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PrettyQueer.com | January 26, 2015

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YA Book Review: Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher

Jack Radish

Prior to reading Almost Perfect, by Brian Katcher, I really didn’t know what to expect, having heard really mixed reviews—anything from “this is the best representation of a teen trans girl in literature ever!” to “this book actually made my life worse.” Granted, the people who I am actually friends with IRL who gave me any feedback about it tended toward the latter sentiment, so I knew to brace myself for disaster, but the positive feedback I’d read came from sources I kind of trust too (including the ALA’s Stonewall Children’s & YA Lit Award committee, who gave it a frickin award) and was all very convincing. After having read the book (actually, I listened to the audiobook on this one—more about that later), I will say that I am probably right to trust my friends’ literary criticism on this one.

The story is actually well written and very gripping—I definitely stayed up way too late trying to find out what happened next several nights, although this was mostly because I was on the edge of my seat waiting for something good to happen.

Almost Perfect is a story about a straight cisgender dude in high school named Logan who falls for this new girl in school named Sage who turns out to be trans. She tells him this right after she finally lets him kiss her for the first time. Logan freaks out and gets kinds scary the story is basically his back and forth process of coming to terms with Sage and the fact that he really likes her.

You could say that Katcher creates a realistic portrayal of the process that Logan goes through as he learns to go from being scary and horrible in regards to having a trans love interest to being loving and accepting and all that. You could say that when Logan says horrible, dehumanizing stuff about Sage, Katcher is just portraying the character realistically. You could say that it’s really realistic the way Logan twists things around so that Sage is the bad guy and the liar and the creep and Logan is the bigger person because he doesn’t actually hit her when he wants to and deigns to be friends with her sometimes and champions over all of his transphobia in the end. Although readers are supposed to realize that Logan is actually the unreasonable party in most instances, Katcher gets away with saying some really horrible shit about a teenage trans girl in the name of realism.

Good for Logan, that probably really is his authentic, true story. The thing is, though, he’s a douche and I don’t really need to hear every douche’s story or sympathize with every douche. I’m glad that he overcomes his hostility towards Sage and learns to be a bigger person, and maybe he sets a good example for other douches in the end, but I still think that could have been accomplished in a way that wasn’t so shitty.

If Sage, the teenage trans character, had been the narrator, I actually think this could have been a great book. She is a strong young woman and actually a pretty awesome character who goes through some intense and totally real stuff over the course of the story. I would have loved to have read her story. Unfortunately, I did not read her story, I read Logan, the douchey, narrow minded straight dude’s story.

As a trans person, Logan’s story made me feel horrible about myself and I can only imagine that the self-loathing feeling this book brought up in me would be ten times greater for a trans woman reading his story. When Logan spouted out his anger about Sage supposedly “tricking” him, it was all I could do not to cry—by which I mean cry like a terrified baby, not the somber kind of touching crying that sometimes happens in good books. Added to that was the fact that in the audiobook, the narrator, Kirby Heyborne’s voice gets this crazed and passionate anger in it sometimes that actually made me instinctively close my eyes and cover my ears because it actually felt like his rage was directed at me.

Mixed in with this rage was all this stuff about Sage being a freak, a pervert, undatable, unlovable, not-human, repulsive and all the other stuff that a lot of trans folks already feel insecure about in terms of how the world sees us–don’t worry, if you miss all the awful stuff he says about her because you are instinctively covering your ears and closing your eyes like I was, you will get to hear him say the same kind of stuff when he is feeling all protective (in a creepy paternalistic way) and worrying about what the rest of the world must think of Sage. He actually says this stuff enough that, even though I know it’s complete bullshit, it totally played mind games with me and I started to believe that the way Logan sees Sage must be the way the world sees me. It actually brought up some trangsty, self-loathing internalized transphobia in me that I have not felt in years and still haven’t been able to totally shake a week after finishing the book. It is pretty rare that a book leaves such a lasting impression on me, but in this case, the impression was most definitely not a positive one.

It makes me sad that this is the second book with a teen trans girl as the main character I have read, that neither gave the trans character the agency of her own narrative voice and that this book actually makes Luna seem like an amazing girl-power champion of trans awesomeness, even considering the less-than-positive review I gave that too. I don’t think I am being overly sensitive in saying that this book was actively bad and I would emphatically not recommend it to any trans person who even sort of values their self esteem.

Next week, I will pull myself out of this Almost Perfect-induced state of wallowing and write about a book. In the meantime, go to your public library and ask the hottest librarian to help you find a good book (maybe not this one).

Comments

  1. Straight Trans Woman

    I’m sorry the book impacted you in such a negative way.

