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Bad Boy by Elliot Wake

First published by Atria on December 6, 2016; published in paperback by Atria on August 22, 2017

Bad Boy is a twist on the “oppressed women get revenge against abusive men” school of fiction that has recently become popular. The twist is that the key characters are part of the LGBT community.

Bad Boy begins with Ren’s video journal (without the video). Ren is 19, a young woman who feels like a little boy. She’s starting to take testosterone. She is profoundly sad and feels a strong need to change her sexual identity. She isn’t confident that she is making the right change, but she is certain she cannot make her life worse.

Soon we’re in the present as Ren and her crew engage in "justice porn," trolling the trolls in search of vengeance. Ren is the muscle. Ellis is the tech genius. Blyth is the charmer. Laney is the leader. Armin, who owns the club where they hang out, is the profiler. Together, they are Black Iris.

Ren still vlogs and has achieved a certain YouTube fame, but she’s still not happy, largely because she still feels like an outsider who isn’t accepted by the larger world. One meaning of the book’s title is that Ren fears she’s bad at being a boy. But Ren also has a self-destructive streak that her friends recognize and that she can’t acknowledge.

Ren experiences a series of revelations — not everyone who loves her as a girl will also love her as a boy; you can’t change who you are on the outside without changing who you are on the inside — that make this a sort of transgender coming of age novel. It’s more that than the revenge novel it starts out to be, but the nature of the personal drama will probably be more meaningful to readers who relate to it.

The themes of “men exist only to hurt women” and “straight men are toxic” become a bit heavy-handed at times. There is, in fact, a fair amount of sexist stereotyping of men throughout the novel, but perhaps that’s fair payback for all the sexist stereotyping of women for which men are responsible. And the book is fair to the extent that it acknowledges that (some) women use men, although not necessarily in the same ways that (some) men use women. It also recognizes that some people, regardless of gender or sexual identity, make false accusations of sexual abuse and that the victims of false accusations suffer nearly as much as the victims of abuse.

Unlike some “women get revenge” books, the characters in this one at least think about whether vengeance makes the world better or worse. Some characters recognize that women are more likely to be protected by empowerment than vengeance — and that vengeance and empowerment are two different things — a point that less thoughtful novels never consider. And as the novel expressly notes, people of every gender and gender identity are oppressed and victimized for a variety of reasons.

Ren is filled with rage and, at least initially, doesn’t want to hear those messages — she just wants to hurt men — raising the point that the oppressed, once empowered, often become oppressors. At the same time, she wants to hurt herself, to rid herself of the empathy induced by estrogen so she can wallow in the violence induced by testosterone. One of the novel’s strongest points is that no gender has it easy, although transgenders have a rougher time than most.

The novel’s weakest point is the plot, which requires Ren to figure out who is a friend and who is a foe. The revenge plot eventually focuses on a fellow named Adam who hurt Ren when she was younger and (she believes) has found a new way to hurt her. The plot is only advanced intermittently. Most of the story involves relationship anxiety that, after a time, becomes a bit wearing.

Quite a bit of Bad Boy reads like a soap opera (jealousy among current and former lovers, former lovers trying to remain friends, etc.), albeit a soap opera geared to the particular relationship difficulties that arise in the LGBT community. Ren is a bundle of woes and hurts and anxieties that become a bit oppressive as the novel unfolds. I’m not a soap opera fan and those aspects of the book would have worked better for me if they had been toned down. Other readers might think they are the best part of the story.

So, a mixed review. The story is insightful but unfocused. And as I suggested, the novel might be more meaningful to readers who are part of the world it describes.


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