Thursday, May 15, 2014

Book Review: "Changers"

T. Cooper and Allison Glock-Cooper. Changers. Book One: Drew. Akashic Books 2014.

One of my favorite experiences as a Latin major in college was reading the Metamorphoses, Ovid’s epic poem about changes. In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas/corpora... With the first words of the poem, Ovid announces his intention to tell stories of “outward appearances changed into new bodies.” Outward appearances (formas) are changed, but essentials remain unchanged: Niobe remains a grieving mother even when she’s changed into a rock formation; Arachne as a spider still spins and weaves; Narcissus as a flower still bends his head to see his reflection in the water.

Some of Ovid’s most intriguing stories are about a change of gender. Tiresias lives as both a man and as a woman, and gains significant insight from the experience of crossing between genders. Hemaphroditus bathes in the pool of the nymph Salmacis and their bodies are merged—hermaphroditic, both male and female. And then there is the story of Iphis and Ianthe.  To escape being exposed and left to die (a common fate of female infants in antiquity), Iphis is raised by her mother as a boy, and finds herself betrothed to Ianthe, the beautiful girl next door. On the eve of the wedding, Iphis’s mother prays to the goddess Isis to resolve this dilemma. Isis answers the mother's prayer by changing Iphis into a young man.

Ovid is fascinated with the ambiguities and fluidity of both identities and gender. He says of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus after their bodies are merged: neutrumque et utrumque videntur, “they seem neither and both.” And before her metamorphosis, Iphis sees herself as a monstrum—a monster—which in Latin also implies something hybrid and in between, something neither and both.

I immediately thought of these Ovidian stories as I started reading the first book in the new YA series Changers, by the husband-wife team of T. Cooper and Allison Glock-Cooper. Changers offers Ovid with a modern twist. It suggests that perhaps the experience of being “neither and both,” of becoming the Other, of being in between, of shuffling through different identities makes us not more monstrous, but more human.

Ethan’s family has recently moved from New York City to Tennessee, where he begins his story on the night before his first day of high school. He knows that big changes are ahead: a new school, new friends, new challenges, and new possibilities. But he goes to bed not realizing just how big those changes are going to be. Because when he wakes up in the morning, on the first day of high school, he’s no longer Ethan. He’s a girl.

Her name is Drew, and she soon discovers that she’s one of “an ancient race of humans” known as Changers who live each year of high school as a different person. After graduation, each Changer has to choose a stable identity, a Mono, from the four identities he or she has inhabited over the previous four years.

It’s not clear how an ancient race of humans could organize its existence around high school, an institution that, at least in the United States, dates back to the early nineteenth century. But no matter—it’s a contrivance that works remarkably well, allowing the authors to explore the real and meaningful issues of identity and gender. In the course of her freshman year, Drew has her first period, joins the cheerleading squad, and finds herself attracted to both a boy and a girl. She discovers that being a hot cheerleader doesn’t guarantee popularity, let alone happiness. She experiences objectification, the threat of sexual violence, and complicated feelings she’s never had to deal with before. In other words, she’s introduced to “all new levels of suck.” But as she learns what it’s like to be a girl, and as someone else’s experience becomes her own, she develops a powerful empathy that makes her truly special. Gradually she stops thinking of herself as “a freaking mutant”—a monstrum, neutrumque et utrumque—and starts thinking of herself as herself.

In one particularly lovely moment, Drew reflects on her Nana’s arthritic hands, which Ethan used to find fascinating for their cool horror movie special effect deformity. “Now I think about her hands differently,” she says. “I wonder if they cause her much pain, how she buttons a blouse, what happens when she needs to pick up something tiny, like a toothpick.” Is this because girls see things differently, or because we can all see things differently if we make the effort to place ourselves imaginatively into the lives of others?

One of the things that hooked me into Changers was the obvious debt to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. On the night before the first day of high school, Ethan goes to bed wearing a Slayer t-shirt—as in, the thrash metal band Slayer. When he gets up the next morning, he walks past the mirror in his room and sees this hot blonde girl wearing a Slayer t-shirt. Suddenly, everything shifts. He discovers he’s been “chosen.” He has a Watcher—that is, a Touchstone, a Changer who has gone through her four changes and has chosen her Mono. Drew’s Touchstone, Tracy, has a lot in common with the early Wesley Wyndham-Pryce. Tracy is a representative of the Council, an underground group of New Age authoritarians who regulate the lives of the Changers and protect them from the Abiders, the fascist thugs who insist that everyone should have the one stable identity they were born with. Like vampires, Abiders form “nests” where abducted Changers are tortured. 

This is a lot of derivative infrastructure to build a story upon, and I have to admit that I found the Changers Council just as irritating and irrelevant as the Watchers Council. But in some ways that’s the point. The Changers Council wants to protect the Changers, but in doing so it enforces a kind of conformity that hampers its own stated mission of changing the world. Changers have to “pass.” The Council instructs them to lie about their true nature even to their closest friends.  The closeted suits on the Council seem to have reduced whatever their changes have taught them about empathy into the mantra “In the many, we are one”—a fine motto, but one that becomes meaningless if it isn’t lived out in the open and with real conviction. How can they change the world if they’re afraid to come out and demand their own acceptance?

There’s a lot going on here, but it rarely distracts from the main attraction, which is Drew herself and her gradual process of becoming comfortable in her own skin—whatever skin that might happen to be. Drew feels like a real person. She tells her own story with candor, humor, and compassion. She’s someone I would have wanted as a friend. She’s someone I would have wanted to be. 

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New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .