Publisher: Cloud Lodge Books
Release Date: 29 Nov 2019
Received From: Netgalley
Former Little League champion Kimitake “Clyde” Koba finds strength in the belief that he is the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe as he struggles to escape the ghost of his brother and his alcoholic father.
Born on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, teen prodigy Raphael Dweck has been told his whole life that he has a special purpose in God’s plan. The only problem is, he can’t shake off his doubts, his urges, or the trail of trouble and ruin that follow in his wake.
A decade later, Raphael and ‘Marilyn’ find each other wandering the plastic-bright streets of Hollywood and set out to make a documentary about the transmigration of souls. But when the roleplaying goes too far, they find themselves past the point of no return in their quest to prove who and what they are to their families, God, the world, and themselves.
Japan and Israel collide in the City of Angels in this explosive psychological novel about faith, idol worship, and the search for identity by the author of Jerusalem Ablaze, Stories of Love and Other Obsessions.
TAGS: historical, queer characters, young adult, new adult
WARNINGS: blood, death, mild gore, murder, violence, war, abuse, abusive family, child sexual assault, sexual assault, racism, bigotry, slurs, transmisogyny, cissexism, mental illness, queerness treated as a mental illness, self-harm, suicide
I have been struggling with writing a review ever since I started reading this ARC. The reason I requested it was because the cover drew me in and after reading the blurb I thought to myself “This can either go really well, or end in a disaster.”
I was hoping for the first. I was hoping for a sensitive approach and exploration of gender, identity, and queer love in a historical context. I was hoping for nuance and empathy and respect. What I got was… not that. Which is why I didn’t fill out the usual tags at the top of the review. I can’t do it, because I’m not sure what the author was telling me here and how to interpret it.
I’m going to use a lot of spoilers from here on out to explain what I mean, so if you want to read this book without getting spoiled about major plot points, go forth and click away from this review. Otherwise let me explain what my issue was.
At the end of the book, I was skimming more than reading because I couldn’t take where the story was going. Part of that was that I couldn’t figure out what the author was trying to do here. There was an incredible amount of violence in this book that, in large parts, felt like plot devices rather than part of the story itself. One example is what happens to Clyde/Marilyn from early age to the end of the book.
Look, there is writing tragic and heartbreaking stories featuring queer characters, and then there’s writing violent stories featuring queer characters in which the violence is presented as the origin of queerness. In this particular book, it felt like the several kinds of violence Clyde/Marilyn has to endure from CSA to parental abuse, and violence stacked upon violence, results in Clyde finding a way to get away from it by slipping into the role of Marilyn. As a coping mechanism. Their queerness is presented as a direct result of being unable to deal with childhood trauma, as a persona Clyde takes on to cope, rather than their genderqueerness being part of their identity. And I can’t even tell you if they were meant to be read as a nonbinary character, as a trans woman, as a gay man coping with trauma by “pretending” to be a woman, as a genderqueer character, or as a mentally ill person unable to cope with trauma in other ways than believing they are a reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe.
And to top it all of, at the end Clyde “goes back” to being a cis man and doesn’t think he is the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe anymore after he got revenge, tried to rob a bank to get GCS (I… yeah), got caught, lost his partner, and is imprisoned, where he suddenly is able to do some martial arts moves to fight people threatening him. (I will get to that later.) But… Whatever the intention of the author was, however I was supposed to read this story arc of Clyde/Marilyn, the end result was this: To me it read like the basis of this story arc was Clyde was abused as a child, the trauma response was to get fixated on the idea that he is the reincarnation of Marilyn, his queerness was a result of that, and as soon as he got his revenge and got violent himself in self-defense – in prison – the trauma response ceased to exist and so did his queerness and his questioning of the gender he was assigned at birth. In a really twisted way, you could even read this as a “cure the trans person because this is mental illness” story. I can’t even tell you what that did to me.
I hated it. I hated every part of it and couldn’t get over how the whole story was presented. The rest of the book kind of… passed me by in a haze of confusion and disdain. There were a couple of things that rubbed me the wrong way, like the total omission of the context of the war Raphael was witnessing while in Israel, or the fact that Clyde’s Japanese mother was portrayed as a plastic stereotype of a Japanese woman who even gets insulted for using Japanese pet names for her child. Also, I do not think I have to explain why my head exploded when a Japanese-American boy who played baseball and never had any martial arts or self-defense training whatsoever, and was never portrayed a someone who knows how to physically fight, then suddenly has a martial arts kickass fest in prison and knocks all his opponents out as if he’s never done anything else in his life.
I just. I don’t know what the author wanted to do. I don’t know if other people will read this books in a completely different way. But the way I read it left me sick and tired and angry. I didn’t like it. I didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t even want to finish it. I only did because I got the ARc from Netgalley and felt like I had to get through this. But yeah. I hated it. I won’t recommend this to anyone, honestly. I just never want to think about it ever again.
Orlando Ortega-Medina studied English Literature at UCLA and has a law degree from Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles. At university, he won The National Society of Arts and Letters award for Short Stories. In 2017, his short story collection Jerusalem Ablaze: Stories of Love and Other Obsessions was shortlisted for the UK’s Polari First Book Prize, and in 2018 he was named the Marilyn Hassid Emerging Author for the Houston Jewish Book and Arts Festival. Ortega-Medina lives in London.