Bienvenidos, my lovelies. Nikkie here with another After Word, this time talking about a book that is coming out TODAY. That’s right, y’all: I got my hands on an ARC. I have my gig with the Barnes and Noble Teen blog to thank for that, so hooray for free books!
Since this is a new release, I will try to avoid as many spoilers as I can. This will be a little difficult because I didn’t actually care for the book, and some of my issues with it relate to plot. So it will be lightly spoiler-y.
Jess, Chunk, and the Road Trip to Infinity, written by Kristin Elizabeth Clark, is the story of a trans girl named Jess (born Jeremy) who is going on a road trip with her best friend Chunk (real name Christophe) to crash her dad’s wedding. See, her dad doesn’t believe that she’s trans; he thinks she’s just going through a phase because her parents are divorced and thus Papa Bear wasn’t around enough. (This is of course a shitty thing for him to think, but sometimes parents are shitty, so what are you gonna do?) Initially, Jess declined to go to the wedding—partially because of the trans thing and partially because her dad is marrying her mom’s former best friend. Chunk convinced her that it would be the perfect chance to show her dad how she sees herself, now that she’s been taking hormones and plans to start dressing how she wants. So they embark on a journey from southern California to Chicago, enduring (sexual) tension and meeting new friends(?) along the way.
This book was a hard read for me. And I was wary saying this because I didn’t want people to assume that it’s because I’m uncomfortable reading about a protagonist who is trans. That’s not the case. My discomfort didn’t have anything to do with the fact that Jess was trans; it had everything to do with the fact that she’s kind of a terrible person! To shorthand her terribleness: she’s self-centered, fat-phobic, and oblivious.
First, we tackle the self-centeredness. There’s a certain acceptable percentage to this quality, given what she’s going through. Transitioning is a big deal, so I can’t really fault her for spending most of her time thinking about herself, about whether she’s “passing,” about what people think when they see her. So as grating as that got, I couldn’t quite justify being upset at her for it. But then this happened: Jess and Chunk were talking about an asshole they went to school with, and Chunk was saying that he was horribly bullied by the guy. Jess doesn’t believe him, saying that the guy was mean to everyone. Chunk describes the level of harassment he endured; Jess says “He was a dick to me too!” But she immediately thinks about how all the guy did was make some limp-wristed gestures in her general vicinity (she was still presenting herself as a gay boy at school to avoid the additional controversy of her gender identity) and how she wouldn’t count that as being straight-up bullied. Unlike what Chunk described, which included vicious taunts in gym class, cruel songs, and cheating off Chunk (a near-certified genius) during tests.
The fact that Jess is so quick to write off her best friend’s feelings while wanting to make sure her supposed suffering went on the record was too much for me. How could she justify that behavior? She was basically telling Chunk that what he felt wasn’t real . . . much like how her father was trying to tell her that she was just going through a phase and would regret hormone treatments. She apologies, but I feel like it’s too late. That kind of self-absorbed behavior shouldn’t be rewarded the way that it is at the end of the book.
This feeds into her fat-phobia a little. Chunk is obese. The nickname Super Chunk was given to him by a gym teacher (in a positive way), but naturally the last part is what took among their classmates. As the road trip continues, it becomes very clear to the reader that Chunk is beginning to feel self-conscious about his weight. Jess doesn’t notice because the only thing she cares about is the fact that he’s been texting some Internet girl for most of the trip. So it doesn’t compute for her that 1) Chunk is clearly planning on meeting up with this girl and 2) he is worried that she won’t like the way he looks in person. When an old woman thinks that Chunk and Jess might be a couple, Jess is so elated that she “passes” that she doesn’t really stop to think about why Chunk acts so strangely in response. (Spoiler alert: it’s not because he’s worried about what the implications of Jess being trans has on his sexuality.) So despite Jess being an expert on body image issues, she is completely unaware of the way Chunk feels about his own body. She still calls him Chunk, for God’s sake! Which I am doing because it’s how he’s referred to for most of the book (and also he’s not real).
The way Jess’s actual fat-phobia comes into play has little to do with Chunk, though. As we all are with our friends, we hardly see their bodies beyond the bags of flesh that carry around the minds of one of the people we love most. But when it comes to other fat people, Jess thinks very poorly of them. Her mother’s best friend, Jan, is a plus-sized gal, and Jess either thinks of her as pitiful or disgusting for it. If Jan weren’t actually fat, I would forgive Jess for thinking of her as a “fat cow” after she finds out the identity of her dad’s new girlfriend. How would you feel if you found out your mom’s best friend (a mom who has recently beaten cancer, by the way) had ditched her six months ago to start shacking up with your dad? You probably wouldn’t like her that much! But the fact that Jan IS fat and that it’s what Jess focuses on when she wants to hurt her feelings . . . I can’t support that. It doesn’t matter if Jess ultimately starts to see the truth of her horrible behavior (because even as she’s doing so, she’s like “Look at how happy Jan looks right now; it doesn’t matter that she’s even bigger than a size 14”). What matter is how she sees a particular body type that isn’t the “conventional” beauty and registers it as a flaw.
At the tail end of the road trip, Chunk and Jess accept some hospitality from a girl they almost crash into with their car, Annabelle. She lives in Omaha, which is on their way, and she offers them a good night’s sleep in exchange for helping her out (plus she wants to offer Jess some “girl clothes”). Annabelle lives with her grandmother, Mamie, and Mamie’s boyfriend, Joe. When they enter the abode, Jess is visibly shocked at the size of agoraphobic Mamie; she’s easily 400 pounds. Joe looks at Jess cross-ways, which Jess might assume is because of her being trans, but in actuality, it’s because of the way she reacts to Mamie’s weight. During a major fight that Chunk and Jess have before he meets up with Internet Girl, he says that he also noticed Jess’s more or less horror at the sight of Mamie, and he did not appreciate it.
