Boy Meets Boy is a sweet little story about the complications and shenanigans of adolescence and first love, set in a world so accepting of its LGBTQ+ youth that it broke genre. Critics and reviewers had no idea how to categorise this novel when talking about it. By all counts, it’s a contemporary YA romance: as author David Levithan himself described it, it’s a pretty simple “boy meets boy, boy loses boy, boy gets boy back” love story. The difference is, of course, that that plot is usually “boy meets girl”. It’s this queer twist on a recognisable formula, combined with the delightful unusualness of the story’s setting, that sent everyone into a headspin. This novel could not simply be labelled a YA love story—it had to be “fantasy” “utopian” or “magical realism”. The whole thing conjures up the mental image of an office full of reviewers clutching at their hair, staring into space, muttering “but the gay kids are happy—so it can’t be realistic fiction!”
There’s been a pretty significant pile of academic attention paid to this novel (which is where I’m getting this “Happy Gay Novel Befuddles Critics” gossip). Thomas Crisp notes that it bucks the trend of using “Homophobia as a literary device to invoke realism” and thus earned the fantasy label; Amy S. Pattee dedicates an entire paper to examining the book through a utopian lens, while also pointing out that most straight romance fiction is “utopian” anyway; and Corrine Wickens looks at how Boy Meets Boy subverts the expectations of contemporary YA by giving its queer protagonists a narrative that isn’t about how dreadful it is to be queer. Each of these at least mentions the conundrum of classification, and invoke that image, once again, of befuddled reviewers trying to cram this book into a genre box.
Now, as I discussed a little while ago, genre is only as real as you need it to be. To borrow the words of fantasy scholar Brian Attebery again:
The question of what genre a particular text belongs to will never be resolved, nor need it be. The interesting question about any given story is not whether it is fantasy or science fiction or realistic novel, but rather what happens when we read it as one of those things.
So, taking a leaf out of Attebery’s book, I’m going to temporarily set aside my amusement at the image of a bunch of reviewers scrambling in confusion… and look at Boy Meets Boy from a fantastical viewpoint to see what it turns up from this particular perspective.
And the thing is, I can see where this view comes from, and it gives the novel a new and fascinating dimension. It comes down not just to the way the story blurs the usual expectations of genre by giving its adorable paint-by-numbers romance plot to a gay couple rather than a straight one, but the strange and wonderful setting of the novel, and the way that it’s presented.
Boy Meets Boy takes place in an unnamed American town where “the gay scene and the straight scene got mixed up a while back”, and queer people live happily without needing to closet or censor themselves. It’s a setting where being gay is not a problem, lifting the novel out of the usual trappings of teenaged coming out stories, as discussed in those papers by Crisp and Wickens. Not to say that it’s a completely hate-free world: narrator Paul’s best friend Tony, for example, lives in the next town over with religious parents who pray loudly for his damned soul when they find out their son is gay. A football player (who is regrettably dating Paul’s other best friend Joni for the majority of the book) reacts aggressively when he thinks someone is calling him a gay boy, only to settle down when he realises they’re addressing Paul instead. Paul mentions nearly getting beaten up by a group of high schoolers shouting homophobic slurs when he is younger. But.
There are some crucial things to note here, all to do with the way these aspects of the story are presented to the reader. In the case of Joni’s jock boyfriend, he’s not only an unmistakably antagonistic character, but he’s an oddity: one of the few locals that has such reactions to queer sexuality. In Paul’s memory of being attacked by homophobes, not only is he immediately rescued by a group of much more vocal and powerful queer kids and allies, but he also recalls that he “wasn’t used to being hated”. Paul goes through most of his childhood given the freedom to naïvely assume that everyone is gay like him, that “this man-woman arrangement [typical of most marriages] was yet another adult quirk, like flossing”. He is not forced to think of himself as different or weird or immoral for getting crushes on other boys, it’s just something that happens, nurtured and/or shrugged off by his peers and family.
