Gender Fluidity in Fiction: Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin
Symptoms of Being Human
Balzer & Bray
Jeff Garvin’s debut novel Symptoms of Being Human is a contemporary young adult novel starring Riley Cavanaugh, the only child of a prominent California congressman. The story opens on the morning of Riley’s first day at a new school, detailing the process of eating breakfast, chatting with the parents, and getting dressed. This would be an entirely lackluster start to a novel if it weren’t for one very important detail—Riley is gender fluid.
For those of you not in the know, gender fluid is a non-binary gender identity. Most people (dare I say everyone?) are familiar with the binary concept of gender identity—you’re either male or female. Man or woman. Girl or boy. But, as Riley teaches us over the course of the story, that’s not always the case. Gender isn’t a binary. In Riley’s own words, “It’s not a switch, it’s a dial.”
I was lucky enough to pick this book up already being somewhat familiar with non-binary genders. That’s not likely to be the case for many readers, but Garvin does a superb job of holding the reader’s hands while they learn. Using Riley’s blog (which is “Definitely Not Tumblr”), Garvin delves into the nuances of non-binary gender identities and the complexity of gender fluidity without being preachy or overwhelming with the information. Symptoms is accessible in a very encouraging way.
Full disclosure: I’m a ciswoman. I was born in a female body, and I continue to identify as female, so I can’t personally relate to a lot of what Riley goes through over the course of Garvin’s novel. My thoughts on the subject should be taken with a grain of salt as there are people far more qualified than me to tell you if Garvin accurately portrays the struggles of a genderqueer teenager. That said, there was a ring of truth to Riley’s issues with anxiety, to their waxing and waning dysphoria, and to their feelings about their situation as a whole.
There is a tendency among books dealing with LGBTQ issues to slip into very dark places. This is understandable, given the hatred and violence LGBTQ people can face on a daily basis, but it’s not something I typically enjoy reading. I don’t want to walk away from a novel feeling worse about myself and the world. I don’t want to read anything that will make me feel physically ill. It’s rare that I want to read a book that will make me cry.
Luckily for me, Jeff Garvin steers clear of all this in Symptoms. He doesn’t handle Riley with kid gloves, and the text certainly deals with violence and bigotry, but not in a gratuitous way. Riley isn’t tortured for the sake of adding more pain, and I never felt like I need to put the book down and step away for a few hours—on the contrary, I could have read this book in one sitting if I hadn’t had to get up for work the next morning.
So, if you’re worried that Symptoms will be another book where the queer protagonist doesn’t get a happy ending, you don’t need to be. By the time you finish it, all plot threads will be neatly tucked away, and (spoiler alert!) Riley will be happy. Happy-ish. Riley is, after all, still a teenager, just a teenager of indeterminate gender.