Friday, November 30, 2012

David Levithan's _Every Day_ and the Contingency of Morality

NB: This post is redolent of spoilers for the book, in case anyone reading this ever intends to read it.  OTOH, if you don't intend to read it, I think I'm fairly clear in what I'm talking about for once?

Being the YA genre fangirl that I am, I have of course known about David Levithan (I keep on wanting to call him David Leviathan) for a while, as he is kind of a big deal.  That having been said, I never particularly wanted to read his books because they seemed to mostly fall into the sub-genre of YA realistic romance, which is not a sub-genre I like all that much.  I consider myself a YA genre fangirl because I love quite a lot of YA subgenres, including speculative fiction, stuff with no technically fantastic elements that nonetheless is far too trashy to portray a convincing sense of reality, and genuinely realistic novels that deal with teens in unpleasant situations and how they live through them.  But I've never really enjoyed the kind of books that focus on relatively normal kids in relatively realistically-portrayed romantic relationships; I tend to find them more alienating and offputting than anything else, so I don't really feel drawn to read them.

I read Every Day because of the recent controversy over this article on "YA Fiction and the End of Boys".  The article and controversy weren't actually all that interesting to me in-and-of-themselves, but the article included the following paragraph on Every Day:

"If books like these reward boys who give up men’s social power, more provocative still are books that imagine erasing men’s physical power. That’s the case in David Levithan’s just-released Every Day, which tells the story of A, a spirit who wakes every day in a different body: sometimes a boy, sometimes a girl, sometimes trans, sometimes this race or that. Levithan, known for his suggestive work about queer sexuality, uses his central conceit to artfully suggest the complexity of gender and embodiment. But even so, Every Day is haunted by a negative idea of manhood. When A falls in love with a girl, Rhiannon, he does so while inhabiting the body of Rhiannon’s crass, emotionally manipulative boyfriend. The novel’s antagonist, the character who offers A the ability to kill a host body’s spirit and thereby stay with Rhiannon forever, is coded male too. And what these experiences teach A is that being the kind of partner this beautiful, sensitive girl deserves means not being a man. At least, not being her man. It means finding a sweet, artsy, outsider for Rhiannon, and A heading off into a future perpetually separated from ownership of the body’s strength — the ultimate sacrifice of male power."

So what I got out of that was - book about bodiless spirit that possesses a different person each day!  Naturally I wanted to read that book.  It fits in perfectly with my well-documented obsession with fiction about fluid identities, not to mention my well-documented obsession with fiction about possessing spirits.

I did read Every Day, and, as usual, I'm not that interested in reviewing it.  What I can say briefly is that I found it entertaining enough.  It wasn't a boring book, and, what's more, it wasn't interesting simply because it was irritating (as, say, that damned movie Crash was).  It had good parts that were appealing.  But the day after I finished it, I keep on coming back to how irritating I found it, despite my general feeling that I was engaged in the book.  And that seems like something you might write about.  You can't write much about boring stories - it's very hard to say why something just doesn't grab you.  But when something actively pushes you away, that's interesting, and that's why I thought I should try to write about Every Day - because I can't stop thinking to myself, why did I find it that irritating?  

Well, there's a lot of reasons, some of which come down to subjective issues that are hard to break down again -  there's this character who appears on, like, three pages, named Amelia, who I felt had much more personality than any of the main characters in the entire book; I kept on thinking that it would have been a much better book if A had fallen in love with Amelia instead of with Rhiannon since Amelia seemed to actually have an identity, but I suppose this kind of reaction is very personal since different people have very different ideas about what makes for well-developed characterization - but I want to get into one issue I have in particular with the book that I think I can express more clearly.

