I wish I knew how I came to download the sample for Will Grayson, Will Grayson – I’m pretty sure a friend who does book reviews recced it but I can’t find any trace of the conversation. And that’s a shame because I really owe someone a thank you – John Green and David Levithan have created what is an almost perfect delight of a narrative.

Will Grayson is a highschooler living in a suburb of Chicago. He’s got two rules: 1) shut up and 2) don’t care. Will Grayson is a highschooler living in a different suburb of Chicago. He’s living with depression and it’s time to meet his online boyfriend in person. When Will Grayson meets Will Grayson, things start happening.

Both Will Graysons are well-drawn and interesting characters in their own rights. There is distinct development in both characters that is natural and really wonderfully to see. At various points, I disagree with them and I worried about them – but I never felt bored with them, even though I often have a hard time feeling super connected to fictional teenaged boys.

The second Will Grayson’s issues with depression – which are handled really honestly and there is no magical cure – are one of the strongest parts of the book. Both the inability of those around him to really GET it and his own coping methods for making it through are kind of painfully honest.

And then there is Tiny Cooper.

TINY COOPER.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson is written in chapters that alternate the point of view. The first chapter is one Will Grayson, the next chapter is the other Will Grayson, and it progresses steadily and regularly. We only see Tiny Cooper through the eyes of the two Will Graysons – but, man, oh, man, the things we see.

Here’s the thing: Tiny Cooper is huge. He’s fat, he’s tall, he’s large in every conceivable way. He’s also gay and very out. He plays football and writes muscials. He’s kind of mythic. And he’s the first Will Grayson’s best friend. Will Grayson’s initial point of likability, in fact, (other than his love for Neutral Milk Hotel) is his staunch defense of Tiny’s right to be whatever the hell Tiny wants to be, even while he regrets the attention this draws to himself.

This is one of my favorite sentences in the entire book:

He may be a malevolent sorcerer, but Tiny Cooper is his own goddamned man, and if he wants to be a gigantic skipper, then that’s his right as a huge American.

There is no stepping carefully around Tiny’s size – it’s notable and it’s part of his identity and it’s part of the original Will Grayson’s world. But when Will Grayson #1 comments upon it, I never get a sense of maliciousness. In fact, the phrase “that’s his right as a huge American” cracks my shit right up.

I don’t think size has to be ignored – in fact, ignoring it would be kind of a damn stupid thing to do. Will’s amazed, every single day, by Tiny squeezing himself into the actually tiny student desk chairs. It’s an amazing thing! Will and Jane (who figures quite nicely in all of this, lest you think it is a boys-only party, though Maura is far, far less sympathetic) can’t lift Tiny while he’s passed out – outside of the book I have to wonder a bit about that but inside the book, it’s just a thing, a reality of life with Tiny.

Tiny’s size is simply part of who he is – and he is a large, loud, flamboyant, young man who falls in love the way other people change underpants. Tiny Cooper is a planet, he’s a super hero, he’s the main character even when he’s supposed to be a secondary figure. Tiny Cooper is also, sometimes, an asshole. And he’s got his own insecurities and issues – and that’s what prevents him from being a caricature of the scrappy sidekick we see so often on tv.

Will Grayson the second, the lowercase will grayson, if you will, because his sections are written entirely in lowercase, also intersects with Tiny. Which is to say he dates Tiny. He is sexual with Tiny.

But that’s actually where the sour notes come in to play. Because as much as I get the reality of it….

There’s a part where will grayson is surprised (repeatedly) that he is attracted to this very fat Tiny. It isn’t the surprise that trips me up – it’s a very specific line about how Tiny is surprisingly awesome even though other fat people get sweaty just raising the Twinkie to their mouths.

will grayson still invites Tiny to meet his mother, introduces Tiny to people as his boyfriend. He isn’t ASHAMED of Tiny – but he’s all-too-aware of how Tiny surprises people.

I can forgive the rest of his comments for the sake of character growth. But that one line about the Twinkies? That one line is just pure nastiness. It doesn’t strengthen the scene or give us anything to grow the character – all it shows us is that, unfortunately, like other teenaged boys have shown us, fat people have reason to be slightly afraid of will grayson.

