Alex As Well by Alyssa Brugman
Review by M
Alex As Well is compulsive reading both for Brugman’s writing style and the novel’s subject matter of gender assignment. Alex As Well tells the story of Alex, who is born with indeterminate sexing but is declared a boy. Now, at fourteen, he decides that really, Alex is a girl. The true grit of this novel is in the rub: how can something as simple as sex organs create so much fuss?
While in many ways it is an important and delving issues book, the writing style lifts it so that it becomes something much more. The internal dialogues between Alex (she) and Alex-as-well (he) are both moving and funny, and manage to say a lot about being a teenager in general. They help to make a very gritty piece of realism become something occasionally cheerful too.
Stylistically, Brugman takes some chances. There are frequent references to song lyrics, TV, and other contemporary popular culture that were unfamiliar to me. While these reinforced the notion of different experiences, this also slightly distanced me from the text.
Brugman also uses threads from Alex’s mother, Heather’s, internet forums where she vents her concerns and anxieties. These contain deliberate typos (as the immediacy of social media often does) but they work really well as a way of exploring the very different perspectives that parents (and other people) have with regards to both parenting practices and gender assignment and identification. The parent-child relationship in this novel is a difficult and unpleasant one. It stretches well beyond gender issues and is fraught with all sorts of tensions and not always likeable characters.
Tonally and image-wise, Alex As Well is reminiscent of the film version of 'Breakfast on Pluto' and there are thematic and plot similarities with 'Ma Vie en Rose'.
The most curious and interesting element, for me, is how the novel (whether advertently or not) shows how different responses to intersexing can both subvert and reinforce gender stereotypes. Alex as two (or split) identities as boy-and-girl reinforces gender stereotypes. A focus on bodily aesthetics also takes prominence but through this, and representations of androgyny, it also cleverly asks what is a boy and what is a girl? Can we really tell the difference and does it even matter?
The novel does not offer cut and dry answers and some of the plot seems unlikely and controversial (could a fourteen year old legally and realistically do some of the things that Alex does?), but this possibly goes hand-in-hand with the complexities of the subject matter. Because of this, some readers may find the ending unsatisfying. I did – but I can also see all sorts of reasons why a different ending might not have worked at all.
Alex As Well is a straight talking book that gets down and explores some of the fundamental nitty gritties about Western gendered identities.
UK Publication details: Curious Fox, May 2014, London, paperbackThis copy: uncorrected proof from the publisher