I loved this one! Six stars! This novel really spoke to my condition, so YMMV, but I will tell you why I liked it. I will let you live vicariously through my reading experience. As soon as I saw that Refuse was about a depressed young man who is transgender and obsessed with Morrissey, I knew that I had to read it. But terrific subject matter does not neccessarily make a terrific self-published novel, so I was also very apprehensive about this book. Clearly before I even cracked the cover I had already endured a veritable roller coaster of emotions. My girlfriend saw the book and commented, “Oh look, you bought another book you don’t even want to read.” I assured her this one was different. Then I read the first few pages and I was enchanted. These opening pages were about how when the main character was a child, he had a speech impediment and couldn’t pronounce his own original name; the best he could come up with was “Yahweh.” I didn’t have time to read the book right away, so I found myself actually looking forward to an upcoming grueling trip when I planned to read it. However, apparently I couldn’t wait that long because I ended up waking up at 5am and tearing through the whole thing.
It’s a very interior kind of story, very up in the characters’ heads, but a lot happens in Refuse. I found it to be very nuanced and multi-layered, but at the same time accessible and straightforward. I got a definite feeling of the writer spitting in the eye of convention, but this is not some experimental gibberish that is hard work to read. It flows and has a simple narrative even while it defies certain expectations of what’s supposed to happen in a novel and especially in a bildungsroman. This would make more sense if I gave an example, I guess. Okay, Refuse tosses aside the rules about “show don’t tell,” and it works. In an early scene, the main character—shy and melancholy Dean—discovers someone knocking on his door, an outgoing guitarist named Colin Mahr who is also transgender like Dean. They talk and are kind of testing each other out, and when Dean asks Colin to name a band that inspires him, Colin gives the answer he thinks will impress Dean, and it works. So I read that and I thought, oh, this is just like how Morrissey and Johnny Marr met, how fun. I figured that was just kind of an “easter egg,” and obviously that similarity won’t be referred to because that would lack subtlety. But then the narrator, who is Dean but in the first person in the present, explains it to you about ten pages later. And somehow that makes it even better. It sort of reminds me of the narrators of Victorian novels, who explain and even moralize at you; it’s the same kind of direct but not simple approach. Dean also tells us early on, “Close-read all you want, you philistines. Do a close-reading of this sentence. How did that go? I hate you.”
What else did I like about this book? It’s witty, made me smile. I loved the main character Dean; he’s such a delicate petal. I liked how he was from the provincial North like Morrissey but in this case the North is Syracuse. Dean has very poor theory of mind in terms of empathizing with other people and seeing that it might make them feel bad if he says incredibly harsh things to them. His own pain mostly blinds him to the less-rarified feelings of others. But the writer is deeply aware of Dean’s flaws and presents Dean’s at-times controversial viewpoints tenderly so that I always felt sympathetic to Dean instead of annoyed. Did I say “deeply aware”? This story is nothing but stratum after stratum of self-awareness.
One big thing that this book was about was self-loathing/internalized transphobia. The easy out would have been if Dean had some big revelation and decided to accept himself and then he became happy, but essentially that never happened. (That’s not a spoiler, is it? Is it?) I thought it was really brave and awesome to have a character mostly just go on hating himself and being miserable. But hard, it was hard to watch this lovable character suffer and not get to have a perfect ending all wrapped up with a bow. I’m only realizing now that I was sort of warned (in a Mill On The Floss “That girl will drown someday” kind of way) when Dean describes a book he read as a child where the dog hero dies at the end and how cruel that was. (I’m NOT saying anyone drowns or dies at the end of Refuse, only that it is artistically good but humanly cruel not to give your characters happiness, and I was duly warned.)
