them to be more empathetic and understanding than the boys’ parents are (a common trope of novels for young people, which often feature wonderfully sympathetic teachers and librarians much like the actual purchasers of such books, and describe how such professional can save young people from their repressive or otherwise inadequate parents).
–Both boys save the day for others around them in a significant way that involves their participation in art, Holling by performing in a play and Doug by both retrieving sold-off Audubon prints in order to make the library’s collection complete again and, also, acting in a play.
–Both boys end up in embarrassing costumes on stage in roles that might define them as effeminate, but realize it doesn’t affect their actual masculinity.
–Both boys develop relationships with owners of food shops–a bakery and a deli–that lead to important events in their lives.
–The citizens of the apparently ordinary small towns both boys live in turn out to include famous people or those with connections to famous people who give them contact with a larger world of fame and celebrity in sports and the arts.
–Both boys love an amazingly wonderful girl, and the girls love them back despite some initial expressed concern about his inadequacies.
–Both boys have girls in their lives who almost die–Holling’s sister in a possible crash with a bus that he saves her from, Doug the girl he learns to love from an unnamed disease he helps her to recover from.
–Both boys make significant trips into New York City.
–Both boys work to create a community of good people around them and cause things to happen to their enemies that give their enemies less power.
–While both boys define themselves as lonely loser outsiders, they both turn out to be amazingly capable in many directions, amazingly talented and wise, and with an amazing capacity for making good and important friendships with both their peers and with many adults, and both end up enmeshed in and at the centre of a loving community built around and in response to their own actions and abilities. So while apparently realistic depictions of actual life in the recent past, both books are wish-fulfillment fantasies, with their events again and again transcending the boundaries of actual possibility. Both boys turn out to have something like superpowers and interact with famous people who admire them, including various Yankees.

So what, after all that, really is new and different in Okay for Now? Not much, I think, except the intensity of it. The details are different, but Okay offers inherently the same experience as Wednesday Wars in a more concentrated way. It is even more magical than Wednesday Wars, with more bizzarely unrealistic but indubitably wonderful things happening–Doug actually appearing in a broadway show and such). But this is just a difference in scale, for what seems important about both books is that they allow amazing things to happen to their main characters that are well beyond plausibility but, at least for a reader like me, very satisfying. They are both fairy tales pretending to be realistic novels in order to make readers happy.

But that doesn’t actually explain why the two books are so alike. I’m not cynical enough to suggest merely that Schmidt was cynical enough to repeat the success of a very successful book: Wednesday Wars was a Newbery Medal honour book. I’m more prone to conjecture that Schmidt might have realized he had a better version of the same story in him, and set out to produce one. It is, i think, a better version, more linguistically adept, with more exaggerated events and with, for me at least, the result of richer payoffs in terms of readerly satisfaction. It makes less claim to seeming real, I think, and so offers more satisfying wish-filfullment. Beyond that, my look at what the books have in common has drawn my attention to what they don’t share–the differing aspects of class and masculinity they deal with. As is often the case in variational texts, the presence of similarities point to significant differences, and Doug’s story is different from Holling’s primarily in how their fathers behave to them and to others, and how the father’s stories are resolved in ways that then effect the boy’s lives differently. The two together then become a sort of fugue on themes of class ideas of masculinity–a fairly complex ones, for while Doug’s father’s behaviour is much criticized in the novel, he turns out to be redeemable in ways that Holling’s father isn’t.  But at the same time, Holling’s success seems possible primarily because, while the product of a lower-class family with lower-class values, he possesses enough of a middle-class soul to dislike how his parents and brothers behave and to have the apparently innate ability to act like and make friends with richer and classier people. His is a Cinderella story, then, about an apparently lower-class person who has the inner character and values of an upper-class one and thus is rewarded by a more upper-class sort of life, a conclusion which seems to undermine the novels’ other ideological strain that seems to suggest that poorer less upwardly-striving people are warmer, more humane and morally superior to people like Holling’s father.

