Review: Will Grayson, Will Grayson

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

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In August, Marie Rutkoski, the author of next year’s The Winner’s Curse, posited that the reason adults read young adult fiction is that young adult fiction is necessarily fiction of change. “[R]eaders are drawn to stories about first experiences, and YA literature is rich with it,” she says at io9. Reading, as I’ve mentioned to Ana, gives us access to extra lives and lives that we cannot live, and what’s more inaccessible than first experiences? It’s the reason I cherish picking up a story without any spoilers, so my first experience with a text is entirely mine. I think there are more reasons for reading young adult fiction, but Rutkoski’s point is very true.

Through that lens, I’m not entirely sure what to do with Will Grayson, Will Grayson. In an interview collected at the end of my edition, David Levithan talks about how he was very deliberate in making the lowercase Will Grayson in medias res. “I wanted my will to be very much in the middle of things, because I don’t feel there are enough books written about teens caught in the middle of things,” he writes. The lowercase Will has already accepted that he’s gay, is moving towards being over that his dad left, and is living with depression. Given how necessary representation is, I really respect that Levithan specifically set out to show someone living with all of that, showing the next step instead of the first step.

But what is actually going on with the lowercase Will—realizing that people can help, even if they don’t understand—doesn’t feel like enough. There’s nothing wrong with a flat character; the interesting thing about The Coldest Girl in Coldtown’s Tana isn’t that she changes a great deal over the course of the novel, but that the world is throwing all of these awful things at this really engaging character who is determined to survive. But no such forces are at work in Will Grayson, Will Grayson. Levithan’s lowercase Will is struggling to connect with other human beings, which improves once he meets Green’s uppercase Will, who is struggling with his place in his best friend’s life. Identity, as the authors say in this article in the San Francisco Chronicle, is one of the main themes of the novel. And that is hugely important.

But it doesn’t come across as such in the novel. Uppercase Will actually has several rules about not talking and not caring in order to protect himself, which he must break when he meets Jane, a friend of a friend. This leads to him finally accepting that he loves his best friend, the loud, flamboyant, and plus-sized Tiny Cooper, more than anyone else in the world in a platonic way. (The fact that Will places platonic friendship above romance makes my heart soar.) It’s an important, emotional arc where Will realizes his place in the universe, but it still feels so small to me. Obviously, every person is different, and not every teenager’s reaction will ring true to the self-created melodrama that was my own adolescence. But these are important moments in these kids’ lives, and they float away so easily.

Ultimately, I think how Will Grayson, Will Grayson was written is the reason I don’t care for it. It’s the rare novel that can get away with having a loose structure, and that’s usually because its other elements are so good. The novel was written back and forth between the two authors, who started from a concept based on Levithan’s college experience of being confused for his friend David Leventhal. They then wrote three chapters for their own Wills and then started passing chapters back and forth. I imagine it was a really fun process for them, but it does give the novel an amorphous feel. After the first third of the novel, which includes an absolutely genius betrayal of the lowercase Will, it starts to feel like events happen because Tiny Cooper, the most powerful personality in the book, has deemed it so, instead of either Will making a decision for themselves. And since Tiny is a fickle and impulsive character, those decisions feel arbitrary. And the novel’s climax, which takes place at a performance of Tiny Dancer: The Tiny Cooper Story, comes out of nowhere. Levithan and Green undoubtedly went back to firm up the novel after their first pass, but it just doesn’t feel like it.

I kinda feel bad about not liking Will Grayson, Will Grayson, as both a queer feminist always ready to champion a good slice of representation and as someone slowly inching her way towards John Green. This is his second strike-out for me, after his short story “Freak the Geek” in Geektastic. Readers, I beg of you: which John Green novel will disabuse me of the notion that I don’t care for him? I’ve got The Fault in Our Stars on my list, but do you think any of his other novels are better? I’d like to give him one last chance before I put his books down for a good long while.

Bottom line: A story about identity falls flat in the face of its amorphous structure and arbitrary plotting. Eh.

I was given this book as a gift.

7 thoughts on “Review: Will Grayson, Will Grayson

  1. This is by far my least favourite thing he’s written (which I feel kind of bad about as well), so I’d say try anything else before giving up! My personal favourite is Paper Towns, though I’d perhaps say that TFiOS is more accomplished. And I know Renay favours Katherines, which is wonderful and really underappreciated.

    (Strangely enough I don’t remember “Freak the Geek” at all, but maybe that’s because whenever I think of that anthology I go into paroxysms of rage over “The Truth About Dino Girl”.)

  2. Pingback: “We’re all misf… | Gap Year Goddess at Work

  3. Personally, I favor Looking for Alaska, because there’s a freshness and rawness in it that I found lacking in his later books (which struck me as. . .too self-conscious?), although Paper Towns and The Fault in Our Stars are pretty good, too. They just don’t hit me in that emotional place as much.

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  6. Pingback: Review: The Fault in Our Stars | The Literary Omnivore

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