In Raziel Reid’s first novel, protagonist Jude Rothesay makes both a remarkable debut and a haunting exit. The spectacular Jude may be one of fiction’s more captivating characters, yet he has some conspicuous similarities with the very real man who created him.
Throughout Reid’s just-published book, When Everything Feels Like the Movies, Jude swans through high school like the star of a dramedy in which everyone else plays a supporting role. Rapid of wit and vicious of barb, Jude has designed for himself a role that buffers him from the consequences of being a spectacularly gay high schooler, a particular form of stardom that was not Reid’s reality.
“I would’ve liked to have been like Jude,” Reid says. “I think he was a lot braver than me.”
In Jude, Reid may have created an alter ego, of sorts, but the clamour for schoolyard stardom is definitely fantasy. “I was sort of shy,” he says. “I wanted to be under the radar. I didn’t want to be so visible because already I was tall, gay and recognizable, so I already stood out. And growing up in Manitoba — it’s not the most progressive province.”
Jude may not be an exact avatar of Reid, but Jude’s sharp tongue has Reid’s distinctive style. And Reid, who also writes Xtra’s social column in Vancouver, has further blurred the lines between reality and make-believe by basing the fictional character loosely on a real person.
Reid’s impetus for the novel was the 2008 murder of 15-year-old California high schooler Larry King. In front of a bunch of jocks, King asked 14-year-old Brandon McInerney to be his Valentine. A couple of days later, McInerney brought a .22 rifle to school and shot King twice in the head.
When Reid heard the news, he was that shy high school senior, skipping school and watching Ellen DeGeneres, who swapped her witty, dancy opening for a teary, defiant plea for tolerance. Reid, too, was galvanized and moved to tears, and that moment was the seed of the novel.
For Jude, the world of the mind, of imagination and fantasy, is a refuge, though one that proves fatally ephemeral. “He’s eternally delusional,” Reid says. “I think Jude always saved himself through his imagination, so even when horrible things were happening, he twisted them around, manipulated things to suit what he wanted it to be, or what he thought it should have been or could have been. That was his saving grace. That was what got him through every day.”
The theme of the book, ultimately, is the queer imagination as a defence mechanism, he says. Reid says Jude represents a larger phenomenon in the gay male experience.
“Every young gay guy I know wants to be famous, or thinks they are famous,” Reid says. “It’s this weird thing; it’s like a cultural disease, almost, that we all have. Social media amplifies it, but I feel like it’s rooted in insecurity. A lot of gay people were not very popular in high school, and picked on, and so they dream of sort of showing everyone that they are special. That was certainly Jude’s goal — just prove all of his haters wrong.”
Is it a social disease, a need for fame or infamy, that drove Reid to craft When Everything Feels Like the Movies? Is the story of a fictional character who goes through life as if he is a movie star the vehicle that will drive the author into public adulation and celebrity? Reid deflects this too-obvious suggestion. “I’m already famous,” he laughs.
Reid may have been joking. Yet only days into his first cross-Canada book tour, When Everything Feels Like the Movies was shortlisted for the 2014 Governor General’s Literary Awards in the children’s book category. A nomination in Canada’s most prestigious literary competition is a stunning accolade . . . but is this a “children’s book”?
The book is classified as young adult fiction, Reid explains, “because we had to pick a label, and I chose that one.” It may not seem like conventional young adult fiction, but Reid says most gay YA titles are sugarcoated. This book, with its frank discussions of both sexuality and violence, categorically is not.
So what does it mean that a novel like this is acknowledged as one of the best Canada has to offer?
“We are getting braver and getting with the times and understanding youth better, perhaps,” Reid says, acknowledging that the judges will ultimately decide.
“They’re either going to be for it because it’s sort of innovative and revolutionary or against it because it’s kind of shocking and outrageous,” Reid says. “It doesn’t walk the line.”
The recipients of this year’s awards will be announced on Nov 18.