In the end, Tiny’s fatness does not change – and the ending is kind of grand in a way that made me a little sniffly on the airplane.

This book walks a really fine line at times. I don’t believe we can have meaningful books about certain evils in the world (like oppression) without depicting that oppression. Will #1′s defense of Tiny’s gayness is only meaningful because there ARE people who call Tiny names. This is no hollow defense. Fat hate is depicted because it’s a real thing – it’s surprising for will grayson to find himself dating this improbable person. So I don’t want deny the validity of the character’s responses; even as a fat reader who flinched a bit, I don’t want to deny will grayson the chance to realize that, yes, Tiny is really very attractive despite never having considered fat people attractive before.

But I also could have done without the suckerpunch of the genuine fat hate that bled through.

There are, of course, some other issues – “lame” is excruciatingly common in usage. There’s a line about Tiny’s polyamory being bad for the team (he’s not even actually polyamorous) that seems like exactly the type of stupid shit teenaged boys would say about polyamory when they don’t really understand it.

Even with its flaws, though, I have to recommend Will Grayson, Will Grayson. I’m kind of in love with it. I’m in love with Will #1′s struggle to take risks and make decisions and stop being so passive in his own life out of fear and I’m kind of in love with will grayson’s willingness to take risks when he realizes that things are worth it and his relationship with his mother and the way he refuses to be ashamed. I’m in love with Tiny Cooper – and I appreciate him. (You’ve got to read about his musical Tiny Dancer, which is the Tiny Cooper story but also a story about love.) I wish there were more girls in the story – it’s definitely the story of two young men in predominantly cis-male social circle, and I wish the casual ableism weren’t quite so at odds with the sensitively handled portrayal of depression. And I really, really, really wish there hadn’t been that thin spot, that bare patch that makes me wonder how the authors really feel about Tiny Cooper and the other people like him, the fat people. Are we just sweaty blobs to them, Twinkies clutched in our paws?

I don’t know. And it makes me uncomfortable and conflicted. AND SAD. Because I kind of want to make everyone read this book. I want to whole-heartedly and without reservation recommend it. Instead, I must sit back and remember: it need not be a swoon. I can recommend it – and I DO – while acknowledging its flaws. And I can warn you – if you’re feeling sensitive, I’d skip it. It’s an amazing book and, in large part, the discomfort pays off in spades. In the end, Tiny Cooper knows he isn’t traditionally beautiful. And he keeps on falling in love (and making out with other boys) because it’s the only thing he can do. How can I fail to do the same?


This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

20 Comments

  1. Posted April 4, 2011 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    You have convinced me to check out this book.

    • TR
      Posted April 5, 2011 at 9:14 am | Permalink

      I hope you’ll let me know what you think when you read it.

  2. JonelB
    Posted April 4, 2011 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    -adds to list- Any time I can find a book that gives half a whit to fat people I’m interested in it.
    I find over and over again, that the people talked about in badly written and mainstream books, especially in Young Adult stuff, are lovely and perfect, always. It’s like saying “all the good stories only happen to thin people”, when fuck that, other people have good stories to tell too. It’s one of the reasons I try to make all the characters I end up writing about not superstar lovely at all–stories happen to all sorts of people.

    Does anyone else ever get ticked at stories where the lead heroine is always supposed to put down her beauty and doesn’t see herself as pretty but of course the lead dudes all think she’s the bee’s knees? It’s almost as if leading women aren’t -freaking allowed- to be knowledgeable of their beauty/sexuality, or own up to it, or use their awareness of it in any way–puts me right off any story I’m trying to get into. I don’t see this trope repeated with male characters, though. Guys are always super-aware of their attractiveness in stories, and have no issue using it to any ends.

  3. m.
    Posted April 4, 2011 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

    Here’s an article called “YA Fatphobia” that also discusses Will Grayson, Will Grayson but with an ultimately more negative opinion: http://www.hbook.com/magazine/articles/2011/jan11_nolfi.asp

    I think it’s interesting that most of the examples in that article, though, are comments made by the other characters. It doesn’t discuss what you point out, that many of these fatphobic thoughts or comments are fairly realistic and that taking them out would make the story less believable.

    • Posted April 5, 2011 at 4:18 am | Permalink

      Here’s my reaction post to the HBM article; we had some interesting discussion.

