Monday, March 25, 2013

Gender Bender

The semester is ending, and I am in the last few weeks of panic and rushing. Thus, if my weekly blog posts start to sound fragmented and inane, that's why. I'll be hashing out essays, poems, and a term paper before everything ends. I do have some good news: I won second place in the specialty division of my school's big creative arts contest! I feel validated as a writer now that I've achieved something in an academic setting.

So what to talk about today? I could mention a book that made me angry. I don't like bashing books on this blog (I make fun of tired genre tropes, but that's different), but I feel okay mentioning this one because I like the author, I really do, and one of the reasons it bothered me so much was because I expected more. The book in question is Zom-B by Darren Shan. The summary: B is living in a world on the brink of a zombie apocalypse and is dealing with a father who is racist and whose racist views are tainting B.

The story is overall more about B's struggle with racism than with zombies, and I respect that. It makes the story less about conventions of genre and more about the character's personal journey, which I think makes a more compelling story. It was a good little YA book, but Shan did one thing that made me want to throw the book: he kept B's gender secret until the end.

"B" is short for "Becky," but since she is a tomboy with very short hair, hangs out with male friends, picks fights, steals, swears, and has a complex relationship with her father rather than with her mother, the reader believes B is a boy. Part of that, I think, comes from the set-up chapter where we see a boy named Brian killed by zombies. The image of a boy named B comes in from the start, and it's not until the end of the book that you learn that B is a girl.

Now, since the book is about racism, I can see how Shan might be making a commentary about preconceived notions. How all the attributes that people take as masculine can actually also apply to a girl. Nothing in B's character traits marks her as necessarily male or female, until the end when the reader learns the truth. If that's what Shan was trying to do, I applaud him for working to bring the reader into the story. I just don't think it worked as storytelling.

I have two big problems with holding this kind of secret until the end of a book: one, it makes the reader feel stupid when it's revealed. Shan may have wanted that to jolt the reader into thinking, but it could have backfired.

Two, and more importantly, it alters characterization. Everyone around B behaves differently before and after the moment when her father calls her "Becky." Before, there's nothing to suggest she's a girl. After, her father won't stop calling her his "little girl," "daughter," and her name, "Becky." He seems like a different person. Also, in the last few chapters and in the sequel, B herself acts more feminine. Nothing has happened to make her change the way she looks at herself (at least, not in that way), but now I hear more about her appearance when she didn't seem to care about it before. The character has changed, and not just because I know now and see her in a different way.

As much as I liked the way Shan worked the theme of racism into a zombie book, I'm disappointed in the way he handled the storytelling. I've been taught to put story first and let the message ooze out on its own, so when I see storytelling sacrificed to meaning, if that's what happened, I get a little unhappy. Sometimes surprise endings work, but this one didn't because it required the author to lie to his readers through the whole book, removing parts of characterization and replacing them only when the secret was out. I'm sorry, but that isn't good writing.

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