Anyway, all this self-loathing was very thought-provoking. It made me think about when I was a teenager and all the other girls were constantly whining about how they were fat, but I never did because I was a feminist and I thought it was all BS. But the result was, all the other girls got to have their friends coo over them and tell them that no they weren’t really fat, while I had the same horrible thoughts in my head that they did but because I never spoke them aloud I never got all the nice cooing and reassurance. So really I was punished for being too highly evolved. And it is nice to express self-hatred if that is what we unfortunately feel and read about self-hatred, even when we know better and we know that we are all wonderful. And in this world there truly are people whose lives don’t get better and they stay depressed always so it’s sort of affirming to see that in a book instead of having everything be all inspirational. Inconsolably sad people, your life is validated in this book! And it makes me think there is more to life than YA books because pretty much you CAN’T have a self-loathing person whose life doesn’t get that much better in a YA novel. And in all my other reviews of books with transgender characters I always say that no one should come away from such a book feeling alienated or worse about themselves, which I imagine could potentially happen with this book although it didn’t to me. But those other books were all YA, and none of those rules apply here. So it makes me think I should widen my mind and read more contemporary literary fiction like this one instead of mostly YA, even though contemporary literary fiction is generally shitty and YA reliably rings all the cherries. BTW, because I heard about this book on Lee Wind’s I’m Here, I’m Queer, What The Hell Do I Read blog, I thought it might be YA because that’s what the blog is nominally about. So I was excited by the possibility that this book was the literary equivalent of a golden winged mer-unicorn, ie a YA novel with a transgender character or themes written by a person who is transgender. But, no.
I really liked all the Morrissey/The Smiths references and quotations (usually embedded into the dialogue or description so that I expect you won’t notice them if you don’t already know them.) I don’t think there’s any requirement to be a Morrissey fan to like this book, but it just makes it that much better. Probably even the Moz-haters will get a little frisson of “Hah, just as I always suspected, these fans are crazy freaks,” so really this book is for everyone. As it turned out, the day I read this novel was a not-great Morrissey news day, so I was glad to have bracing reading material.
While I was reading this book, I kept thinking about the Enneagram, which is a personality typing system with 9 types of personalities that is a constant topic of conversation in my house because my girlfriend is really big into it. You may say that the whole idea of labeling personalities is inherently dumb and of course there are more than nine kinds of people, and I can’t argue with you, but it can be a nice heuristic for viewing the world and understanding people who are different from yourself. Anyway, I just kept thinking “Dean is a Four! Dean is such a Four! Dean is a foury Four!” The Fours’ central wish is for someone to see them for who they really are, but they also don’t want you to look at them. They are all about identity, depth, and introspection, and they can get so wrapped up in their own emotions that they are basically living in a fantasy world and never actually do anything in the real world. They tend to be withdrawn, over-identified with their own feelings, and envious of others, and have a tough time just being themselves. But their saving grace is that they can be unspeakably creative, self-aware, emotionally authentic, sensitive, self-expressive and they find meaning everywhere. I think Dean is a Four with a Five wing, unlike Morrissey, the world’s Fouriest Four, who has a Three wing. Anyway, if you are interested in the Enneagram or enjoy reading about characters like that, this book will be like crack for you.
In conclusion, this book pleases me more than anything I’ve been reading lately (except my brother’s new novel but I am only up to chapter 9 in that.) I can’t stop thinking about Refuse. I also liked the cover. I think if I had seen the cover without any description of what the book was about, I would basically get the idea. I’m looking forward to re-reading it already. I feel a certain willingness to read any fiction this guy will ever write. This book has inspired me to the greatest heights of word count and incoherence ever in my Goodreads reviews. The only other book that this reminds me of a little is (You) Set Me on Fire by Mariko Tamaki. (Forget what I said about The Mill on the Floss, that was silly.) Oh yeah, did I mention that this novel has a love story in it? It looks like I didn’t describe the plot at all, which is the whole point of reviews. Oh well.
Were there things I didn’t like? But of course. The interior book design was atrocious; I did not like the way it was laid out at all, and the formatting was inconsistent and there were plenty of typos. This makes me sad. Does a pastry chef create an incredibly delicious dessert only to smush it all over the plate in a haphazard way? I also had a tiny credibility problem with the ending. Dean refuses something that I don’t think anyone could. (I’m not talking about the graveyard scene, I mean the conversation at the end.) Even if the offer made to Dean would lead to ruin and he knew it, I still don’t see how he could possibly say no.
When I tried to look this book up on Goodreads by title and author, and then by author, I came up with nothing. I finally had to enter the ISBN. It turns out the problem is that I cannot spell the name “Elliott” with the correct number of T’s. But if it’s true that there’s no great loss without some small gain, then now that Goodreads has been taken over by the evil empire Amazon, why can’t Goodreads have superior searchability like Amazon has? I should be allowed to be one letter off and still find the book. Speaking of Amazon, why don’t you buy this book directly from the author’s website so he gets all the money? http://elliottdeline.tumblr.com/Books
Unless you truly cannot afford the $2 price difference or whatever it is.