      • TR
        Posted April 5, 2011 at 9:16 am | Permalink

        Thanks for linking to that discussion! I swear, I thought it was you who recommended Will Grayson, Will Grason in the first place. This is going to bug me until I figure it out.

    • TR
      Posted April 5, 2011 at 9:21 am | Permalink

      Having read Will Grayson, Will Grayson first and having now read the article, man, I don’t agree with the summation at all.

      The people in his life are certainly unable to forget his weight.

      I don’t think that’s true – it’s his SIZE that figures in so prominently, rather than his weight, because his size is so fundamentally a part of interacting with him. And, frankly, I think that’s okay. I don’t think anyone should FORGET my body, you know? It is here, it takes up space. I don’t think fat acceptance in books means not acknowledging that the body shapes experience, you know?

      His fat is a quirk, a flaw, a metaphor for nurturance and hunger for love and attention.

      Oh, man, I could not disagree with that reading more! *laugh* I don’t think Tiny’s size is intended as a platform for moralizing (the article author says it seems to exist as a way to say that teenagers are cruel and Tiny is strong)- I think it’s both simpler and more complex than that. Because Tiny doesn’t stand for anything simple – he IS obnoxious even as he is wonderful. It’s representation without trying to be a singular representation; he’s a fat guy, he’s not ALL fat guys.

  4. Sarah
    Posted April 4, 2011 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    I love this book and love John Green. One of my favorite YA authors and I would definitely recommend his other books too. But in all of his books (I’m actually not sure if he wrote the more troubling line in Will Grayson, will grayson) there are always one or two little digs at fat people that I and I think the books could do without. It has always been a bit disappointing to me, and a bit of a shock to come across those lines. But at the same time the quality of his writing and story-telling cannot be denied. Evidence of the pervasiveness of the fat fear/hate message, even among intelligent, sensitive and thoughtful people?

    • TR
      Posted April 5, 2011 at 9:22 am | Permalink

      I read Paper Towns on the second leg of my flight and finished the last little bit of it yesterday – and there IS a bit of digging in there, isn’t there? On the one hand, Margo is presented as curvy. On the other hand, Lacey gives her shit over it in really subtle and destructive ways.

  5. Christie
    Posted April 4, 2011 at 10:39 pm | Permalink

    I have a love-hate relationship with WGWG. I couldn’t put it down, but once I’d finished and started reflecting on it, the less I liked it for the reasons you mentioned.

    The Horn Book Magazine just published an article on fatphobia/FA in YA lit in its January/February issue, and WGWG was actually on the author’s list of “fatphobic” titles. I think it’s really interesting to compare the two perspectives, and I was thrilled to see that the YA community is starting to consider FA. Here’s a link to the full text, if anyone’s interested:

    http://www.hbook.com/magazine/articles/2011/jan11_nolfi.asp

    • TR
      Posted April 5, 2011 at 9:25 am | Permalink

      I think the tension I have with it just kind of makes me want to dig back into it and read it again – I really want Tiny Dancer to be a production I can go see, you know? The portrait of Tiny and Will’s friendship there makes me all hopeful for the future.

      Because I am a sap.

      Someone else linked to that article – I’ve posted a response upthread, basically saying I almost entirely disagree with their reading. I’m glad the YA community is considering the issue (I know a few YA authors take it very seriously and I know I’ve reviewed a few books here) but I think the article author wants something different from me – I don’t mind that other people see Tiny’s size. I don’t want fat bodies to be unseen. SEE MY BODY and acknowledge it without judgement.

  6. elly
    Posted April 5, 2011 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    i think you should write the author(s) and let them know what you’re thinking. it may be self-loathing leaking into the book, it may be fatphobia, but i think you should send this to them!

    • TR
      Posted April 5, 2011 at 9:26 am | Permalink

      I’ve tweeted it at John Green. But I’ll see if I can find contact info otherwise for them both.

  7. Ashbet
    Posted April 5, 2011 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    I’m bummed that the Shapely Prose discussion of kids’ and YA books is closed, because I have a couple of recommendations to add (these were picture books that we read to Bean, and both Lucy and I noticed the explicitly fat-positive messages in them):

    http://www.amazon.com/Full-Love-Trish-Cooke/dp/0763638838/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1302021555&sr=8-1

    http://www.amazon.com/So-Much-Trish-Cooke/dp/0763640913/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpi_1

    (I haven’t read “So Much,” but Lucy said that it was just as fat-pos as “Full, Full, Full of Love,” so I’m taking her word for it.)

