The College was lucky to host novelist Ariel Schrag last Thursday and Friday for a radio session, reading and workshop. Trenchant and amiable in person, Schrag visited to promote her new novel, Adam, but the prolific writer has also produced four graphic memoirs – Awkward, Definition, Potential and Likewise – all based on her struggle with identity during her high school years. She has adapted Potential for a feature film and has written for HBO and Showtime, and her illustrations and comics have been published in Time Out New York, The Village Voice, Paper and others. The graduate of Columbia University now teaches at The New School.
Schrag read from Adam last Thursday evening to a captivated audience in Goodrich Hall. Her prose is simultaneously funny and consequential, both layered and accessible. The short reading exhibited Schrag’s ability to condense a range of emotional and intellectual implications into small spaces. Each member of her story’s cast is unique and complex. Adam, the title character, is a straight male teenager who moves in with his older sister Casey in New York City. Casey, a lesbian, is active in both social and political circles related to gay and transgender rights. She pulls her younger brother into this subculture, which Schrag notes was largely unnoticed and ignored by the general population in the year of the novel’s setting – 2006. When Adam meets Gillian, an older lesbian, he crafts two lies in order to win her affection: he fibs that he is 22 and then takes advantage of the misperceptions of several of his new friends to falsely pose as transgender.
Schrag read two beautifully crafted scenes. The first, set in a karaoke bar, showed Adam struggling to maintain his double life – his friend from high school, Brad, is unaware of his ruse, but a new transgender friend in the group is dropping hints of solidarity with Adam. Brad’s futile attempts to charm a lesbian in front of her girlfriend trigger facetious dialogue from the couple, both women fully aware of his foolishness. Ultimately, everyone is distracted by song, and Adam finds himself reveling at the peak of his successful deception, both symbolically and literally.
Schrag’s second scene is poignant, where Adam and Brad return home to discover several of their friends confronting the news of the murder of a transgender women. The unique investment and passion of each character is demonstrated as Brad partially rationalizes the killing and appeals to Adam for support, to the disgust of everyone else in the room. The discussion raises questions about the right to conceal and impacts of hiding aspects of one’s being, especially when one of Adam’s closest new friends reveals to Adam that he is a transgender male. The distressing scene is a watershed for Adam – he must now reconsider the relationships he has built with everyone around him.
Schrag’s dynamic reading added dimension to her characters as she subtly changed her voice to complement their distinct personalities. This was particularly affecting when she shifted to the deadpan of broadcast news regarding the young woman’s death. After the reading, the author engaged in conversation first guided by Anjuli Kolb, Assistant Professor of English and Margaux Cowden, Visiting Assistant Professor of English and then open to the audience. In conversation, Schrag noted the multiple symbolic meanings of the cover of the novel, as well as the basis of Adam’s name – which in fact was not originally conceived in relation to the Biblical first man.
Most importantly, Schrag emphasized the nuances of her book and emphatically requested her critics read beyond the back cover, which she says has been simplified. Shotgun critiques that the novel is transphobic were clearly and immediately vacated by Schrag’s careful reading. She hopes readers will confront “what does it mean to be forced to empathize with [Adam],” a character perhaps relatable in some regards but plainly unethical. Schrag also resists those who recommend her book as a sort of 101 on transgender studies, noting the obvious inadequacy of the novel as this resource as it only covers such issues through dialogue and Adam’s Internet searches. Schrag also stated she had no particular audience in mind and wrote the novel primarily for her best friend from college: “Our lives revolved around these issues.”
In her reading and conversation Schrag touched on several of the diverse themes of Adam, including the urge toward political engagement in young adulthood, the danger of youthful narcissism in activism, realizing greater contexts and impacts, “[how we] make up an account of why we are what we are” and most importantly, questions of consent and bodies. She observes, “On the surface the book is about a boy searching for love… but in reality it’s about a boy who lost his best friend [Brad].”