Bainbridge, David. Teenagers: A Natural History. Greystone.  Vancouver: D & M, 2009.

This is an incredibly bone-headed book, and I’m wanting to take a closer look at why because it seems to represent a specific kind of boneheadedness increasingly widespread now–a mechanistic conviction that whatever people do is substantially mandated by biology or some other sort of “natural” imperative imbedded in us by evolution or anatomy and inescapable. In this case, what teenagers are (always are, it seems, and always must be) was established by the evolutionary development that produced homo sapiens–and while Bainbridge does acknowledge here and there the possibility that human beings might occasionally be influenced by their personal genetic makeup or history or the culture that surrounds them, he nevertheless falls back immediately into his basic, fundamental assumption: whatever teenagers do now, as a stereotyped group, must be what they have always done in some form or another throughout history and in every culture, because evolution made them that way and required that they act that way.   There is really never anything that people choose to do that wasn’t in fact a choice actually made by the inherent will of their species trying to be the fittest to survive.

Indeed, his faith in the evolutionary imperative is so complete that he tends even to assume that counterproductive things that people do–things like experimenting with addictive drugs and such that might well lead them into serious trouble–must have emerged from some aspect of human biology that was a positive force in allowing human beings to survive. He says, for instance, that “even the most unpleasant changes [in puberty] confer some benefit on us, or at least they did as some point in the past. When you start to view puberty as a product of evolution,much of what happens to teenagers begins to make sense” (42). He then has to admit that there’s no known evolutionary advantage in various typical patterns of body hair, or in things like teenage acne. And he never considers the possibility that things of this sort might be the kinds of evolutionary mistakes that could end up dooming homo sapiens to the dustheap of history, and therefore be evidence of lack of fitness to survive. Even though he insists that homo sapiens has existed for little more than an eye-blink in terms of evolutionary processes, he sees every single aspect of human biology as nothing but evidence of what has kept us going and therefore what is and always must be true about us and what will and always explain all of our social behaviour–until, I suppose, a species fitter for survival comes along.

His absolute conviction that every aspect of our biology and behaviour emerges from the evolutionary imperative is revealed most clearly in his ongoing habit of using language that ascribes will to biological organisms–their main if not only urge is an inherent will for their species to continue, and so, he keeps saying, they decide to adapt their biology in an effort to do so.

I’m not about to dispute Bainbridge’s obviously substantial knowledge of human biology and of recent developments in the sciences that study it. He does seem to know a lot, and he does present it in clear and interesting ways. Nevertheless, he does then tend to jump illogically from what is known about biology to the conclusion that it accounts for things such as the typical behaviour of teenagers, their typical rebelliousness, etc.  It seem fair to assert, as he does, that “evolution has given us our teenage years for a very good reason–in the long run they help us to succeed as individuals (that is what evolution does” (4). But having a period in which one makes the biological transition between childhood and full maturity dos not necessarily mean what Bainbridge unquestioningly understands the teen age to be: a collection of cultural norms and stereotypes garnered from the popular culture of the last fifty or sixty years. He asserts, very unpersuasively, “We all know the teenage mind” (100), as if there was just one shared by all teenagers. Indeed, adults can share tales of their lazy, rebellious teenagers because “this stereotyped nature of teenage behaviour suggests that there are certain ordered, consistent changes that take place in all teenage minds” (113-114).

For Bainbridge, indeed, “teenagers are not a social idea–they are quite simply different from everybody else” (12). In asserting that, he ignores a vast history in which those in the teenaged years behaved quite differently than stereotypes imply they do now, and a huge spectrum of other understandings of how people do and/or ought to behave in their teenage years in the variety of differing cultures and subgroups existing even just now in the world today. In all these differing circumstances, I suppose, it might be possible that teenagers still felt and feel not only the same biological urges, but also, an urge towards the same culturally-mandated expressions of those urges, as do contemporary James Deans and Taylor Swifts and such, even though the culture they were or are part of didn’t acknowledge then as being distinctly teenage-like, as being evidence of a separate category of human existence in need of an name and an special kind of analysis and understanding. But I think it highly unlikely that young Buddhists in Asia or young serfs in medieval Europe or young Hutterites living apart from contemporary mainstream culture in colonies in Western Canada or young devout wives of Mormons patriarchs were or are all just secret Barbies and Jonas Brothers at heart.

