Monday 11 September 2017

Antisocial, Heidi Cullinan

Belief is powerful and important. Without it, we’re nothing but ants crawling across the dirt

Xander Fairchild can’t stand people in general and frat boys in particular, so when he’s forced to spend his summer working on his senior project with Skylar Stone, a silver-tongued Delta Sig with a trust fund who wants to make Xander over into a shiny new image, Xander is determined to resist.

Skylar’s life has been laid out for him since before he was born, but all it takes is one look at Xander’s artwork, and the veneer around him begins to crack. Xander himself does plenty of damage too. There’s something about the antisocial artist’s refusal to yield that forces Skylar to acknowledge how much his own orchestrated future is killing him slowly…as is the truth about his gray-spectrum sexuality, which he hasn’t dared to speak aloud, even to himself.

Through a summer of art and friendship, Xander and Skylar learn more about each other, themselves, and their feelings for one another.

* *

2 / 5

When I read the last page of Antisocial, I really wasn’t sure how to feel about what I had just read. At all. Antisocial is a male/male romance novel that reads like a fanfiction with original characters; the characters begin as archetypes, the whole book is weirdly into Japan yet, as far as I could tell, has no Japanese characters, it’s really cutesy and then exceedingly sexual, it’s serious and deep and then all about the *power of love and friendship* (tm). Antisocial is an odd book, it’s one that I rolled my eyes at one page, awkwardly turned my Kindle off when I was on the bus another page, and then almost cried at. 

“he left it unfinished, frustrated because it hadn’t satisfied him the way he wanted, but it had been a heady rush of creation, and now the beast was spent”

To begin with, we have our walking clichés: Xander Fairchild, troubled and angry artist who makes great paintings and then destroys them, who has no friends and doesn’t need any anyway because he just haaaates people they’re so rubbish. Whilst this attitude was a bit annoying, I loved the scenes that focused on Xander as an artist: the process of creation, imagination, and the feeling that your physical art can never match what you have in your head. Then we have Skylar Stone, aspiring lawyer and frat boy, who secretly loves manga and reads Hotay & Moo, the manga that Xander illustrates for the university paper. The two meet when members of Skylar’s fraternity vandalise a mural that Xander had painted; Skylar decides to try and repair the damage by making his senior business project about helping art students develop their business image and social media presence. Xander, who despises social media, is pressured into accepting Skylar’s help by his art professor, who requires that Xander presents a social media plan to get attendees to an art show. 

I really enjoyed most of the first half. It’s a sweet, if traditionally fanfiction-esque, meeting, plot, and romance: reluctance to spend any time together on Xander’s part, Skylar’s trying to get to know this reclusive manga artist, the two opening up to each other about their personal problems, which include horrible parents and financial issues. There’s the supporting cast, the members of Lucky 7, who are Xander’s colleagues on the manga, who are diverse and friendly, coming together to support Xander and Skylar like it’s some sort of musical. Antisocial initially had all the hallmarks of a sweet YA romance and I was enjoying it. 

And then. Bang on 50%, virtually, it gets really sort of sexual. Xander is gay and has known this since he was young where he was bullied for it. Skylar isn’t really sure what he is, shunning labels and trying to maintain his playboy façade. Disclaimer: I’m asexual (this is important to the review, I swear!). The synopsis suggests that Skylar is gray-spectrum asexuality, which I’m not entirely convinced is a necessary distinction, but that’s neither here nor there. I feel kind of conflicted about the “representation” here; on the one hand, it’s so great to have asexual characters who don’t have sex with their partners to “please them” or whatever nonsense, and for the characters to have an in-depth discussion about what they want. I also felt that Skylar was quite relatable; wanting to have a relationship, to be close with someone, but feeling like this is difficult because you don’t want to have sex and that finding someone who fits those criteria feels like a miracle! I really saw myself in this. 

However, they also have these really weird scenes where they hold hands are both panting, acting like hand-holding in front of others is deliciously naughty, and claiming that they are “heavily making out”. Are they Vulcans?? No. I felt like not only was this super weird but that it gave the idea that because Skylar doesn’t want sex, more innocent activities, like hand holding, must become sexualised for Xander. There’s this bit where Xander tells Skylar it’s okay to orgasm when he’s painting on his hand! What. It was also just super awkward to read and definitely pushed the book way out of YA and into adult or new adult, which I felt was a touch misleading. 

“the college was rich with Japanese culture, though bizarrely low on people of actual Japanese heritage, and it had always been that way”

The other main problem that I had with this book was that it felt a bit fetish-y. The university campus was supposedly founded by Japanese-Americans to remind them of home, and Xander and Skylar are obsessed with Japan. It was cringe worthy and definitely reminded me of when I was like ten and used random Japanese words in my speech (you know, like desu and whatnot) and drew loads of manga. Bits of Japanese culture absolutely saturate this book and, as far as I can tell (correct me if I’m wrong, please!), there are no Japanese characters in this book. Xander and Skylar dream about moving to Japan, becoming Japanese mangaka, they use random Japanese phrases when they’re getting it on, pack each other Bento lunches and go on hunts for Japanese shrines, refer to their own developing romance in terms of anime. It moved from being about a guy that made a manga and another guy that read and enjoyed it, to being really obsessed and weird. 

Like I said, I was very conflicted about this book. On the one hand, the start was amazing and cute and made me smile, and I was impressed by how it had a fanfiction sort of feel but was original, but it was also way too long, the characters felt like young teenagers despite being about 23, and the Japanese influence was too much. Antisocial had a good look at some difficult themes – coming to terms with your sexuality, dealing with pressuring parents – and I applaud the author for doing this, regardless of how I feel that Antisocial missed the mark for me. 

My thanks to Netgalley and the author for an ARC of this book

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