Review of ADAM by Ariel Schrag


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     ADAM is Ariel Schrag’s first published novel; however, she has been a published graphic memoirist, documenting her tumultuous high school experiences, for over fifteen years. Her novel thus simultaneously suffers some of the issues common in first novels and demonstrates the polished story-telling considerations taken by a veteran writer.  ADAM can be read as a character-driven coming-of-age tale, a romantic comedy, and an exploration into the New York City LGBT subculture of the mid-2000s, each sub-genre working at once with and against another in order to forge what I took to be an evenly uneven reading experience.

Schrag’s Holden Caulfield is Adam Freedman (whom I wished was a little more like Charlie from The Perks of Being a Wallflower), an “everykid” teenager from Piedmont California who is just barely cool enough to hang with and get ditched by the cool kids but too insecure to make friends with a nicer group of students that might otherwise share his interests and appreciate his company.  He comes off as a bit of a brat, but before you go on to judge this kid any further, just remember how it felt to be in early high school, caught between the competing ideals inherent in such a ferocious social structure in which a certain popularity serves as currency.  Outgrew that by age 17? A lot of us did, but Adam Freedman didn’t, and it’s rather pathetic.  The problem with Adam is that, unlike many of his coming-of-age tale contemporaries, he isn’t any kinder or more honest than the douschey “friends” with whom he strives to fit in, and unlike someone like Holden Caulfield, he doesn’t offer transcendent moments of introspection that elevate his character to a deeper and more sympathetic level of existence.  In this sense, he is a very “real” character, but almost too real to cheer for.

Adam’s narrative conflict begins at the beginning of the novel when his fartface “friends” passively exclude him from a summer trip to Lake Tahoe and he has to settle for spending the summer with his older sister, who just finished her freshman year of college, in New York City.  Adam at first sees NYC as a place far away from his friends but then comes to decide it could be his opportunity to enhance his sexual resume (currently blank) and establish bragging material for next school year.  The only problem is that his sister and ALL of her friends are either homosexual or pansexual (to a level that doesn’t include interest in straight cisgender men), and so to meet, hook up with, and possibly even make a summer girlfriend out of Gillian, the “girl of his dreams,” he has to pretend that he is a transgender male.   If this feels a little romcom Matthew Perry in Three to Tango, it sort of is, as like the girl of interest in most romantic comedies, Gillian’s most salient features are her angelic beauty, quirky/cool/kindhearted personality, and her malleable preference for men who have a feature the protagonist in turn lacks (in this case, a history of having once been recognized as a woman).

Something the novel does very well is illuminate the experiences of many who were, or are, members of this particular LGBT subculture in Brooklyn.  Although Adam and Gillian both suffer as characters for their flaws or lack thereof (the former for having too many and the latter for not having any at all), Adam’s sister Casey and her friends are all interesting and sympathetic.  I got the sense that many of these characters sought Brooklyn, at least initially, and each other as a safe haven from their problems regarding homosexuality and pansexuality; however, they still must face the greatest obstacles of simply being human.  Casey, while awkwardly the object of her roommate’s affection, enters abusive relationships with a transgender man and cisgender woman, both of whom seem to just use her for sex. Her transgender boyfriend, ironically, assumes the stereotypes of a chauvinistic male, possibly over-compensating to overcome his own gender transition.  The characters open dialogue with Adam and with each other about issues and struggles in the LGBT community, and it never feels forced or didactic; in fact, many of the conversations feel so real as to have been had by Schrag herself.  This literary development in the novel elevates it from the cheesy romantic comedy its circumstance almost wants it to be, and that in and of itself makes it worth the read.

Schrag’s dialogue is her novel’s strength; however, her dialogue attribution at times detracts from it.  Although the book deals with very serious topics, it relies on humor, initially present within the dialogue but lost in its attribution.  The characters laugh at each other’s jokes or situations too much.  Notice how in successful sitcoms or comedies, the characters never seem to laugh at each other’s jokes?  As unnatural as this may seem, audiences do not like to be told by its characters when to find something funny.  Writing graphic novels, Schrag most likely did not have to deal with this paradox, and this lack of understanding could very well just be a symptom of a first novel.

ADAM’s prose might unfortunately pigeonhole it to a certain minor demographic.  Even though a limited third-person narrator tells the story, it almost assumes its protagonist’s voice through its narration, reading like a young adult novel.  The material in the book—explicit descriptions of a variety of forms of sex, sexual themes, and strong adult language—might then again render it inappropriate for younger readers.  This heady material isn’t necessarily exploitative, but many readers under of the age of 17 might just not have the maturity to approach something of this magnitude. I, however, at the age of 26, grew impatient with the lack of sophistication in the novel’s narrative voice and constantly felt I was a little too old for it.

Schrag’s novel is far from perfect, but it offers enough that I could recommend it to many of my friends without declaring it a “must-read.” For a first novel, it shows promise, and I will certainly look for her name on book covers in the future.  ADAM might just be a few edits away from becoming a novel with true emotional resonance, and it contains nothing to show that Schrag cannot write that novel with her next effort.

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