I'm going to start by recounting the basic plot of Every Day, although, of course, I'm going to do that from the standpoint of what I'm interested in, so this may be limited or biased rather than a thorough, accurate summary.  This entity A possesses a new body every day and has been doing so for as long as they can remember (a sidenote: as annoyed as I was by the book, I am also annoyed by reviews that insist on referring to A as "he" even though it is explicitly stated in the text that "when it came to gender" A is "both and neither."  Insofar as I can tell, the main reason why reviewers are referring to A as male is because they spend most of the book in love with a girl and therefore "sounds male," which makes this even more annoying than it would be if they were just misgendering the character.  Of course, A doesn't tell us which pronouns they prefer, but I have to feel that "they" is more accurate than "he.").  They don't have any idea of why this happens or of anyone else in the world in the same position as them.  There are various rules behind this switch, including that they switch bodies at midnight every day whether awake or asleep, never possess the same body twice, have access to the body's memories (although it takes some effort) and are influenced by its hormones but cannot feel the possessed person's emotions, always possess bodies of a certain age (which they therefore think of as their own age - it is sixteen at the time of the book), can only geographically travel in the spirit between bodies within a limited radius (about four hours by car, it would seem), although if the body travels to Hawaii that day then A will be stuck in Hawaii in their next body, etc.  It's important to note that, on the whole, with only one exception in the entire book (and that one is under extenuating circumstances), those who are possessed don't really remember the possession as a possession, so A doesn't leave any particular trace in the minds of those they have possessed.   A thinks of themself as human, just a rather odd one.  A realized that other people were not like them at the age of five or six or so and was very upset about it at first, but eventually came to terms with it.  At the time of the book's start, as a sixteen-year-old, A realizes that other people have lots of benefits that they do not, all of the advantages of rootedness, connection, lasting relationships, and so on, but they also see the positive side of their own life - they are free of the pressure of relationships, are able to get a wide perspective on the world and thus be wiser than those of us blinded by our own perspectives, are a good observer, and know how to enjoy living in the moment.  A is a fundamentally moral person, as well, if still a sixteen-year-old kid, and has set up rules for themself so as to avoid damaging the lives of those they possess.  Although accessing memories, as stated above, seems to take a lot of effort, such that A avoids doing it more than necessary, and although in order to remain emotionally stable A feels the need to detach somewhat from the lives of the people they possess, A does enough accessing and uses their keen observational skills to try their best to make sure no one notices anything odd in the person's life and that they don't screw things up for the person too much.  A does this purely out of a basic sense of morality and the fact that they feel guilt when they do cause lasting problems for others, since, being untraceable, there are no real potential external consequences for them were they to do anything very terrible.  The same basic sense of morality, of course, means that they don't do anything drastically out-of-character even when it might theoretically help the person; when A winds up possessing the body of an extremely selfish girl, for instance, they muse about how it wouldn't do much good to sign her up to work at the soup kitchen because that's her decision to make, even if she would normally make the wrong decision, and she would just abandon the decision if A made it for her.

So A already has a relatively healthy attitude to what is obviously a fairly difficult situation at the start of the book - as aware as A is of the compensations of their state, it's hard for them to fully appreciate the benefits when the benefits of everyone else's lives are so visible, but A is managing.  The plot of the novel deals with A's steadily decreasing ability to cope after they fall in love (at first sight!  I found this pretty annoying too.) with Rhiannon while possessing Justin.  At first, A starts doing out-of-character things in the bodies they're possessing in order to sneak away and spend time with Rhiannon.  Later on, A actually confesses their true identity to Rhiannon; when she does not automatically reject them and shows some understanding of them (and, depending on what body they possess, some physical attraction, although A really fails to understand or show any sympathy for the fact that Rhiannon's attraction clearly depends on what body A is possessing), their behavior only becomes worse as they genuinely start to imagine that the two could find a way to make the relationship work.  A stops doing a very good job of being a guest in other people's lives and devotes more and more of their time to their own agenda, most significantly when they possess a boy who is supposed to be on a plane trip to Hawaii and actually completely blows off the trip and runs away in order to stay in the Maryland area because they can't stand the thought of not being near Rhiannon (and if they went to Hawaii they would be stuck there).  The subplot which winds up with A being introduced to the character who claims that A is not alone and that there would be a way for them to possess a body for a longer period of time (which A clearly thinks amounts to murder of the original identity) is meant to parallel this general decline in A's sense of responsibility; it's when A, possessing the "sweet, artsy outsider" (although I don't particularly see evidence of the character being an outsider) Alexander, is tempted to murder him to stay in the body forever, precisely because Alexander is such a genuinely kind and good person that his life, friends, and existence are all appealing, that they realize that their love for Rhiannon is getting them to break their own reasonably moral code of rules and that they decide they must get as far away from Rhiannon and the murderer as possible so as to avoid the temptation and go back to their life as an outsider.  And yes, this is obviously necessary in large part because Rhiannon cannot accept A as a disembodied, ever-changing spirit - if Rhiannon were willing to commit herself to A as they are A would probably not have ever come to the realization of their moral issues - but Rhiannon's problems with A are not just about the changing bodies but also with the seeming iffiness of A's behaviour - is what A does fair to the people whose bodies they are possessing?  She isn't sure.  So the arc of the book, oddly enough, is actually somewhat limiting of A's character development; they end up in more or less the same place they started out with in the beginning, only, I suppose, with a greater understanding of both the temptations of being a less virtuous person and also a greater awareness of the consequences of falling prey to such temptations (A starts out the book having no idea that such a murder would be possible).

