I Read It So You Don’t Have To: Ariel Schrag’s “Adam”

May 18, 2016 in inQueery

After finishing my first year of grad school I decided I want to spend my summer reading LGBTQI YA novels because getting lost in fictional teen worlds is one of my most favorite things. I did an LGBTQI YA binge several years as I was settling more into my queer identity. Now, as I am more settled into my trans identity, I wanted to focus this binge on trans and gender themed novels. I did a preliminary Internet search for book suggestions and also used the ever reliable crowdsourcing platform, Facebook, for recommendations.

I ordered a few books, like real paper books, because I felt a strong urge to hold a thing and not stare at a screen. The first one I decided to dive into was Ariel Schrag’s Adam (note: this was not a recommendation from a person I know). I only skimmed the description– a 17-year-old boy stays with his queer sister in Brooklyn during his summer break before his senior year in high school, a coming of age story (I think I thought that he was going to have some kind of queer experience of his own). Well damn, do I wish I had read the description more in depth because I was legitimately shocked and disgusted by how Adam’s story unfolded. It pretty much goes as follows: determined to get a hot girlfriend and lose his virginity so he could brag to his friends and more solidly claim his place in the popular crowd rather than slipping into nerdom, his worst fear, Adam pretends to be trans. Too nervous to venture out on his own, Adam clings to his sister’s social world, meaning he is only exposed to queer folks, meaning finding a girlfriend is essentially impossible. Except everyone assumes he is trans and his desperation and insecurity prevents him from saying otherwise, in fact he embraces it. Adam meets his dream girl (hot redhead who finds his shyness endearing), tells her he is trans, and they fall in love. Adam spends his free time researching trans things on message boards and by watching YouTube videos, so he can accurately play the part. He falls so deep into his web of lies that Schrag, in the third person narration, which is how we get insight into Adam’s mind, describes Adam as feeling trans in his own way, as if trans is some kind of universal identity that cis people are allowed to proclaim.

So terrified of being caught faking trans (because telling the truth brings the risk of losing his first love), Adam adopts the identity of a trans guy who is so uncomfortable with his gender and his body that he never takes his clothes off and no one can question him about it without being seen as transphobic or cissexist. He uses an ACE bandage to “bind” his dick to his stomach so he can hide his uncontrollable erections around his girlfriend—he even gets hard when they cuddle. He uses a strap on, keeping his pants on, when they have sex. This obviously draws parallels to actual trans folks’ experiences with dysphoria, but done in a way that appropriates and exploits trans people and our experiences. I find this especially appalling in a time when anti-transgender bathroom bills are being backed by the idea that trans people are pretending to be the “opposite” gender to take advantage of cis folks, particularly cis women, which is kind of what is happening in this book.

On top of the protagonist, but let’s be real, he’s my antagonist, appropriating a trans narrative, the other trans men, save one, portrayed in the book are represented as misogynistic, hypersexual assholes. Sure, these trans men exist, but they are not the only kind of trans man, so why not show us a broader spectrum? If Schrag wanted to give cis people a look into what it means to be trans in a way that she thinks is accessible to a cis person’s worldview (I don’t know if this is what she was trying to do. I don’t know what she was trying to do at all, to be honest.) why not expose readers to different kinds of trans men? Why are we only being portrayed as one dimensional people who feel the need to conform to cisnormative hypermasculinity? In addition, we are presented with every butch and masculine-of-center woman as initially being described as “ugly.” I am genuinely disappointed by this implicit expectation for all women to adhere to cisnormative and heteronormative standards of beauty in order to be immediately read as being attractive, and this is coming from the author, a queer woman (I think in an attempt to tap into Adam’s 17-year-old cis straight white male upper-middle class privileged mindset).

 
I wanted so badly to throw the book down, rip it apart, burn it, but I also needed closure. I needed to know how it ends, how he tells his girlfriend he is cis, how she reacts and responds. I had to read the last third of the book at the gym during my cardio routine because of the anger that bubbled in me. I needed to immediately dispel it; I couldn’t hold on to it. I was on the NuStep (I swear I’m 29) for 70 minutes finishing the last 40 pages and then writing this. I most regret actually buying the book, speaking of, does anyone need fire kindling for a summer bonfire? Anyway, if it’s not already clear, I strongly recommend everyone NOT to read this book. My masochistic self appreciated the distress, my trans self was enraged. I read it so you don’t have to. You’re welcome.

 

Dane Schnittman is a Guest Contributor at InQueery.   Schnittman is a queer trans man living in Oakland. He is passionate about accessible mental health care for the LGBTQ community, pop culture, comedy, and dapper fashion.