For that matter, not even all the young, middle-class white people in first world English-speaking countries from which Bainbridge derives his stereotypes display the stereotyped behaviours that popular culture identifies as typically teenaged and that Bainbridge insists are biologically mandated. I can’t say that I much recognize the teenaged years of myself or my own three children in his descriptions of what it always is to be a teenager. His argument might be more convincing if he didn’t just take it for granted that what the media tells us teenagers are now is both true and universal and an inevitable product of biology. According to Bainbridge, all teenagers “undergo an active process of rejection of their parents which is probably essential for their development as individuals” (221). But surely a lot of teenagers in the past and now have made it and do still happily make it into adulthood without rejecting their parent’s values in any way at all. Does that mean they are biological mistakes and, presumably, therefore doomed not to reproduce enough to keep their genes surviving? It hardly seems likely.

For me, the most annoying aspect of Bainbridge’s work is that, in trying to establish that being teenaged is indeed a unique and special stage of human life, he had to invent both a childhood and an adulthood quite unlike it; and his version of childhood in particular is particularly unconvincing, not to mention, an insult to children.

He tends to assume that all adults everywhere always have been just like he is himself: “All adults have similar memories of adolescence, distorted, distanced, and rationalised by the lens of age” (76); furthermore, it happens not because of nostalgia or the imposition of cultural stereotypes on our own past, but because “our brain has changed since we were teenagers.” And in order to define teenagers as newly aware of and sensitive to relationships and the feelings of others, he seem to feel he has to insist that children are devoid of these qualities–that their biology prevents them from thinking deeply, or feeling deeply, or understanding anyone or anything deeply.

He says, “we now think we evolved children to be little brain incubators–charming, unthreatening people whose brains are not finished, but who do not eat much of our valuable food because they are small. It makes sense to keep them small for as long as possible, because all they have to do is talk all the time, break things, and manipulate adults” (69). I suspect Bainbridge is trying, and failing miserably, to be funny here.

Or again, the second decade of life is “a time when we start to ascribe extremely subtle and complex interpretations of the world around us–this is why a ten-year-old could not write a sonnet” (108). And yet some ten-year-olds do write sonnets, and many more have very complex understandings of the world and the people around them.

Or again, horrifically, “Children may be charming little people who can talk and think a little, but we do not become fully mentally human until we are teenagers” (132). Yes, I checked it–that’s an accurate quote.

Among other things, furthermore, as the teenae years begin, “many of us start to see ourselves as individuals at this time” (183). “As the first ten years of life elapse,” in fact, “children occasionally refer to how they see themselves and how they think others see them, but these flickerings of self-analysis are interspersed with long periods of an endearing ignorance of self. . . . While children are rather poor at self-analysis, preferring instead for adults to show them the correct way to do things, adolescents are the complete opposite” (189). Furthermore, “a major reason why depression often starts in adolescence is that this is the first time when the brain has sufficient cognitive abilities to be able to suffer it” (200). And we need to be teenagers in order to “start to discover the subtleties of nuance, sarcasm, irony, and satire” (138). Yeah sure–so much for Dr. Seuss and all.

All of that, of course, merely confirms some very old and very wrong assumptions about childhood–assumptions that have allowed and still do allow far too many adults to treat children cruelly or pre-emptorily, on the basis that they don’t have the feelings to be hurt by it or the intelligence to see through it.

