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Pickle Me This

February 16, 2015

When Everything Feels Like the Movies by Raziel Reid

Book Cover When Everything Feels Like the MoviesBack in high school when everybody was watching My So-Called Life, I used to tune in and wonder why Angela Chase had ditched her normal friends to galavant with Rickie and Rayanne. I mean, I liked Angela’s hair, and dyed mine the exact same colour (although it didn’t take because my hair was too dark—probably safer that way), but the misfit friends didn’t gel with me. I’d turn the channel back to Party of Five. Similarly in real life, I would encounter characters with as much regard for the status-quo as Rickie and Rayanne (and I encountered them often—I went to an arts-focussed high school, a social environment far more welcoming than most), and I found these people baffling, even threatening. Because there was this thing called normal whose rules I was desperate to follow, and it was unnerving to come across someone who didn’t even play the game.

The one legacy of those years is that while I’m more broad-minded, I still don’t like “edgy”, and when something is described as such, I don’t think it’s for me. I am still annoyed at having had to read about people taking a shit in books as disparate as Franzen’s Freedom (ugh) and Heti’s How Should a Person Be? In most “edgy” books, there comes a point at which a character pulls out a blade and starts carving things into her arms and legs, and I’ve read that book already. It’s possible that edgy is boring. Or that I am boring, and more partial to reading books about spinsters and brewing proper cups of tea. I would like there to be a Bechdel test, but for women over the age of 65 who are crocheting tea cosies, and basically if your book doesn’t pass it, I’m just not interested.

So I was nervous about Raziel Reid’s When Everything Feels Like The Movies, even though it had been awarded a Governor General’s Award, had been run through the mud by a deplorable right-wing columnist (for being “a waste of taxpayer dollars” no less), and there had been censor-like calls to have the GG Award removed—circumstances all of which, obviously, made me want to run out and buy a copy of the novel right away). When the book was selected for Canada Reads 2015, I went right out and did so, intrigued by the opportunity to discover what the fuss was all about. And I am so glad I did.

It was devastating, like a trip back in time. Although Raziel Reid’s references are uber-contemporary, the atmosphere he creates of high school—its geography, social structures, how students pass their time, the rate at which time passes—was completely as I remembered it from back in the days before we had cameras on our phones, or phones at all, or twitter or Facebook or anything like that. It’s a culture onto itself, and while Reid’s character Jude is a misfit—he wears make-up, women’s clothing, has a troubled home-life, few friends or allies—misfit is the wrong word because he’s irrevocably a part of that culture. Because he’s too young to get away to someplace better, because he has so little agency over his existence. It’s not the right word either because a misfit describes an anomaly and there are a lot of kids out there like Jude—including one whose murder inspired Reid’s text.

When Everything Feels Like the Movies is convincing from the very start, Jude’s point of view perfectly executed and consistent. In order to create a sense of agency over his life, Jude imagines high school as a movie set, the complex social structures comprising players with their parts. And his part is unabashedly himself, for there is no one else he can be (and the alternative would be being no one at all), moreover his self-definition is limited by others’ expectations of his behaviour, and he plays right into that role. Jude and his friend Angela are crude, stupid, vindictive, reckless, and cruel in the manner that all people are when they are learning about words and responsibility and the power to hurt and shock (and be noticed). In this way, they’re not so different from their more conventional classmates. Every single one of them is scared, insecure, terrified of being found-out, and trying to be bullet-proof. And this is what I don’t think I knew back when I was in high school, wondering why my gay classmate couldn’t just act a bit less flamboyant. He scared me because we was me. We are each of us not so far apart after all.

But such platitudes mean nothing at the time, mean nothing in Reid’s book which is perfectly plotted towards a devastating conclusion alluded to in its first sentence. When Everything Feels Like the Movies is exactly the kind of young-adult fiction I appreciate, in which there is a gap between the protagonist’s sense of his experience and how I perceive reading as an adult. Though that gap is further complicated by the movies conceit, by which Jude’s experienced is reflected in a million mirrors and cameras—his sense of self at one multiplied and broken into pieces. He is so thoroughly in control of the narrative, never breaking character and rarely displaying any vulnerability, that there is something almost triumphant about the story, as much as it is heartbreaking—how he owns it. Except that he doesn’t own it at all, or rather his ownership is an act of desperation. Or is it? (and here is where the mirrors are important, reality staring back at you a thousand times, so it’s impossible to know where life ends and its reflections begin, or if the distinctions even matter).

Like Ru, while the text is straightforward and easy to read, it’s deceptively complicated, riddled with clues and traps. Similarly to Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian, it’s tone attempts a certain casualness which nearly belies the care with which the book is constructed. I’m not really sure how this novel fits in with the other two, though I’d be loathe to rank them at all because they’re all pretty extraordinary. These are not books that need to be pitted against one another, but indeed they’re books that need to be read.

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