So Jess’s discomfort (and seeming disgust) for people who carry a bit more poundage was very upsetting to me, and not enough was done to get her to see the true error of her ways. Chunk calls her out for being self-centered and dismissive, but instead of really evaluating her behavior, she realizes (spoiler alert) she’s in love with him. Ugh.
Finally, Jess’s obliviousness, which should already have been documented by her inability to realize that Chunk’s behavior had to do with him setting up a date. It takes Jess an INSANELY long amount of time to realize that the reason she’s so upset about Chunk spending his time talking to a girl is because she’s into it. Never mind the fact that I think this development is horrible (because it’s so obvious); the fact that I basically know it from the moment they set out on this road trip and it takes her until AFTER THE FIGHT (which is during the last 30 pages of the book) to figure it out for herself. What. Even. Is. That.
First, she plays it off like she’s offended that he could think someone he knows from the Internet could ever match the friendship that she has with him. This is a weak argument for several reasons, but namely the one that sticks in my craw is the fact that she’s a newer millennial. Aren’t they basically born on the Internet?! Isn’t it part of their social DNA? It’s weird that she doesn’t think Internet friendships count as real. Tangentially, I think it’s weird that she hasn’t reached out to the online trans community. She talks briefly about reading articles and how that made her learn to stay away from the comments sections—had she just never read anything online before?—but at no point does she try and connect with her community. That’s weird. But whatever; apparently that’s how she feels. It’s still a stupid excuse for being upset that he’s texting this girl so much.
Here’s what really kills me though. She eventually begins using the word jealous to describe her behavior . . . and it STILL takes her till the end of the book to realize that she’s in love with him.
At one point, she’s feeding him a bite of her sandwich while he’s driving, and his lips brush her knuckles. She gets all tingly, and she wonders if he felt it too. During a game of Truth, she asks him what his ideal physical traits are when it comes to someone he’s interested in, and she’s on high alert waiting for him to respond. When they’re at Annabelle’s and he’s keeping Annabelle company while she smokes, Jess overhears her ask him if he is interested in Jess romantically, and Jess is beside herself wanting to know his answer. And yet she STILL DOESN’T REALIZE SHE’S INTO HIM.
For someone who spends literally all of her time thinking about herself, she has a frustratingly low capacity to understand her own feelings. For fuck’s sake, Jess. Get it together.
I really wish I had liked this book more. The fact that its protagonist is trans means it’s already on a short list of books that will receive hella praise because it’s Telling An Important Story That Needs To Be Told.
I call bullshit.
Is it important to have diverse books? Of course. I may not feel that I need a book’s main characters to look like me in order to truly connect with it, but I understand people wanting to see themselves as the stars of a story. Especially if they come from a marginalized group, like trans individuals. But that doesn’t mean they should just accept any story just for the sake of representation.
This is similar to my Asha/Yara Greyjoy complaint post. At the end of the day, what frustrates me the most about the implication of her being a lesbian is the way it’s portrayed. While a friend of mine agreed that it wasn’t the best way to introduce it, she was just happy to see some representation of her community. And that’s horribly upsetting! No one should just have to take what they can get! They should get quality representation in quality stories across all media. Jess, Chunk, and the Road Trip to Infinity just feels sloppy, and I don’t think we should praise it just because it explores a trans girl’s life. As a protagonist, Jess is just not likable, and her shitty attitude isn’t even explored in a way that makes it justifiable. She’s never truly redeems herself in my eyes, yet she gets the happy ending as if she’s made a 180.
Additionally, the pacing of the book was just bad. Perhaps I’m just used to reading longer books (this clocked in at 259 pages), so my ability to adjust to faster pacing is never being exercised. But the fact that the entire purpose of the road trip is to get to her dad’s wedding, and then we literally spend only TEN PAGES there, is just so horrible to me, I can’t even articulate it beyond a string of exclamation points and angry-faced emoji. Someone please explain to me how I’m supposed to be satisfied with that. The confrontation with her dad isn’t even half of those pages! If we’re only counting the pages that include yelling, it’s two. TWO. PAGES.
The road trip itself was boring. Maybe it was because I had decided pretty early on that I didn’t like this book, so I was just anxious to get it over with. In fact, I’m going to give the book the benefit of the doubt and say that it was my dislike that made things feel like they were dragging on forever (which I don’t think is what Clark intended when she named it the Road Trip to Infinity.)
Sigh. Y’all. I just couldn’t get behind this book. I’m really sorry. I hate that I can’t find anything nice to say about this, and I truly debated even blogging about it because of the sensitive nature of the subject matter. But, ultimately, I had to stand by my own belief that diverse stories shouldn’t get extra points just for being diverse. I will not be shocked when I see this book getting all sorts of praise (which will be hard to hear under the sound of the reviewers patting themselves on the back for being so inclusive). I will just be really, really disappointed.
That’s all for me today, my friends. I hope to bring you something more positive with whatever I’m blogging about next; my Gilmore Girls continuation isn’t scheduled until the end of the month, but I haven’t decided what I’m going to talk before then. Tentatively, I will say another After Word with Jennifer Niven’s Holding Up the Universe, but I’m not sure when I’m actually going to read it. Since I read during my commute, I don’t want to get to the parts that make me cry right before work! So we’ll see what we see, won’t we?
May your TBR piles tower but never topple,