In the light of the concerns I have with the arguments presented in this book, I probably shouldn’t be surprised to learn that Bainbridge is by profession a–wait for it–veterinary anatomist! Who better to understand and analyze the problems of human teenagers than an animal doctor, right? He says, “I must emphasize that, as a veterinary surgeon with zoological training, it is philosophically pleasing for me to view humans as ‘just another species.’  After all, they are animals like any other, subject to the same rules of biology as any other, and amenable to study” (15)  In point of fact, they are not quite so amenable to study–Bainbridge complains more than once about the impossibility of conducting the appropriate experiments on human teenagers that would, for instance, allow scientists to determine the significance of chemicals essential in the developmental process by depriving control groups of them–shades of Dr. Mengele.

But the real problem here, once more, is that Bainbridge’s focus on humans as animals tends to ignore or slide over ethical issues–to conclude, for instance, that men are biologically mandated to be aggressive and women passive, so that controlling male aggression or women taking charge of their own fates come to be viewed as evolutionarily regressive acts, or perhaps, even, impossible. What am I make of a statement like this: “If men’s brains are hard-wired to be attracted to fine-limbed, smooth-skinned, high-voiced, round-faced people, does this explain paedophilia? Are male paedophiles simply men who are more attracted to the characteristics women retain from childhood than those women acquire to puberty” (61). If so, what ya gonna do about it, eh? Biology requires that these men prey on boys, so let ‘em at it.

In viewing humans as animals, Bainbridge also tends to ignore the ways in which we are cultural beings. “[I]t is obvious to any casual observer,” he insists, “that brains of teenage boys and teenage girls often work in different ways” (89)–their brains, mind you, not their culturally-inflected minds. In cartoons and bad movies and silly advice columns, yes–but in actual real life, as a matter of course? And note the taken-for-granted assumption that sex differences account for all gender differences: “surely a brain develops differently if it is housed in a male body than in a female body?” (90), and “Teenager inherit a brain that already knows what sex it is” (96–not surprisingly, Bainbridge has a hard time accounting for homosexuality, which he sees as both inherently genetic and counter-evolutionary, since it doesn’t lead to breeding). That’s really not all that far away from assuming that, say, brains are inherently different in bodies of different skin pigmentations. In fairness, I acknowledge that Bainbridge does wonder if “perhaps our sexuality is less hard-wired than a rat’s” (95).

In response to Bainbridge’s obsession with evolutionary explanations, I’m tempted to argue that the real reason for the success and survival of homo sapiens as a species has been its incredible imaginativeness and flexibility in developing differing kinds of social and cultural arrangements and understandings, and that rather than being at the mercy of its biology, it has survived and developed exactly because of its ingenuity in inventing a huge and complex and contradictory range of ways of organizing and understandings itself in response to that biology. That why there is history. The teen age has been significantly different in different times and places, in ways apparently not interesting to the veterinarian approach.

Foon, Dennis. Skud.  Toronto Groundwood, 2003.

Four boys who attend the same high school all face problems relating to their understanding of what it means to be masculine.  As a result, at least three things happen in the course of their alternations, as each speaks of what is happening to himself in first person in the present tense.–or, I suppose, thinks, for no audience is apparent: it’s that strange sense of a person naming each of his actions as he experiences them.

