#470 Gender, manga, and teen idiom
January 22nd, 2019
by Keith Maillard
Calgary: Freehand Books, 2018
$24.95 / 9781988298313
Reviewed by Theo Dombrowski
We can never say what spark lies behind the gestation of a novel — a character, an incident, a storyline, perhaps a social or political issue. Some novels read as if they sprang from a concept or series of concepts. That is very much the case with Twin Studies, the latest from Vancouver-based novelist Keith Maillard.
The title, of course, creates expectations. And to a large extent those expectations are met: the novel does reveal a lot about twins, and, to boot, about what “studies” have revealed about their behaviour and psychology. Strategically, too, Maillard has made one of the two chief characters, Erica Bauer, a university researcher, herself a twin, working on a “study” of twins. Assigning her this role, the author has been able easily and credibly to pull into the story two other sets of (teenaged) twins whom she comes to know: the first, (important for the plot), believe themselves to be identical — in spite of their different biological sex — and the second, slightly older girls, are their friends.
Twins, and particularly identical twins, in most cultures have been an intriguing and popular subject — as, indeed one of the novel’s epigraphs reminds us: “Twin and twinlike relationships are valued and admired by nearly everyone, most of all by those lucky enough to have them.” Time and again, through their story, we are reminded of the extraordinary connection and bond between twins.
Consider: when Jamie and Devon, our chief twin protagonists, meet after a brief separation, Maillard writes, “Their eyes locked, and Karen [their mother] saw energy flare between them so intensely it seemed to change the light in the room.” We are reminded repeatedly “singletons can’t even begin to conceive of the twinship bond.” Upon reflecting on the death of her twin sister, Erica says, “I don’t expect anyone to understand this except for a twin — a twin would understand this. I didn’t know who was dead, her or me–.” Readers who are “singletons” will, of course, have to take such statements on faith, and, if they are willing, feel privileged to breath the rarefied air of planet twin.
Wedded to the topic of twins is another, even more currently high-octane topic, namely gender identity. Indeed, in one way or another, Keith Maillard creates characters who experience or embody something of the whole LGBTQ cluster, along with gender fluidity, non-binary gender identity, and so on. It has to be said, though, as Maillard points out in the End Note, the novel is explicitly set in 2009 (the date established by references to the BP oil spill), when the social position of LGBTQ issues wasn’t quite what it is now. This is not the first time that the author has approached the topic of the gender roads less travelled. Maillard’s extraordinary Two Strand River, written early in the evolution of discussions around gender identity (1976), produced strong reactions, but also made its way into both high school and university courses.
A third, unusual, narrative element of the novel will need, for some readers, a little explanation. A vehicle by which Maillard chooses to explore the nature of identical twins, and untraditional sexuality and gender, is, a little oddly, through the world of manga. Yes, manga. Some adult readers will need reminding that manga, though respected and traditional in Japan, is here popularly most associated with cartoonish graphic novels for teens. (Anime, they will need reminding, is the animated parallel.)
Significant for this novel is the related fact that, unlike most graphic novels, manga can appeal especially to girls. Think: out-sized dewy eyes, tiny noses, heavily stylized hair and clothes, and postured body positions. Those who know about such things will want also to know that researching the book led to the author’s reading “two hundred tankóbon, mostly shójo,” as well as consulting an expert on “old-school shójo,” in the process of creating the “Mangaka, Kaneshiro Mitsuko.” While this information may leave some of us none the wiser, it is a good reminder that, as always, Maillard works hard on getting it right.
In using manga so extensively, the author takes some significant risks. It is true that the astoundingly intricate details of things-manga reflect the teenaged characters’ avid enthusiasm. In this way, therefore, manga fits. Still, readers get a lot of detail. Some will be fascinated with the constellations of manga style and narrative. Those, however, who find it difficult to take Japanese teen pop culture very seriously, might glaze over a little at the intense psychodrama in the manga-thick sections of the novel.