    However, this sort of narrative and dialogue about whether Trans women are legitimate love intrests of straight guys is something that is not unfamiliar to straight Trans woman. This is our day to day life and when we meet a dude out and about this is the scenario we need to navigate.

    The negative responses I’ve heard to this book have all come from mainly non-boy liking Trans people, so perhaps that has something to do with your reaction to the language used.

    This is a super valuable book – its the first peice of media I’ve seen everywhere that breaks down 1) like a Trans woman does not make a dude gay 2) Trans women are not deceiving anyone when getting involved with straight guys.

  2. Jack… I don’t know what to say. We had hugely differing reactions to ‘Almost Perfect.’ As a straight-ID’d trans woman, I could relate to so much of what Sage was going through and I thought Katcher portrayed the conflict many straight-ID’d cis guys have when they’re involved with trans women. The book is about transphobia (and overlapping homophobia) and, no, that’s not pretty. I suspect the reason Sage isn’t the main character is because the book has far more to do with the author processing his own feelings about trans women and what that means for himself. Almost Perfect isn’t for everyone. There will be a lot of people who are upset by it. But I think it has way more emotional reality and passion than ‘I am J’. Moreover, on a not-only-trans note I also think it portrays young love and all its attending conflict, status and class, pain, wrongheadedness and even callousness way better than other YA authors I’ve read. It’s messy and painful. A lot of young love is messy and painful.

    Anywho… Here’s my (alternate) review of the book:
    http://skipthemakeup.blogspot.com/2010/06/almost-perfect-transphobia-explored-in.html
    See what you think.

    • I did actually appreciate the way he talks about class in the book–I meant to talk about that in my review but got so caught up in all the things I hated about it that I forgot to talk about it–thanks for bringing that up!

  3. Ellen Shull

    I read this myself just a couple weeks ago, and I have to say Jack’s review pretty much exactly mirrors my thoughts, especially with regards to how yes, it’s super-realistic, but realism in this case doesn’t do anyone any good. I think a piece of YA fiction on a subject like this has a responsibility to educate and set an example, and this book didn’t particular do either; it was more of a pat on the back, a that’s-ok-it’s-perfectly-normal for anyone who’s ever felt homophobic or transphobic, which is kinda not what the world needs.

    STW, I identify as bi, dating both men and women. Not sure how that fits your dataset.

    Gina, the “emotional reality and passion” definitely made for an *absorbing* read, but the world is filled with good entertainment, and I’m not sure I like seeing the exotification of trans people being part of that. One “Crying Game” was one too many.

    There were some good alternate reviews on Goodreads as well, but they’re busy 502’ing right now; I’ll leave looking those up as an exercise for the reader ;-D

    • Ellen, I really disagree with you that the book makes her more “exotic”. It certainly doesn’t sexualize her or make her into someone I haven’t seen many real world trans girls be. She is insecure about her body, insecure about how she compares to non-trans girls, feels like an outsider (all stuff all teen girls feel but intensified in trans teens). It doesn’t have her present any kind of “projected femininity” as most media and fiction project onto trans women. Does she stand out in the book… yes, because she the new girl in a small high school where everyone else knows one another. This is nothing whatsoever like “The Crying Game” and I think it’s a really poor comparison.

      I still don’t get what people want… you want to have ‘teaching moments’ in the book. That’s exactly the kind of garbage which turns teens off (and reads as hugely disingenuous). You want them to have a no probs cool queer relationship… sorry, but that doesn’t tend to happen with trans girls and straight ID’d guys, especially in small town Missouri (and believe me, there are plenty of trans kids who grow up in towns like that). The book is about male panic over homophobia and transphobia, that’s the central theme of the book. And I think it gives a brilliant portrayal of it and, ultimately, shows so much of it to be hollow and that if men let go, they can focus on the person, not what they represent in society or to their own defensive sexuality. I’ve never seen that in a book for youth or adults and it’s an important message, especially for teens. The only shame is, a lot of teen boys probably won’t ever read this book.

    • Straight Trans Woman

      This book doesn’t pat Logan on the back for his initial reaction and behavior.

      It’s made very clear that he is behaving very cruelly , and that his actions lead to great physichal and emotional distress for Sage. It (melodramatically) forces the reader to confront what happens when a straight man rejects a trans girl simply for being trans. The author, the reader , and the character (Logan) all decide that Logans behavior is unaccebtable.

      This is a much needed book that de-mystifies the straight man / trans woman attraction.

      And I’m sorry there are just not that many straight guys who get this stuff at all. Multiple times I’ve had otherwise awesome anarchist boys who Ive been flirting / dating / making our with freak out after I disclose my transness. A few times literally after regaling me with their open mindlessness on gender issues.

