A few weeks ago, we received a review copy of Surprising Myself by Christopher Bram, from Open Road Media, which published 3 titles from him as ebooks this May, as part of their Pride Month Events. I had never heard of Bram before receiving the email from Open Road Media, but he sounded like an interesting figure, and I decided to give the book a try. I narrowly missed Pride Month, I know, but I'm glad I discovered this author.
Surprising Myself is Bram's first book. It is narrated form a first-person perspective, by the main character, Joel Scherzenlieb. The book opens with Joel working as a counselor at a Boy Scout camp, reading Ayn Rand and being bullied by the other counselors for his perceived homosexuality. Joel is sure he isn't gay, and he's sure about what he wants to do in life: go back to his father in Switzerland, go to college, become a successful businessman (or lawyer, or something else respectable and ambitious), and live according to the objectivist philosophy of Rand. Of course, his life doesn't pan out this way. We follow him as he comes out as gay, and then through the ups and downs of his relationship with his boyfriend, Corey, and with his family. A lot of the external conflict is centered around Joel's relationship with his father (whose betrayal deprives Joel of the opportunity to go to college) and around Joel's sister's, Liza, marriage and her attempt to get away from her emotionally abusive husband, Bob. The inner conflict is about Joel's doubts and confusion regarding love, and his trying to figure out whether or not his relationship with Corey is True Love™.
I must confess right off the bat that I didn't get really invested in Joel. His indecision can get very tiresome at times, and his biased and self-serving judgments of people are off-putting (for example, his distaste for Wyler Reese, stemming from his own insecurities and guilt). Besides, his lack of self-awareness and his constant surprise at his own feelings and actions, while believable and honest-sounding, made him rather annoying.
But the novel manages to balance out the immaturity, childishness and self-absorption of its narrator with the complex and nuanced view of the world that the author obviously has. This is a hard trick to pull, and it results in a couple of instances where Joel seems to be breaking character in order to explain things that you could have sworn he wouldn't be able to understand. But these missteps aren't common; most of the time Joel's weird psychological constitution (his dream-like relation with his own desires and decisions) allows him to give us the facts first and his opinion on them afterwards.
The family drama aspect of the novel was my favorite part. I especially enjoyed the Liza/Bob subplot and Jake's character arc, which added suspense and comedy to the story. The story also brushes against larger social issues, like gender politics in rural USA, masculinity issues in the gay scene, or the way social class models expectations and entitlement, which was also a cool aspect.
Everything had been thrown up in the air. It hung above you—windows, stones, billboards—ready to fall, yet staying aloft a moment longer while you hurried beneath it. [...] The city is even laid out like a newspaper: long columns of print, with grey parks instead of photographs, five-story signs in place of headlines. The city left itself on your hands, like smudged ink.
[Liza]: "Right now, we've got all the hang-ups of the middle class, and none of the money."
I was sorry for him. He had done it to himself; I remembered who he was, but nevertheless, I was sorry for him. I was surprised by the intensity of my pity. But Robert Kearney, who had seemed so distant and solid when he was a threatening enemy, had become a blur in defeat. Feeling sorry for him was as natural as feeling sorry for myself.
I couldn't get out of it. Anything I said about me and Corey became a criticism of her and Kearney. We were equals, they weren't and Liza had said she defended me, as if she thought there was something wrong about being the woman. I could make peace only by becoming explicit. “It’s just semantics, Liza. If you mean ‘anal intercourse,’ just say ‘anal intercourse.’"
The Bottom LineSurprising Myself was an enjoyable and thought-provoking read. What's more, the edition we received also contains an essay by the author, called A Body in Books: A Memoir in a Reading List, which was really, really cool. It consists of a list of 13 books that have marked the author's understanding and acceptance of his sexuality, with commentary. While the framing may seem a bit dry, the essay is actually a very engaging read, both touching and funny at times. Sample:
If I sometimes read with my dick, it must be said that a hard cock isn't always the proverbial blinding beam in the eye. It can be a pointer, a compass needle, a divining rod.
All in all, I think I may read some more of Bram's stuff in the future.