Add to these three ingredients another possibly magnetic element, the setting of the novel amongst the rich and beautiful people of West Vancouver. Along with everything else, the narrative is heightened with apparently loving descriptions of high concept fashion, edgy and elegant house décor, and the finest of fine dining. This is not to say that the novel is lightweight, either in timbre or substance. On the contrary, this is very much a serious novel, deftly and stylishly managed, with varied and cleverly conceived narrative techniques and, equally important, dark elements that one would expect to find in a challenging novel — violent and traumatizing death, bullying, ptsd, and psychological breakdown.
One other feature of the novel’s timbre will stand out for some readers — namely, the fact the novel draws a lot of its energy from the “female” experience. Not only do female characters and interests dominate, but also neither of the chief males pulls the novel back towards the conventional “male” direction — one, Bryan, is bisexual and the other, Karen’s (biological) son is non-binary. Perhaps irrelevantly, but strikingly, the conventional male characters generally don’t come off well. This is particularly the case when they parade stereotypical — or, possibly, typical — “male” behaviour. When Drew, Karen’s current partner meets Bryan, father of the identical twins, “Drew flipped instantly … into his role as Man of the House, the CEO of the whole works — [he] leapt to his feet, and the two men went straight for each other, hands outstretched, each pronouncing his own name as if it was a magical incantation” (p. 154). Such “male” behaviour is shrewdly observed — and funny — but not, at times, very far from satire.
Perhaps ironically, one of the chief appeals of the novel for many readers will not be its many extraordinary or unconventional elements, but the very opposite. As a novel about, amongst other things, the snap and crackle in communications and interactions between teens and their mother (particularly the fraternal twins and their mother, Karen) this novel is a joy. As often hilarious as it is surprising or, on occasion, moving, the novel captures the wonderful teenage ability to exasperate and enchant a parent who struggles to react maturely to the curve balls thrown by teenagers who are, at turns, impetuous, ingenuous, devious, flamboyant, withdrawn, affectionate, dramatizing, or bristling, within seconds either planning their own suicide or designing costumes.
Related to this pleasure of the novel is the even greater pleasure of seeing much of this behaviour through the eyes of the two main adult characters, one, Erica, the researcher in “twin studies,” the other, Karen, more dominant and more engaging. Not unlike many an Atwood protagonist, Karen filters the most colourful and theatrical behaviour of the teens (and, too, other adults) with acidulated humour and colloquially brutal sarcasm. Typically, she mutters at one point, “How had she ended up with this wacko lady in her shower?” and at another groans, “Everything normal was pretty much shot to hell.”
Clearly, Maillard likes colloquial language, both its expressive pungency and its delicious banality. The pleasures of Karen’s trenchant turns of phrase are paralleled by the distinctive speech patterns of others. An ER doctor (apparently Romanian) does a star turn with broken English and Bryan, the bumptious Australian male, whose favourite word is “Owright,” says things like, “he reckoned the girls might not mind a bite. No. He wasn’t much of a bloke for the vino.” It is the teens, though, whose teen-idiom is most pervasive. A reader who is not prepared to be delighted by the author’s mimicking of teen babble will find chunks of the narrative heavy sailing “She’s like – oops — He’s like, no way, absolutely, fuck you, no way. Sorry, Mom, that’s a direct quote –.” “Chill, Mom, happy ending time. Like ten minutes later he’s texting me back again. Changed his mind, ha ha, Mom can read them. Phew, right? Whatever” (p. 518).
Indeed, by creating a protagonist like Karen as a commentator, Maillard is able to write about things some might find sentimental, sensationalistic, or (for rationally skeptical readers) a little hard to swallow, while simultaneously undercutting them or grounding them with wry deflation. One suspects, in fact, that there is a bit of strategy here. After all, with Karen there to give a tough (and often funny) edge to the most outlandish assertions, Maillard is able to spin a fine web of flakey talk — about, for example, the application of quantum physics to psychic identity, or the mysteries of MZ (monozygotic=identical) twin psychology, and yet not have to take responsibility for it. The author seems to enjoy teasing out some unlikely ideas but, nimbly, to avoid seeming credulous. The result is a heady mix of the preposterous — and the opposite.
