For Today I Am a Boy is a very ordinary story, told in a gentle and quiet voice.
“My father stood on the step and watched with me. It was the fall of my senior year. He held a mug of coffee, looking as slick as he did in the mornings — the comb marks in his gelled hair like rows in a cornfield, shirt and jacket freshly pressed.”
Just because the narrative voice does not spiral and splinter –-
Just because the narrative does not reflect back upon its self and its characters, with talk of mirrors and traps –-
That does not mean that a book is not revolutionary.
The act of renaming is just that.
“A word after a word after a word is power,” Margaret Atwood says.
There is our narrator, looking at his father, even the lines in his hair in straight, ordered lines.
We can see and feel the crisp edges of the fabric he wears, freshly ironed.
Pressed and lined.
The father is, but the child is not. The child is not what the father imagined, desired, yearned for. A boy. Not boy enough.
“His very presence was an accusation, but a mild one; we’d both accepted certain limitations of mine by that point. I was not going to join the football team, and it was enough that I should admire them.”
And so there is tension even in that quiet scene. For there they stand, on the step, watching. Each of them not what the other desires, neither of them able to escape the constraints of social conditioning.
The tension has been there throughout. Alongside instructions. “You should try it. It’ll make a man out of you.” And declarations. “I make the rules, not you.”
Lines have been drawn. We readers are to take sides.
“Better to be one of us, better to be standing on this side than kneeling and weeping in the gravel while they leer, that was all my father wanted from me, to be one of them, to be a king.”
If a father wants a son to be a king, it implies that there is royalty in the family. And with pedigree comes responsibility.
“They carry China in their hearts and their lungs and eventually it kills them all. My father, on the other hand, died like a real man. A Western man. In a mine explosion.”
But of course there are no kings, although there is plenty of protocol. And of course the father’s father is not the only one fragmented, of “these purebred men”.
Our narrator is not in the procession; rather, surrounded by “the very picture of normality”, our narrator is alone.
“If I had to name this thing I was born with, I would’ve called it misery.”
This part which does not fit. We readers choose this side, because For Today I Am a Boy is immersed in a single, immediately sympathetic voice.
Not weak. Not delicate. And we know this. Because how vibrant and alive are the scenes in which nobody else is watching, the scenes in which nobody else is home. When there is no need to pretend.
“My mother said it was related to growing; my father said it was a sign of weakness, of a delicate constitution. Some people, he said, mostly women, got sick whenever they were needed, when there was work to be done—vague, mild illnesses that let them continue to do things they enjoyed, like lying under fresh, cool sheets and complaining. ‘Sick in their heads,’ he said.”
But although a single voice is at the heart of the novel, there is a chorus of sisters: the narrator’s — and, so, the novel’s — saving grace.
In particular, the oldest sister Adele reveals an open door. She shows her siblings how to walk through such constructs. (Or, arguably, to turn away from them, shut them even, find another path.)
She said, “Do you remember when we would pretend to be Adele?”
“Yes. You got tired of it first.”
“I didn’t get tired of it. I just … Being me wasn’t all that different. And it was more fun.”
The wind whipped her hair into my cheek. “Lucky you,” I said.
And in an effort to reconnect with an absent sister, there is room to recreate and revision. The act of curating a life, in photographs, illuminates the possibility of creating a self and, more importantly, allowing a denied self to emerge.
“At first I sent her pictures of the lit cross on the mountain, the steps of my apartment building, the Old Port, the café and the Japanese restaurant where I worked. Then they were of my salt-eaten boots, a kettle I’d found on the street, an old sweater of hers that I still wore to bed…”
There are small attempts at transformation and some of these are depicted in the novel’s spare, mostly functional and clearly deliberate but occasionally luminous, prose.
“I walked for an hour to get home through the October slush, that first, strange snow that doesn’t quite take.”
And other possibilities are viewed through other open doors as the landscape shifts from small-town Ontario to campus life in Montreal.
“Textbooks and college-course packs on queer theory and gender theory, books of memoir and poetry with heady, academic subtitles, political tracts—they were defined by these things, it was their hobby, their subject of scholarly study, their political fight.”
Finally, the ultimate possibility:
“Did you think … you were the only one?” he said.
“And I still didn’t believe them — you couldn’t just rename yourself, you couldn’t tear down the skyline and rebuild and think there wouldn’t be consequences.”
Gentle yet fierce: a quiet revolution.
This response originally appeared here, on Buried In Print.