Book Review: Will Grayson, Will Grayson, by John Green and David Levithan

Will Grayson, Will Grayson is a young adult novel cowritten in a series of alternating chapters which narrate a series of events as they intersect with young love, musical theatre, and even Shrodinger’s cat. I’m not familiar with David Levithan, but I do known John Green’s work, and his writing voice is unmistakable here; crisp, witty, and also a bit quirky. There’s a reason the man is adored by legions of nerdfighters. It’s a good story, and it’s pretty well executed, but I would highly recommend it.

One thing about this book got me particularly excited and it’s that which I would like to focus on today. You can read reviews of this book in lots of places, so I’d rather explore a specific facet of the book which I found especially notable: Will Grayson, Will Grayson has a fabulous depiction of disability. This further supports my theory that young adult fiction tends to have better depictions of race, gender, sexuality, and disability than a lot of adult fiction and that some of this is a function of the author’s role not just as storyteller, but also as teacher. I love it when books have embedded commentary and when that commentary forces readers to rethink the way that they view something.

One of the eponymous Will Graysons of the title has depression. I’m not a fan of the typographical cutesyness of having his sections cast in lowercase type (to underscore the ennui, you know), but I do like the way that the character talks about depression. Because he does so in a way which I think makes depression more accessible and understandable to readers. His character isn’t built up as alien and odd; he’s one of the heroes of the story, and he avoids a lot of disability stereotypes. Not just avoids them, but actively deconstructs them and forces readers to do the same if they want to engage with the story.

He’s not tragic and he refuses to allow you to view him as tragic. Actually, the other Will Grayson feels like more of a tragic character to me. This is a nice shift from how these things usually go, where the character with depression is the sad and pitiful one and the story winds up being about how that character ‘overcomes.’  The Will Grayson with depression doesn’t overcome, he just is, and he’s not really interested in your  pity or sympathy, as a reader.

Two passages really stand out:

we’re coming dangerously close to the conversations i’d have with maura, when she’d say she knew exactly what i was going through, and i’d have to explain that, no, she didn’t, because her sadness never went as deep as mine. i had no doubt that tiny thought he was depressed, but that was probably because he had nothing to compare it to. still, what could i say? that i didn’t just feel depressed — instead, it was like the depression was the core of me, of every part of me, from my mind to my bones? that if he got blue, i got black?

Anna recently discussed this issue in ‘Words, Language, Context,’ talking about the words we use to describe things and how they mean different things for different people depending on one’s frame of reference.  Will Grayson has depression; when he talks about being depressed, this is what he means. That intensity of sadness so deep that you feel like you are never going to climb out. And this passage reflects a common frustration which some folks experience, where the words they use to describe their experience are used in ways which aren’t like their experiences, and seem to devalue their own experience as a result; calling a sad day ‘depression’ makes it sound like depression is a sad day which you can get over.

i think the idea of a ‘mental health day’ is something completely invented by people who  have no clue what it’s like to have bad mental health. the idea that your mind can be aired out in twenty-four hours is kind of like saying heart disease can be cured if you eat the right breakfast cereal. mental health days only exist for people who have the luxury of saying ‘i don’t want to deal with things today’ and then can take the whole day off, while the rest of us are stuck fighting the fights we always fight, with no one really caring one way or the other…

This, too, speaks to me as a reader. It’s a very excellent challenge to the way in which language is used which gets readers to rethink language not by confronting them directly, but by letting the character have his own voice. Although I would note that people without mental illnesses can also benefit from days in which they don’t deal with things for a day and take some time out for themselves, though ‘mental health day’ is not quite the phrase I would use to describe such a day, personally.

Speaking of language, Will Grayson, Will Grayson is not perfect with respect to disability. It is heavily salted with ‘lame’ this and ‘lame’ that, which felt a little bit grating just because it always grates on me now and also because I was so chuffed with how the book handled disability that it felt almost like a betrayal to have ableist language cropping up everywhere.

Beyond that issue, though, this is a book which forces people to think about disability in some different ways, and to actually understand a character with depression, rather than viewing him as some sort of abstract object lesson. It may not have been perfectly executed, but Will Grayson, Will Grayson is a far cry from a lot of other work out there right now. Will Grayson, Will Grayson also has some gay characters who a. differ from stereotypes about gay teens and b. are actually allowed to be sexual, which is also rather delightful.