In the past few months I have read two YA novels with vastly different takes on how they treat their gay male protagonists. Adam Silvera’s More Happy Than Not and Tara Sim’s Timekeeper. More Happy is a sci-fi lite novel about a 16-year-old named Aaron Soto who struggles with grief and coming out. Timekeeper is a steampunk novel about magical clocktowers with spirits inside who literally control time. More Happy is a downbeat (if somewhat hopeful) novel, steeped in tragedy and sadness, while Timekeeper is a sugary, hopeful romance.
Why, then, did I feel so isolated from the gay representation in Timekeeper, and why did I feel so strongly validated by the gay representation in More Happy?
At the heart of this question is dealing with the fact that More Happy deals extensively in Tragic Gay™ tropes, and how Silvera navigates those tropes in order to create something meaningful. How he uses those tropes for a queer audience, rather than to exploit them. Our protagonist Aaron is dealing with his father’s suicide, poverty, toxic friends, and a newly awakened sexual identity that he has no resources to process. The drama can get a little soap opera-ish at times, but for the most part it’s an unflinching take on a gay teen’s pain. The science fiction elements come from the presence of the Leteo Institute, a memory-altering service similar to the one used in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and they bring up the problematic but legitimate thought that a lot of gay teens have had: If I could alter my brain to “forget” I’m gay, would I?
If spoilers are a big thing for you I would recommend reading More Happy Than Not before continuing here. I won’t say any specifics (and here is where you should stop reading if you want to read the book), but suffice it to say that More Happy doesn’t end on a happy note. Hopeful, yes. But it’s still tragic and sad.
In considering the narrative’s trajectory, I thought about how oversaturated we are with tragic gay people. Why can’t things work out for us? Why does everything have to be centered on raising awareness about social issues? I feel like I’ve seen more men die of AIDS on screen than have a healthy relationship with one another. (Sidenote: You can have both! Just watch Jeffrey) But then, something about More Happy felt different than those ~~social issue~~ narratives. It was painful, for sure, but it was genuine pain. Pain directed at an audience who have felt the same at one point or another.
There is still a need for lighthearted romcom type gay stories that don’t deal so strongly with pain, but we also need more stories where queer identities are validated while addressing pain. More Happy Than Not accomplishes this. I haven’t lived a life like Aaron’s, but I have felt his feelings before. I understood and appreciated Aaron’s interior turmoil, and because of that the novel resonated strongly with me. It may have been a tragic gay story, but it wasn’t just another tragic gay story.
Compare this to Timekeeper, which I have described (accurately I would argue) as Chuck Tingle shounen-ai. The novel describes how Danny, a prodigy clock mechanic, falls in love with Colton, a clock spirit. Danny’s sexuality is accepted without question in this alternate history, wherein the sudden appearance of these magical clocktowers kickstarted the industrial revolution, which somehow leads to accelerated social progressiveness. Their relationship is simple and syrupy and cute, and I enjoyed it a lot while I was reading it. But then I finished the novel, and realized how little I actually cared about their relationship. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the exterior of it. I liked seeing them be cute, but there’s no resonance with them. It’s a junk food romance. Enjoyable at the time, but I wasn’t left with anything of substance.
Timekeeper is a woman writer’s interpretation of m/m romance. Which, of course, isn’t on its face a bad thing, and that’s not to dissuade women from writing about gay men. But it raises an issue of audience and intention. Danny and Colton are there to be cute. They aren’t there to be points of identification, to be compelling characters even, really. (The question of whether Colton can even appropriately consent is an issue I hope Sim raises in the sequels, by the way, because it really weirds me out.) The strains put on their relationship are all the result of outside conflicts, most of which are fantastical and exclusive to a steampunk plotline. They are there to go “Awww” at, to get idealized romantic fantasies about.
In eliminating gay pain from the narratives, we do a disservice to queer representation. Normalizing is good, yes. But there is a difference between the normalization of queer characters and the glossing over of their pain. The visual novel/dating sim Dream Daddy has been justifiably criticized for this. As one critic, Tim Mulerkin, points out:
“On the one hand, I’m thrilled that a game with queerness running through its veins is enjoying so much popularity, but Dream Daddy’s biggest failing is that it doesn’t feel like a game made for or by gay people. It doesn’t capture the experience of what it feels like to be a gay man and fails to engage with or invoke gay culture in a meaningful way.”
This is a convenient way to sum up the issue. Timekeeper is for people who get titillated in whatever way by m/m romance, not for gay people themselves. That former demographic may include gay people, for sure, but that is only secondary. More Happy Than Not is more brutal, sad, and downbeat than Timekeeper, but it is also much more validating a narrative exactly because it speaks directly to a gay audience. You are more than welcome to enjoy Timekeeper and Dream Daddy (as many of my gay peers have), but I personally can’t be uncritical of narratives that trade in the parts of gay life that people squeal over without even acknowledging the parts we don’t like to talk about. It’s a representation cop out.
“Bury Your Gays” tropes are difficult to navigate, to be fair. There is certainly a pattern of queer people dying or getting shit on disproportionately in our mainstream narratives, and it isn’t a bad ambition to want to create something wholesome with queer identities. But I think it is dangerous to swing in the absolute opposite direction and have nothing bad ever happen to queer people, to just straight up ignore their pain. Again, it’s a matter of audience and intention. Take stories like Moonlight and My Own Private Idaho, which are simultaneously sad, painful, genuine, and validating. More Happy Than Not fits into this canon. I’m not so sure about Timekeeper.