John reads “Turnabout” over the holidays.
It was on all the holiday book lists. Something about atypical choices for fiction. John doesn’t really know, he didn’t read the reviews. He just picked it up because he was bored out of his skull.
The writing is a bit pedestrian, like the verbal description of a film, but it’s engaging. He has about twelve urges to tweet his impressions of the first chapter before he finally manages to turn off that part of his brain, and after that the novel has his full attention. The main story is about a conspiracy within a fictional football league, and there’s a romance subplot. The romance is about two men, and John can’t help but note that there’s something refreshing about the fact that he didn't know before starting to read. It wasn’t sold as a “gay” novel. That’s good, isn't it? Not to mention that he feels virtuous about reading something that’s not heteronormative.
He’s entirely distracted by the book — which is perfect, that’s exactly what he wanted — until he gets to the scene where the main character kisses the man he’s been in love with since the start. He reads two pages of the characters getting physical with each other and John thinks: this is wrong. It’s — it’s incorrect. There’s something far, far too even-tempered about the prose and what it’s describing. It’s oddly unconcerned. John would even go so far as to call it placid. And that’s not right.
The second the characters become involved, the narration in “Turnabout” is about whose hand is on which shoulder, about the exact location of each kiss, like the purpose of the book is to teach the choreography of each character, rather than describe what it feels like to be them. And, John decides, that would be acceptable, were the choreography something the reader could identify with. But these characters appear to change personalities as soon as they start kissing, all of a sudden acting smooth and serene despite the fact that the entire romantic subplot was been based on their being emotionally incompetent.
John thinks, it isn’t that this author is describing something they’ve never done. André Aciman wrote “Call Me By Your Name” without ever having so much as kissed a man, let alone had a relationship with one, and look how that turned out. No, this author has no excuse. And the editor! What can they have been thinking?
John’s never kissed someone for whom he’s been pining for that long, but imagining it and then describing it realistically can’t be that hard, can it? There’s no excuse for this author. It’s not - take this paragraph:
Owen presses his hand to Simon’s chest, and whispers, “Okay?” a second before he leans in to kiss him. Simon moves forward, eager, and they lose their balance, falling over sideways, Simon landing awkwardly on top of the love of his life. An embarrassing display of clumsiness for two football players, but Owen grins at him crookedly from underneath him, and Simon really only has one response to that. They kiss until Simon’s lips go numb and swollen, and then keep kissing anyway.
You see? It would never happen that way. When you’ve pined for someone for a long time, holding them in your arms, let alone kissing them, must be... what’s a stronger word for “overwhelming?” It must feel — John grasps for the right word — it would be unreal. It would be thrilling and terrifying and - no that’s not it. “Thrilling and terrifying” sounds an amusement park’s description of their roller coaster. It wouldn’t be like that it would be like — John opens his thesaurus app — shattering.
The beginning would be… there could be all kinds of beginnings, John realizes. It could begin without you really noticing, because you’re pissed and you leaned in before thinking about it, but it could also begin as a result of you deciding to do it. You could decide everything you’re going to do and everything you’re going to say, and the love of your life could say ‘yes.’ You’d realize, then, that you could do it, that you could actually lean in and kiss. And then it would be… John stops to think. It would probably be very odd, wouldn’t it? Sometimes when you think too long and too hard about something, when it actually happens it’s just weird.
You see? John thinks. That would have been an interesting place for this narrative to go. It might have been:
He yanks Simon so he stumbles and knocks into him, and Owen’s kissing him in the next moment.
John grabs a pencil and writes, in the margin, "And then it was just weird, like all of Simon’s ideas about how it would go are all rushing to his brain at once, and his brain is overworked trying to match one of them to the reality, and as a result, Simon is disconnected from the kiss. Until Owen shifts his body against Simon’s and stops kissing just long enough to say “Simon. Stop thinking. Stop thinking.” And suddenly, all of his blood rushes to his crotch and (etc.)"
Honestly, it’s not that hard.
Then again, John thinks, the author of “Turnabout” probably had the same thought while writing this scene. People think “see? It’s not that hard” while embarrassing themselves all the time. Writing something terrible feels exactly the same as writing something good! John knows, he’s done both. That doesn’t explain why the editor didn’t — but no, John knows about that too. Publishing houses only care to make changes if they think it’ll affect sales. If this editor didn’t think that rewriting this section would improve their bottom line, they didn’t ask the author to do it.
There’s a lot more skin than he’s used to having access to. This time when they go back to kissing, it’s skin against skin.
John still wants to know what happens in the main plot, so he continues reading. One thing you can say about this book, he thinks, that you can’t say about literary fiction, is that it isn’t shying away from a sexually explicit scene. And it isn’t ironic either. It’s… it’s…
Simon is warm and Owen loves dragging his fingertips down Simon’s sides. He likes the way he shivers when he does it.
Oh god, John thinks, it’s awful. It’s just… No! He wants to shout at the book. That’s not what love feels like! Love is not cheeky choreography. It never has been. Love is like - kissing someone you’re in love with is like being in the most familiar and safe space you’ve ever been while simultaneously discovering the secrets of the universe. Kissing someone you’re in love with for whom you’ve been pining for years would feel like — John struggles to find the right word — it would feel like…
And that’s when it happens. Right then. Sitting there, fixated on this popular fiction, no, on the inexcusable flaw in this work of popular fiction. It’s never happened before, he’s pretty sure, but now it’s happening, in fact it’s been happening for minutes now and he just didn’t notice. John is thinking about what it would be like to kiss Elis.
That’s what he’s been thinking about from the start. Carefully, attentively. Imagining it so that he can describe it because he knows, he knows that it would never, ever be like the kiss in this book. Because apparently, his need to be right is the one thing on earth powerful enough to break through to that particular repressed thought.
He never finishes the book.