What Happened to Lani Garver?
by Carol Plum-Ucci
2004 (originally 2002) • 314 pages • Harcourt
Jared Leto’s Oscar win for his role as Rayon in The Dallas Buyers’ Club was an ugly cap to a season of measured, indignant discussion about Rayon’s status as a Magical Queer who dies tragically after inspiring the straight hero to greatness and the choice to have a cisgendered man play a transgendered woman. Rayon manages to hit every stereotype about transgendered women almost casually, from Leto refusing to even identify her as such (he only refers to trans folk as “the Rayons of the world” in his acceptance speech) to the information that Rayon was a completely invented character.
When I started What Happened to Lani Garver?, I was afraid that it might fall into Magical Queer territory. The cover copy, which ends by questioning Lani’s gender, is not encouraging, and Claire, our protagonist, spends the first chapter wondering whether or not it would have changed things if she’d known what Lani was. But, as the novel continues, Claire is not talking about Lani’s gender—she’s talking about whether or not Lani was a floating angel, It would soothe her soul to know, given that Lani’s body has never surfaced after the two of them were almost drowned at the hands of the popular boys of Hackett, the tiny, backwards island off the coast of Pennsylvania they inhabit.
That description may sound like Carol Plum-Ucci is explicitly framing Lani as magical, and she is. What Happened to Lani Garver? tries to deconstruct the Magical Queer trope. While Claire, with her limited worldview, sometimes wonders if Lani is playing her gay best friend, Lani identifies as no gender and no sexuality. Lani has a much larger narrative outside out of Claire, having only returned home to Hackett after a year on the street (attending a prestigious arts academy in Philadephia) in order to fulfill the obligations of their father’s will. Claire certainly learns from Lani, whose preternatural grasp of psychology makes people uncomfortable and who isn’t afraid to shove Claire towards the help she needs, but Lani resists. All Lani wants to do is wait it out and get back to his life in Philadelphia. They are not waiting around for a straight cisgendered character to saunter by to inspire; in fact, the climax brutally deflates Lani’s supposed maturity and toughness as they succumb to panic in a life-threatening situation.
But I’m not sure if it completely deconstructs that trope, because, ultimately, the novel is about Claire and her recovery from leukemia—both the physical aspect of it and the emotional aspect of it. It’s not that Claire isn’t a wonderful, complex character. Still reeling from her experience with leukemia, realizing that everyone around her is awful, and brimming an with anger that she has no way to process, she sees everything at a slight distance. She gets overwhelmed; she circles through the problematic (Lani calls it “convenient”) thinking Hackett approves of; and she constantly bargains with God, assuming, at first, that passivity has to count for something in the end. “I had no answers,” Claire admits at one point. “I was only clear on how I’d spent my life being mad at no one, and all of a sudden, I didn’t know who to kill first” (279). But you can tell a text’s politics from its ending, and this ending finds Lani vanished into thin air, like a ghost (or an angel), and Claire with her life enriched.
What Happened to Lani Garver? sticks with you—I do not recommend reading this and then going to see Gone Girl, because the more sensitive among us may end up having a strange night of the soul. (I was fired in my nightmare, with my imaginary boss deciding to punish me by destroying my Mötley Crüe shirt. I woke up in a cold sweat.) The prose ebbs and flows, giving it an ungainly but oddly compelling structure, as Claire surfaces from her problematic thinking in waves and spurts.
The novel should be commended for its attempt to deconstruct the Magical Queer trope, as well as being one of the only young adult novels available that features a significant genderqueer character. But it shouldn’t be taken wholeheartedly, either.
I rented this book from the public library.