I meant to read David Levithan’s every day over dinner last week, but ended up reading the entire book in one five-hour sitting. Levithan is compelling. He sets up a fascinating problem to explore and he writes so well.
The premise of the novel is that the narrator A wakes up in a different body every day. He has to rapidly assess his host’s family circumstances and navigate each person’s daily life. He manages by accessing memories of all of his hosts, but can only access so far for reasons that are both ethical (surely some memories are private?) and practical (it’s easier to maintain memory of his own identity if he doesn’t delve too far into the identity of another person). While getting to experience all kinds of lives, and garnering a breadth of experiential knowledge well beyond his sixteen years, A feels the absence of a life with relationships based on a shared past and with the potential to develop mutually in the future.
Levithan doesn’t just explore — thoroughly, adeptly, and sympathetically — the difficulties and exhilarations of waking up every day in a new body (how does one adapt to physical or mental suffering, or understand one’s position within a family or group of friends?), he also considers the ethics of taking over someone’s body for the day. Does A have to right to ignore the lives of his hosts in order to pursue his own interests and daily activities? Does he have the right or the responsibility to attempt to make their lives better? (For example, he discovers one of his hosts is planning suicide, and debates whether he ought to tell her father.) Does he have the right to have sex without the true consent of his host, or to pursue relationships, the repercussions of which the host will be left to solve the next day? Levithan considers these problems from nearly every angle, just as he considers how so much of our lives and identities are dependent on the relationships we form. He also explores sensitively and intelligently the different lives that young adults have, and the real problems they encounter. A’s hosts are straight, queer, transgendered, with supportive and unsupportive families. They are paired in close, playful, mutually-loving relationships and in bad, abusive, lonely ones. Among other things, Levithan looks at young people’s experiences of home-schooling, religion, depression, addiction, and other mental illness, traumatic guilt, fraternal happiness, bullying, and menstruation.
My only difficulty with the novel is the way it often skirts around the topic of race. This feels a bit of an omission given that the novel is so much about exploring different aspects of identity. I would have liked to see racial experience accounted for with the same level of nuance with which Levithan explores sexual, economic, and religious identity. The characters are not all white, nor are they all English-speaking, or from an Anglo-American family. One of A’s hosts is “an underage, illegal maid” (179) named Valeria, and the brief story A tells about her/his day cleaning bathrooms while grappling with severe menstrual pain, hints at deep problems of economic and racial inequality in the States, as well as the fragile social position of anyone born outside them. For many of the hosts, however, racial and national identity is introduced or hinted at but left undiscussed. Such is the case with Hugo, whose story is primarily about his faltering relationship with his boyfriend, Austin. A reveals to us early on in the story that Hugo’s parents are Portuguese, but because he cannot speak Portuguese and finds it too hard to access memories of the language in Hugo’s mind A decides simply to avoid them altogether, and thus the novel doesn’t explore this aspect of Hugo’s identity at all. The story I had the most trouble with, however, was that of Ashley Aston who Rhiannon, the girl with whom A is infatuated, describes as “a super hot black girl” (150). Ashley’s life is left largely unexplored while A and Rhiannon use her body as a way of testing the loyalty of Rhiannon’s boyfriend, Justin. Part of me can’t help wondering why this body is chosen for this test, especially given that Ashely is one of the few hosts to whose racial identity the novel explicitly calls attention: why bring up the matter of her “black[ness]” only to ignore that aspect of her character and focus on her “super hot[ness]”? Why mention race explicitly here but in very few of the other characters? And why not explore racial or national identity more fully, as a general rule?. It feels a bit reductive to limit her character’s narrative value to its physical attractiveness, and the whole story has a whiff of exoticising-the-other about it. I really wish that the novel had paid the same careful attention to these questions as it does with sexuality and economic disparity, and and other identity-forming experiences.
The other reason I think I’m so uncomfortable with the Ashley story is that presents women an unflattering stereotype of women who are emotionally manipulative (because A is physically a woman at this point) at the same time that it enacts a kind of male possessiveness (A is technically neither male nor female, but in his relationship with Rhiannon he tends to be gendered more and more masculine as the book goes on, since Rhiannon is only physically attracted to A as a male). This possessiveness, however, is something the book talks about at length. Rhiannon calls A on his jealousy, his need to break up her relationship with the emotionally neglectful Justin, and his need to “fix” her life. So at least some of the discomfort I felt in this part of the novel seemed deliberate on the part of the narrative.
The work that Levithan’s novel does is nevertheless important; I’m not sure I’ve encountered anything quite like it in the range of adolescent experiences it explores — at the same time that it thinks through broader ethical dilemmas and is just a really compelling story.
3 April 2013 ~ Hamilton
Levithan, David. every day. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2012.