    You’re really making me want to pick up “Will Grayson, Will Grayson,” between the inclusions of fatness and queerness in a YA context!

  8. Abbe
    Posted April 6, 2011 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t read this one yet but I love love love John Green (and his brother Hank.) If you are not yet a nerdfighter I highly recommend checking out the Vlog Brothers YouTube channel.
    http://www.youtube.com/user/vlogbrothers

  9. rightingteacher
    Posted April 6, 2011 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

    I just finished David Levithan’s The Lover’s Dictionary yesterday (started AND finished, actually…it’s unputdownable)and there was a disappointing moment of fat hatred in that book, too, that snatched me out of an otherwise thoroughly engaging and weepy-making text. I found him on Facebook to say something about it, but I haven’t gotten to it yet…

  10. Jackie
    Posted April 6, 2011 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

    Am I the only one who reqd Tiny Cooper, and thought of a cute chibi Alice Cooper?

  11. Emily H.
    Posted April 9, 2011 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

    I had mixed feelings about That Line. (Generally, I liked the book very much). It’s one of those things that jolts you out of the story with its nastiness, it’s true.

    …And it’s also very much what depression can look like in a teenage boy.

    Lower-case will grayson was painful for me to read because I once knew someone very much like him. And what that guy and will grayson had in common was how they turned their own self-hatred out at nearly everything else in the world; they hated the usual suspects and the easy targets because they hated themselves. That’s not to say it’s right. And that’s not to say that depression is an excuse for treating people like crap. I just think it’s not necessarily a line that’s being presented at face value.

    (That said, ugh, I’m so disappointed to hear there’s fat negativity in The Lovers’ Dictionary. I am a David Levithan fan, but!)

    • rightingteacher
      Posted April 11, 2011 at 7:15 am | Permalink

      @Emily H: it’s literally one half of one page in the book. So, it could be worse, but it was still disappointing.

  12. Posted May 21, 2011 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    I waffle a bit on how to deal with the way Fat is handled in WG, WG – I taught it in a semester this fall when we also read a bit of Marilyn Wann, and watched “Huge” – and no one seemed to be able to say “Fatphobic” or “fat positive” 100%. That said, I LOVE WG,WG – love it to pieces. I do think some of will grayson’s nastier remarks are less a reflection of authorial attitudes than part of the character, who really does have a large stock of bitterness and snark and anger and hurt that he unleashes all over the place.
    For me, two things stand out as most important about WG, WG:
    1) the book is about Tiny Cooper. the two WGs may narrate and get the title, but this book places Tiny Cooper at its heart, and in a good way. Tiny has flaws – huge ones, to go along with everything else in his life (Tiny lives life in a big way, I think), but Tiny is also awesome, and does great things for both WGs. And because of the way the book is structured, we always have Tiny Cooper in our sights; we never really look away from him. So I think this book is all about Tiny Cooper – he’s our hero. And he’s Fat, and Gay, and Fabulous – and that’s awesome.

    2) This is a book that is emotional and touchy-feeling and about boys’ friendships. It’s very much like a “girly” YA novel about friends and boyfriends and the school play – especially in the way that it delves into questions of emotion and feelings and friendships changing – BUT it is also undeniably a “boy” book. And YA lit has the extremely unfortunate tendency to be very highly gendered, and so it matters that there is a Boy Book that is seriously and intelligently and movingly dealing with teenage male emotions in a very real way.

    I also think that a lot of people generally don’t think about, don’t know about, have never considered, Fat politics and fatphobia and Fat acceptance – and that we need to keep pointing it out and making it visible.
    I do appreciate that WG, WG – for all its small moments of fatphobia – is trying hard to engage with and support difference (in lots of forms, but obviously Tiny’s hugeness is one important one). This is more than I can say of a lot of YA fiction, which keep the “throwaway” fatphobic lines and never do anything to counter them.

    I freely admit my enormous writer-crush on John Green may be blurring my judgment here.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

*
*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>