First: each of the boys has a separate problem, but all the problems are related to each other in being about manhood.  So there’s a sense of the novel as “case studies,” as each of the boys seems to represent one kind of problem related to being male, and so readers get a spectrum of key instances of the problems boys have with their masculinity.  Tommy, a military cadet, has invested everything on control, in masculinity as sacrifice and discipline and being the ideal man–the perfect hero, the perfect student, the good citizen–a representative of what my handout in the last entry identifies as “warrior masculinity.”  Brad, a hockey player, has taken what appears to be the opposite approach–he is the male as violent competitor, uncontrolled and predatory when he is at his best–a representative of “phallic masculinity.”  Andy, in counterpoint to these two examples of culturally acceptable masculinity, is a would-be actor with little sense of why he might try to achieve an ideal of maleness–but he is up for a part requiring him to act like a dangerous street kid, and so trying to understand what it would mean to be male in that way–so he;s sort of a representative of a male not yet masculinzed and looking for a male image.   And Shane, a fourth focalizer who appears a lot less frequently than the other three,  is an actual gang member understand as dangerously male by the others, but actually suffering from the way in which others perceptions of his dangerousness has led to the loss of his murdered brother and made him a strong representative of what’s wrong with normative assumptions about competitive masculinity.  Separately, each boy follows a path that reveals something critical about one standard way of being male.  Together, they offer a spectrum of  examples in an overall critique of conventional assumptions about masculinity.  (A similar use of alternating narratives about characters representing different versions of the same central problem as case studies can be found in Alex Sanchez’ Rainbow Boys, in which the three alternating focalizers represent differing attitudes to an awareness of one’s gayness.

Second: since all the narrators are thinking about what it means to be male or act male, their stories have intriguing variational relationships with each other.  Both Tommy and Brad are in situations where their ideas about how they might ideally be male get them into serious trouble–in evocatively similar (yet different) ways.  Tommy wants to escape the turmoil of his quarrelling and separated parents and violent mother by imagining a purer world, flying above it all–he wants to be a pilot.  And he sees his relationship with a girl as pure and spiritual, and so jealously destroys the relationship when he sees his girl act a love scene with Andy and imagines she’s cheating on him–and then, after she dumps him, as all the violent emotion he has pent up emerges, attacks and rapes her.   Meanwhile, his best friend Brad,  trained by his wildly competitive farther to be the violent attacker and then dumped down to the fourth line on the hockey team after violence goes out of favour, also ends up attacking a girl–thus one the brilliant skater who has replaced him as star of the team.  But Brad, comfortable with his violence, acts in what appears to be a cool and rational manner as he plots out his revenge–and also, incites Tom into the jealous rage that destroys him.  So one boy is controlled but explosive, the others exploding and controlled in his use of his own explosiveness–they are opposite but two sides of the same coin, and follow a similar trajectory.  Both also dwell on how what they are inside is different form how people imagine them–how they play out their forms of maleness for others.  Andy’s story then becomes a variation on theirs, as he literally tries to figure out how to put on a mask of masculinity.  And Shane is the ultimate counterpoint, the one already so damaged by his masculine image that he sees himself as consumed by it and empty inside, and is actively moving against it in the only way he knows how–which, eventually, turns out to be violence against himself.  Meanwhile, the two pairs of boys, Tommy and Brad and Andy and Shane, represent two opposing stories of male bonding, as one friendship ends due to conventional masculinity gone awry and another begins to from, before it ends tragically, with retreats from conventional masculinity.

Third:  I become aware of all that as variational only because I can know all the stories rather than what each of the characters knows–which is just one of them each, his own.     So the alternations allow me a detached ability to observe them all, and to make the comparison that make me aware of their thematic relationships as well as the actual encounters they have with each other and know about themselves.  I know more about the meanings of their actions than they ever do.  I can see how all represent not just differing but related forms of maleness but also, differing acts of observation and surveillance, different but similar problems with difficult parents, different but related secrets, and so on.  The alternating narratives give a reader tools for knowing more and learning more than the characters ever do–and potentially, for coming to share a greater knowledge of what it all means that the authors has carefully planted the seeds of even though there  is nothing in the novel that isn’t from inside the limited view of one of the characters.

The author, Dennis Foon, is a Canadian best known as a playwright for young adults.  The novel, he says in a note at the end involves characters from an earlier play called War, and has many theatre-like effects–first person present action, for instance, and a sense that the characters are naming their thoughts as characters in plays sometimes do in soliloquies.  And the sense created for readers of being an outside observer noting behaviour and thinking about it in order to develop an understand of it beyond that possessed by the characters is something that theatre often works to achieve for its audiences also.