The premise, then, is one that instinctively appeals to me, but I don't particularly feel that what Levithan found potentially interesting about the premise is the same as what I did.  I suppose one angle to come at this from is that of A as the basically good person - in the context of the book, it makes sense that A would see themself this way, of course.  A may not, in fact, be human, although A certainly thinks of themself as human, but A has never, until the confrontation with the antagonist, interacted with a sentient non-human before, and has been treated by a human by everyone they have ever met until the age of sixteen.  So it's not that surprising that A doesn't perceive themself as different on some elemental level from the species that makes up all of their interactive opportunities, and that they take on a fairly conventional morality from within that species (since, presumably, A has been socialized as much to that morality as anyone raised as human would have been).  This is a perfectly logical and reasonable choice, and it's what makes the central internal conflict possible - well, basically A's desire to be human, both in terms of the relationships with other humans that they can't have but want and in terms of the fundamental moral code that they can have, is what drives the whole possible.  To the degree that we see that level of responsibility to other people that A eventually decides to sacrifice their relationship with Rhiannon to as a measure of humanity, the plot affirms A's decision to consider themself as human; we too can see them as making a fundamentally human decision and to be admired in doing so.

On the other hand, there's another side to that story, as both A and the implied author behind A recognize that there are some distinctions between A and humanity.  A's inability to understand the embodiedness of Rhiannon's affections and their genuine fondness for the advantages of detachment speak to elements of A which are not commonly shared among humans.  The fact that the book ends with A making the decision to reject love and connection in the name of morality also shows that on some level A is rejecting quintessentially human traits; we do not normally expect of your average, ordinary human being that the ability to make lasting connections with other people would come into conflict with the possibility of living morally, and so A, in having to make this decision, is rejecting the chance to be human in that sense even if it is in the name of alignment with the human in another sense.  What is more, the hint of a larger plot in the antagonist being another of A's kind who does not adhere to A's human morality, and who contacts A via a boy A possessed who is convinced that A is the devil, demonstrates that whatever A's kind is, A does have a choice; A is not purely a human in very weird circumstances but is an entity who, for whatever reasons, has actively chosen to construct themself as human in a situation where other alternatives could be proposed with equal validity.

And, yes, I would be more interested in that story.  Although as a matter of credibility I find A's way of interpreting their existence to be believable, it makes for a story that engages with concerns I don't find particularly gripping.  The question of how to balance love and morality is of course a valid one, even one I care about quite deeply at times, but in this story it seems to be passing up so much potential to deal with the more fascinating to me concern of what it means to be human in contexts where that is ambiguous.  An A who had not aligned themselves quite so clearly with humanity and that character's struggles with morality and responsibility would be a more interesting character to me than a character who basically starts out with a very mainstream, uncomplicated view of morality and never goes beyond that intellectually even when they are emotionally tempted away from their beliefs.  I think that is where I come down to being annoyed by the story - because it promises some philosophical depth to me, but that is dragged away.  What the story ends up being about thematically is the importance of both the universal truths that we all share as humans and also the individual idiosyncrasies that make us all unique.  I think this is problematic on the whole because, as mentioned above, Levithan doesn't really do a very good job with the second part - I don't find his characters all that convincing as different people who are each internally unique even as he runs through a large number of external differences - but even if Levithan were a Diana Wynne Jones or Henry James of characterization, I think that this theme is just less interesting to me that one that really grapples with questions of morality and why we adhere to it.  It is never called into question that A owes the kindness of their respect for people's lives to these people simply because A is a good person who is equal to the humans whose lives they inhabit; when A challenges these restraints it is not because A has any philosophical justification whatsoever to do so but merely because love is great and you care less about morality when you're in love.  A's self-justifications as they fall into the abyss are minimal; the story does not engage with the philosophical issues but remains on the level of pointing out that love is sometimes selfish.  This isn't something that comes as revelatory to me, and for me, the more interesting themes would have dealt with what was selfish in the first place, whether a being whose life differs in fundamental ways from humans really does have to live in a way that is morally spotless for humans even at disadvantage to themselves, what alternative lives A could build that would be less infringed on by human norms (keep in mind that A, despite all of the body shifting, does not know how to speak Portuguese, play the clarinet, or do gymnastics, even if they body they're in does, which is fine for a sixteen year-old but is going to be a huge problem when they're 36), and what morality really involves.  So, while I think it's believable that some characters in A's position might react like A, on a personal level I think that's not what I find appealing about the premise, and that's one major reason why this turned out not to be the book I wanted it to be.

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