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Sunday, September 7, 2014

'Guy in Real Life' by Steve Brezenoff

From the BLURB:

From the acclaimed author of ‘Brooklyn, Burning’ comes ‘Guy in Real Life’, an achingly real and profoundly moving love story about two Minnesota teens whose lives become intertwined through school, role-playing games, and a chance two-a.m. bike accident.

It is Labor Day weekend in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and boy and girl collide on a dark street at two thirty in the morning: Lesh, who wears black, listens to metal, and plays MMOs; Svetlana, who embroiders her skirts, listens to Björk and Berlioz, and dungeon masters her own RPG. They should pick themselves up, continue on their way, and never talk to each other again.

But they don't.

This is a story of two people who do not belong in each other's lives, who find each other at a time when they desperately need someone who doesn't belong in their lives. A story of those moments when we act like people we aren't in order to figure out who we are. A story of the roles we all play-at school, at home, with our friends, and without our friends-and the one person who might show us what lies underneath it all.

It’s a pretty typical night for Lesh Tungsten (his mum is a big Grateful Dead fan), he’s spent the night at a heavy metal concert with is best friend Greg, watching one of their favourite bands, and now he has a belly full of alcohol and the long walk home to puke his guts up. But while stumbling his way homeward bound he crashes into a girl on a bike – a beautiful, hippy girl wearing an odd long skirt and with her gold-white hair streaming around her. Even in his drunken, sorry state Lesh is struck by her beauty and commitment to alternative swear words – fiddlestick! He thinks that’s the last he’ll see of the mysterious girl …

Svetlana’s favourite sketchbook was ruined in the encounter with the drunken metal-boy last night. But it’s alright, because she has copies of her precious gamekeeper log – complete with drawings of the fabulously frightening monsters she and her friends encounter while playing their fantasy tabletop role-playing game (RPG). It should be the last time she thinks of that wretched drunkard boy, until she returns to school and spots him eating in the cafeteria. To avoid an unwanted amorous encounter with the son of her family’s friends, Svetlana decides to use the metal-boy as a distraction and dine with him … whereupon she learns that his name is Lesh and he isn’t so vile.

Lesh can’t quite believe that beautiful bike girl – real name the lip-bitingly sexy Svetlana – sat with him, let alone had a conversation with him. Admittedly, it was to avoid a fellow senior (and seeming lap-dog) named Fry, but Lesh will take it. Especially since his parents have recently grounded him, and Lesh is finding room confinement so awful, he’s turned to playing his best friend Greg’s ridiculously stupid and geeky multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG). Lesh is currently playing as an ogre – a boring, stupid, smelly ogre in this stupid boring online game. But, actually, since his second encounter with Svetlana, Lesh can’t stop thinking about her … that’s the excuse he’ll go with, if he gets caught out making a character in this online game who looks just like her (in elf form) named Svvetlana.

‘Guy in Real Life’ is the new contemporary YA novel by American author Steve Brezenoff.

This was such an interesting book, particularly for being a YA romance. I’d certainly say it’s unlike any other contemporary romance I’ve ever read, and that’s one of the book’s biggest strengths. It’s alternately narrated in first-person by Lesh, Svetlana and Lesh’s elf character creation ‘Svvetlana’, as she navigates the online game he’s playing. The book is really interesting for observing the teen worlds of role-playing (reminiscent of ‘Dungeons and Dragons’) and online game-playing (akin to ‘World of Warcraft’), but it’s real heart and soul lies in Lesh’s explorations into his feminie side when he enters into the online domain as female Svvetlana … and how confusing that is for him.

I started reading this book the same week that the news story broke about feminist video game critic, the fantastic Anita Sarkeesian, receiving a number of murder threats that resulted in her fleeing her home – further highlighting the reality behind the online misogyny she discusses in her YouTube show. Perhaps for that reason I found myself wishing that Brezenoff explored more the online harassment women experience online in MMORPG’s – particularly because Lesh was in a really interesting position to comment on it. As it is, there were one or two disturbing scenes that touched on the sexual harassment and brutality against women and they were fascinating and disturbing. Lesh observes his friend Greg playing the online game, and at one point stalking a female character (though it’s not clear if the actual person playing her is male or female), killing her, and then waiting for her resurrection to kill her again;

“This is lame,” I finally say after the next cold-blooded murder. I wonder why this girl doesn’t just log off, come back later. Go have a snack, talk a walk, whatever. Certainly this murderous d-bag I call Greg Deel wouldn’t stand here for that long, waiting for the resurrected elf to present herself for murder again. 
Maybe she was enjoying it too. 
“Don’t be a homo, Tung,” Greg says. “We’re not actually murdering a girl repeatedly. We’re messing with some faggoty noob who has no idea how to play his class. Any rogue should be able to rez, vanish, sprint the hell out of here without my killing him again.” 
“Him,” he says. “This is not a girl. I promise. There are no girls on the internet.”

I really, really loved this book – I got suckered into it so quickly, not unlike Lesh being unwittingly sucked into the online game. Brezenoff has done a marvellous job of teasing out Lesh and Svetlana’s real and fantasy worlds – in the real world Svetlana adores Björk, dragons, drawing and sewing, and is the black sheep in her all-American family of soccer fanatics who can’t understand why she doesn’t reciprocate the affections of Fry, the son of their oldest friends.

Lesh, meanwhile, has two parents who work all the time to put food on the table. He’s trying to deal with his raging hormones that alternate between fantasizing about beautiful, strawberry-smelling Svetlana and metal girl Jelly, whose belly-button ring sends him to distraction. He loves heavy metal, but his time as the good, loyal and morally righteous Svvetlana has him feeling shame and wondering if the next step after game-playing as a woman online is turning to drag in real life.

If I had any other complaints about the book, it’s that a character who is only revealed at the very end felt interesting enough to have perhaps warranted a fourth narrative. But that’s a minor complaint, and I think that character still served an important service that spun back around to highlighting the online/offline abuse of women.

I loved ‘Guy in Real Life’. It’s the first YA book I’ve ever read (though I’m not claiming there are none others out there) that so beautifully explores these fantasy-created worlds that many people live in, and the disconnection between who we are online and who we wish we were offline. Brezenoff touches on sexism and misogyny, and through Lesh’s creation of Svvetlana he really excels at having his male character walk a mile in a woman’s shoes. Outstanding, and a favourite novel of 2014 for sure.


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