“Skud,” incidentally is a word used in the novel where the wrod “shit” would more usually appear in real teen languag, as in “She suspects me of an impure heart.  She’s full of skud,”  or just plain.  “Skud.  She knows.”

Some of the novels I’ve been looking at lately, and plan to do some thinking about in entries here, revolve around ways in which their male characters think about their maleness and what it might mean or ought to be. For that reason, I thought I’d better post here a handout I prepared some years back for students in classes discussing these kinds of issues.  Developed from class discussions, it simply lists a variety of ways in which people commonly understand what it means to be masculine.

Phallic masculinity

“Natural”—authentic, inherent, biological
Essential, fixed—there are no degrees of masculinity; one is either male or female
Dominance, authority, power; being on top
Hard, not soft
Phallic; penetrating, not penetrated
Thrusting, aggressiveness
Explosive, uncontrollable (“boys will be boys”)
“Size matters”; the bigger, the more masculine
Irresistible to women
Being Active
Enjoyment of physical activity (sports, etc.)
Enjoyment of the chase, etc.
Enjoyment of violence
Sadistic, not masochistic
Lust-driven; “brains in crotch”
Lustful but not seeking emotional attachment; sex but not love
Desiring (i.e., as opposed to desired); lustful, but not inviting lust
Seducer, not seductive

Warrior masculinity

Need to test courage, power (“Are you a man or a mouse?”)
Need to win; be better than others
Need to be seen to win: glory, acclaim, reputation, etc.: masculinity as a prize awarded by the opinions of others, especially other men
Maleness as continually in question, always in need of being proved, tested, etc.
Strong and silent
Hard, cool, unemotional
Egocentric: self-sustaining
Unwilling to speak of emotions
No crying
Bragging; voicing of maleness as key feature of masculinity
Courage, bravery, fortitude
Control and discipline of body:  not subject to desire
Control and discipline of body: ongoing achievement and maintenance of societally privileged appearance of masculinity
Invincibility; no pain
Meat; no quiche

Self-sufficient masculinity

Outsider anti-conformist rebelliousness
Impatience with or defiance of limitations of convention, values of law and order, female rules of etiquette, good manners, taste, etc.; maleness as that which is restrained or repressed by civilization and social concerns
Not interested in neatness, cleanliness, order; no housecleaning
Fear of entrapment, containment
Non-romantic, non-needy (“Big boys don’t cry.”)

Group masculinity

Male bonding
Male homosociality: most important relationships are with other men
Homophobia; fear or repugnance at physical contact with other men outside of the context of battle or play-battle (sports); fear of the male gaze (homosociality as not homosexuality)
Need to conform to values of male group
Need of ritual reinforcement of involvement with male group — names, ceremonies, secret handshakes, etc.
Desire of the male gaze—attracting admiration of other men (e.g., body builders, models) for masculine appearance
Policing of unmanliness, etc.; category maintenance
Rigid, conservative, anti-anarchy or -transgression or confusion of fixed boundaries and categories
Closeting of divergence from group values, vulnerability, softness, etc.
Anti-intellectual (anti-geek, nerd, etc.)
Masculinity as a form of dress: certain colours, styles, forms of appearance, etc.; no frills, no pink, baseball caps, hairy and/or muscular, not pudgy or skinny, etc.  Body-building.
Lack of interest in fashion or appearance; no makeup

Structural/ cultural  masculinity

Binary oppositional: “us vs. them”)
Keeper of secrets about rules being broken, etc.; seeing but not saying

Psychoanalytical masculinity

Oedipal concerns
Repressed polymorphous perversity, anality, homosexuality, etc.
Fear of and/or integration of anima
“He who bears the phallus”; phallus as signifier; “name of the father”
Fear of father, murder of father, etc.; masculinity as tied up in relationships with fathers
Gazer—not subject to the gaze