All of these narrative elements are far from static. On the contrary, the author drives the novel forward with good stories. Though several storylines intersect through the novel, two of them are, roughly, love stories involving Karen. And, true to the engaging pattern made so effective by Jane Austen, both her relationships begin with hostility. When Erica, the researcher, appears at Karen’s house in a bad state, Karen steps aboard a roller coaster ride of emotional loops and near crashes. Also blustering his way into the picture is Bryan, divorced father of the second set of twins. As Karen’s electric attraction to Erica develops so, too, does the (reciprocated) attraction between Karen and Bryan. Complications ensue.
Intersecting with the love stories is the story of the devastating effects on Erica of the accidental death of her identical twin sister. The story of her increasingly troubled psychological collapse, followed by her attempt to gain redemption (not too strong a word) may remind some readers of a similar storyline in Atwood’s Surfacing.
The fourth main narrative line is driven by the fact that Karen’s non-identical twins, Devon and Jamie, are imperilled. From the beginning, Maillard infuses the novel with the threat surrounding them and keeps the whole novel held taut by this threat — no less unsettling because the threat partly comes from within. Disturbingly, they promise, with quiet determination, to commit suicide if separated. Thus, the machinations of the twins’ father, living in distant California, to take control of Devon, the (biologically) male twin give a dark narrative tension to the whole novel.
The resolutions of all of these storylines are achieved with lots of narrative brio, the kind that employs deceptions, revelations, confrontations, and sudden changes of heart. And while not exactly tidy in its conclusion, the novel leaves strings more or less tied off. Those who like a satisfying conclusion to their novels will be properly satisfied.
As for the main issue of the novel, probably not, in spite of the title, twins but, rather, gender, Maillard’s approach is mostly light and deft. More than one reader is likely to raise an eyebrow at the unlikely convergence of characters who have inclined towards or embraced feelings that are L, G, B, T, or Q. Strikingly, apart from a few moments of awkwardness or fear of social stigmatization, the characters are comfortable to the point of breeziness with their own and each other’s orientation.
As a novel (it seems) with the mission of normalizing and humanizing such marginalized groups, this one chooses to avoid some common methods of other writers and screen writers. Persecution, guilt, anxiety, humiliation, common to fictional treatments of sexual orientation and gender identity, are mostly (but not fully) absent from these characters’ lives. Some readers might feel that the relatively blithe chipperness is a function of the elevated world of (explicitly) liberal, wealthy West Vancouver parents. Still, as far as it goes, the novel achieves its apparent mission with unabashed aplomb.
Tellingly, the novel ends almost comically with a surprise visit from Karen’s relatively conservative parents, wading as they do into a scene where they stand to be shocked, amongst other things by seeing that their grandson Devon waxes his legs and paints his toenails pink. At first horrified by their arrival, Karen considers for a few seconds, emotionally plants her feet well apart, and tells her herself: “Karen … you are not in charge of all this.” Her wry calm, after her struggles to make things right — both in her own dizzying relationships and in the lives of her wildly unpredictable children — seems an apt conclusion.
Born on Vancouver Island, Theo Dombrowski grew up in Port Alberni and studied at the University of Victoria and later in Nova Scotia and London, England. With a doctorate in English literature, he returned to teach at Royal Roads, the University of Victoria, and finally at Lester Pearson College at Metchosin. He also studied painting and drawing at the Banff School of Fine Arts and at UVic. Theo is the author and illustrator of popular guide, travel, and hiking books including Secret Beaches of the Salish Sea (Heritage House, 2012), Seaside Walks of Vancouver Island (Rocky Mountain Books, 2016), and Family Walks and Hikes of Vancouver Island — Volume 1: Victoria to Nanaimo, and Volume 2: Nanaimo North to Strathcona Park (Rocky Mountain Books, both published in 2018). Theo Dombrowski lives at Nanoose Bay.
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