  4. Nadia

    I find it interesting that this author wrote a book about a disfigured young woman with a similar plot line. Again, the story’s focus is the teenage boy’s struggle with his attraction to this ‘unconventional’ girl.

  5. Valerie Keefe

    *shrugs*

    I tend to like when an author writes cissexist characters well… it’s a good thing to explore and as someone once said about one of my favorite sitcom buffoons:

    “You gotta be smart to play that stupid.”

  6. Hannah Rossiter

    I found the review mirrors my own response to the book. In my experience as a trans woman, I have found that people do not want to date a trans woman.
    While the novel would be much better with Sage’s voice. It is a common thread in most trans literature to have the trans character as a secondary character and the main character speaking for them.

  7. Wow, such passionate opinions! Thanks to you who enjoyed ‘Almost Perfect,’ and thanks to you who didn’t like it, but still finished it and took the time to speak your piece.

  8. Fluffy Kitties

    “As a trans person, Logan’s story made me feel horrible about myself and I can only imagine that the self-loathing feeling this book brought up in me would be ten times greater for a trans woman reading his story. When Logan spouted out his anger about Sage supposedly “tricking” him, it was all I could do not to cry—by which I mean cry like a terrified baby, not the somber kind of touching crying that sometimes happens in good books.”

    Sorry, but trans women have to learn to be lot tougher than that to make it in either straight or LGBT cultures. I’ve seen trans women accused of “gender deception” in lesbian circles just as in mainstream society. If the author’s realistic depiction of the prevailing negative attitudes towards trans woman has inspired vicarious self-loathing in your mind, then I think it’s a sign that you need better armor.

    One of the strongest messages in this book is that trans women need to consider very carefully who we choose to become involved with and be fully prepared to protect ourselves. Sage learns this lesson in one of the hardest ways, and resolves not to settle for someone like Logan, who lacks the courage to follow his heart instead of his pride. In the end, she takes a big step toward maturity while he just finds another pretty tail to chase.

    • It was not my intention to say that I didn’t like the book because the author talked about realistic things in the book and I’m pretty sure that’s not what I said. I said that I liked Sage’s character. She is strong and inspiring and makes good decisions. The thing is, I don’t really care about or want to hear Logan’s story about how it’s so hard to do the right thing and get over his transphobic stuff–I don’t want to hold his hand through the story, I want to hold Sage’s hand.

      Hers is the point of view that I care about but his is the one that is privileged–why is his point of view privileged? I really don’t care why he does the douchey things he does–it’s not my job to understand him–and trying to explain what it’s like to be in a douchebag’s shoes is the only reason I can think of the show the story from his (and only his) point of view. Just like how, in real life, if I knew them, Sage would be the one I would want to be friends with, she would be the one I stood behind and so, naturally, Sage would be the one whose side of the story I cared about–I wouldn’t think, “oh, let me go hear this douchey guy who’s being a transphobic dick to my friend’s side of the story, just to be fair”

      • I can name hundreds of famous novels which, IMO, are written from the point of view of the less interesting character. Moby Dick would be much more gripping if it was written from the viewpoint of the South Sea Islander Queequeg than white boy Ishmael. But it wasn’t. This book is about the transphobia of the male character and how it’s messing up his life. Maybe it’s not the book you would have liked but, realistically, I would rather Katcher wrote that book than to pretend he could get deep into the mind of a trans girl. As many people have commented, trans books are best written by trans people (not their lovers, or relatives, friends, or allies). But that’s not what this book (or any of the other books you’ve reviewed) are.

        • Ellen Shull

          I still think it’s legitimate to criticize the book for not being what you think it should be… I mean, isn’t that the essence of negative criticism? Any time you suggest a change to the subject of criticism, you’re suggesting that it become something else…

  9. A Gay Reader

    I haven’t read “Almost Perfect” so I can’t comment on that, but I have read another Brian Katcher trans story “Pervert” (part of the anthology “Awake”) where he does tell the story from the viewpoint of the pre-operative trans teen, so Mr. Katcher has explored trans characters from different viewpoints.

    • I’ve been looking for “Awake” at the library and they haven’t bought it yet. I’d be really curious for your thoughts about Katcher’s story in that collection? Did you find it credible?

      • A Gay Reader

        It was published by a small publisher, so your library isn’t likely to get it unless there are requests for it. I’m not trans, so I can’t speak to the authenticity of the main character, but the boy, who wants to become a girl, was full of self-loathing (hence the title) and was able to find redemption through the support of others.

    • I wrote two stories for the ‘Awake’ compilation. One was serious (the one they printed) and one was more lighthearted. You can read othe other one here. The protagonist isn’t transgender, but gender-nonconforming: http://briankatcher.com/site/?page_id=536

      A great novel about a gender-nonconforming teen is ‘Debby Harry Sings in French’ by Megan Brothers.

