Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger: Too perfect fiction

2015-02-17 14_57_46-Amazon.com_ Parrotfish (9781442406216)_ Ellen Wittlinger_ Books

I don’t know what to make of novels that show the world as just a bit too perfect. This is what I’m struggling with in Parrotfish. This transgender-themed bildungsroman forms a narrative in which bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people, in which a relatively brief period of suffering and insecurity leads the FTM protagonist Grady to a life with good friends, a close family, and a future with limitless potential. I feared it would end with Grady getting a kiss from the hottest girl in school on a stage on prom night. Things didn’t end in such a cheesy manner, but still–just a little too perfect.

Adjectives to describe the novel: Cute, nice, harmless, progressive. I find it hard to criticize because it does add voice to an underrepresented minority. But what else does it offer? Wittlinger writes a very basic story about a character who comes to terms with his gender identification. He does, he finds acceptance, and everything ends with hope and good vibes all around. It’s not quite a lie, as surely this situation has happened in reality, but it doesn’t feel like a whole truth either. Things work out too well, undermining many important parts of being transgendered. What about binder pains, the cost of hormones? Sexual insecurity? Issues with androgyny? People asking annoying, prying questions? Grady doesn’t really talk about these.

Grady himself is just a bit too perfect. Intelligent, kind, miraculously comfortable in the middle of the gender spectrum (or football field as the metaphor goes in the novel) for a teenager. Grady’s demons are all on the exterior. Which makes them very easy to dispose of, whether it be family members who just take a little while to get used to his newfound gender or the bully in school who ends up with the entire study body despising her. Meanwhile, other characters such as Simon and Kita are various pieces of one large manic pixie who makes everything in Grady’s world better.

Again, the good get rewarded and the bad get punished. Without fail that’s how it goes in this book.

That said, is there anything inherently wrong with having a novel wherein things work out perfectly? It’s fiction for a reason after all. These characters give us an ideal behavior to aspire toward, a kinder world in which a transgender boy can be accepted and embraced within a community in about a month. Some adversity still exists out there, but it is never described as terribly difficult to overcome.

I imagine that the novel can be a very good resource for parents, friends, or anyone else close to a transgender person who knows very little about the subject. It certainly normalizes the minority, offers a chance to sympathize with a transgender character in a way that other forms of activism can’t quite achieve.

It’s not great literature, but Parrotfish succeeds in what I think it was trying to do. It’s an idealized version of the coming out and coming of age story. Somewhat untrue, or at least consciously avoiding certain more complicated issues about the transgender identity, but still laudable for portraying LGBTQ+ in a positive light.


About Bryan Cebulski

Writer. Cis queer. History, masculinity, media. Point-and-click adventure protagonist. He/Him/His. Collects bad habits like Jessica Rabbit.
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