In the case of poor Tony, his unhappy family situation is set very deliberately in The Next Town Over, with Paul’s hometown presented as a foreign space that his friends can spirit him away to and he can be himself. And it’s Paul’s hometown, more than anything, that invites this classification of magical realism. Where is it physically located? You can’t tell, beyond the fact that they mention staples of American culture, and that you can get there from “the big city” by train. It’s a dislocated, sort of liminal Anyplace, with recognisable aspects of small-ish town life mingled with plenty of quirky details like the horror-movie-themed ice cream parlour and the fact that the high school’s cheer team does their routine on the back of motorcycles. And, of course, the ever-important detail that the queer community is interwoven with the “ordinary” community, to the point where there is no real divide between them and the definition of “ordinary” is quite different from ours in the real world… even though, within the world of the novel, there seems nothing out of the ordinary about this.
Paul, our narrator, is the key to driving this all home. If he’d been a newcomer—perhaps from that unnamed Big City—and was seeing the town with fresh, bemused eyes, the book would have an entirely different feel. But as it is, Paul has grown up there and sees absolutely nothing strange about the town. And so he serves all these quirky worldbuilding details up to the reader without comment, completely taking them for granted as part of daily life. The jarring—but also hypnotic—juxtaposition of the strange being presented as mundane is a key component of magical realism. Paul’s school celebrates a drag queen named Infinite Darlene as their star football player and prom queen? Of course they do. None of the characters who witness this bat an eyelid, even if the reader initially might.
Paul’s town, with its liminal positioning and its matter-of-fact description of the “strange”, feels two steps adjacent to reality, especially with its portrayal as a sort of freeing external space for characters like Tony. Though, as I said above, it’s not a totally homophobia-free paradise, you get the sense this is the kind of fantastical place that a troubled queer kid would find if they slipped through an enchanted door at the bottom of their garden. But also as I said above, it’s not being narrated by a kid who’s done this, and instead is being narrated by Paul, who sees this place not as magical but as totally normal—this place is his version of “realistic”. And so, via our point-of-view character, “reality” is oh-so-gently turned on its head.
It’s the way that reality is warped without comment that undoes some of the screws that would normally hold this book so neatly in one genre or another. It’s too wonderful (in the sense of Paul’s town sounding like a great chill place, but also in that fantasy creates a sense of wonder in the reader) to be just plain contemporary YA, but also too grounded in recognisable reality to be just plain fantasy. So yes, I can understand the conundrum faced by critics who needed to cram Boy Meets Boy into a genre box—it’s just a little bit too slippery and ethereal for that. But that was sort of the point, according to the interview with the author at the back of the 2013 edition:
Some of the fiercest and most heartfelt criticism of the book (from well-meaning people) has been about the fact that the town isn’t “realistic” and is “far-fetched”. My response is usually along the lines of “So what?” And “Doesn’t that make you want to figure out why it’s not realistic—and why our world’s not that way?” The surreal moments at the start […] are put there to show the town is a little different from other towns. But then, very much by design, the surreal details fall away. Because, really, there’s no reason this town can’t exist. In fact, the people live in this town exist—millions of them. They just don’t happen to all live in the same town.
So there is a well-meaning ribbon of the magical underlying the entirety of Boy Meets Boy, which, it turns out, makes it both enjoyable on just reading-to-have-a-good-time level and fascinating from this meta-critical angle. It’s always a good time to remember that genre is fake, but useful. You absolutely can read this novel through the lens of magical realism and eyeball it through the framework of the fantastic, and what it turns up is some intriguing questions about the power of point-of-view character, the endearing bizarreness of your setting being a liminal space, and about fiction’s power—as Levithan himself said above—to tweak the way you view the world and make you ask “why not?” It plays with genre, it plays with expectations, and it plays with reality, serving as a neat reminder that these are all elastic and constructed.