  10. Days of Broken Arrows

    Nice review. I’m late to the party here, but want to throw in my few cents. I enjoyed this book because I liked that it tackled a subject usually not found in YA lit.

    But I found it a bit too downbeat, especially the final third of the book, after the main characters spend a night together. I had a bunch of feelings about this.

    First, I thought that if the narrator, Logan, was able to actually make love to Sage and be happy about it, his subsequent “freaking out” was unrealistic. I could see the hand of the author at work here attempting to drum up some drama. What I didn’t see what realistic character motivation.

    Second, as a Straight Dood, I can tell you teenage boys often experiment with each other sexually, so actually crossing the line into the transworld isn’t that big a leap. Since this character is clearly self-aware enough to mock his limited rural background, not afraid of fight and stand up for himself, and very attracted to the main character, I think a better, more believable ending would have had him having Sage’s back, not dumping her.

    It’s not so much that I wanted a happy ending. It’s just that the unresolved, unhappy ending didn’t feel real — it felt like a grafted-on lesson: “See how hard life is?!” We already had gotten that lesson earlier in the book, esp. when we met Sage’s dad.

    One more thing: humans have survived because they adapt. I know countless straight people who had never met anyone gay or trans in high school, then got to college and ended up with best friends who were out and proud. What may have seemed “odd” at first becomes second nature after a while. As such, it wouldn’t have been unrealistic had some of the other characters learned about Sage, yet eventually accepted her. Young people are often more open-minded than we give them credit for. While many of us might not like something in concept (“OMG! S/he is different!”) we’re often much more accepting one-on-one. This author should have taken that into account.

    • Dood,
      “First, I thought that if the narrator, Logan, was able to actually make love to Sage and be happy about it, his subsequent “freaking out” was unrealistic. ”

      It’s after physical contact which is exactly when most murders of trans women by straight-ID’d men occur. The freakout isn’t about being ‘fooled’ by a trans woman, it’s that they’ve just been intimate with someone who isn’t ‘woman enough’ for them (and yes, after guys cum, is usually when their ‘does this make me a queer’ doubts show up). I thought the author was exactly right about that.

      Sadly, most guys who are intimate with trans women don’t “have their back.” They are sexually obsessed with having sex with her, usually doing it on the downlow, and once the sex isn’t there or they’ve fulfilled their fantasy, they’re out of there (although they usually revisit their obsession many times over). It’s this phenomenon which the book is entirely about and one of the reasons I think it’s such a thoughtful work on the subject. Out of curiosity, have you ever had an intimate contact with a trans woman?

      • Days of Broken Arrows

        How familiar you with this book? First he kisses her and she tells him. Then he’s cool with it. Then they make love. The next day he’s fine with it — they even make out in the car. They’re cool the whole way home. There was no guilt, bad feelings, etc.

        It’s only when his sister calls about it he gets weird worrying about what people will think. But he’d already known at that point for months she was trans. And their coming together was part of a long process. I know full well that attacks occur post-coitus, but this was not two people meeting suddenly and having sex – he’d known her for a long time, esp. when you consider they’re 18.

        I still feel the author contrived a crisis having him freak out after his sister found out. Had a high school friend found out, the end of the plot may have been more believable.

        As for my personal life, I don’t ask anyone trans or gay to “qualify” themselves about straight lit — and feel no need to do likewise. And besides, I wouldn’t kiss and tell anyway.

        • Yes, I reviewed this book for my blog over 1 1/2 years ago.
          http://skipthemakeup.blogspot.com/2010/06/almost-perfect-transphobia-explored-in.html

          Yes, it IS all about other people finding out. Several men had sex with Gwen Araujo at the party when she was murdered (and Gwen was pre-hormones at the time). It was only when a cis woman attending the party called Gwen out as trans that the guys became panicky and violent and murdered her. The main character in Almost Perfect lives in a small town in Missouri. So, yes, I think Logan is very scared about his relationship with Sage (and who she is) to become common knowledge.

          Sorry, but I’ve lived in the “straight world” for years in a way that you haven’t lived among trans people. So, no, it doesn’t equal out. I’m not asking if you had a relationship with a trans woman because I’m judging you negatively, it’s just that you’re making some remarks which don’t sound as if they really have any first person experience to back them up. If you’re going to say “that’s not how it would happen” then it’s fair to ask what personal knowledge you’re basing it on.

        • Crowbar

          DOBA, why are you reading alt YA lit? You don’t have kids, you hate all women, you make us guys look bad. Go away.

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