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Identification in the wild: the intensity of queer adolescence in “Idlewild” 

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    by Talk
  • Post Date
    Mon Feb 26 2024
Photo credit: James Frankie Thomas via X

By Ray Kirsch

I have spent many hours, sent many emails, annotated many lines of “Idlewild” by James Frankie Thomas since I first received it. My creative writing fellow gifted me the book via her mailbox last December, confidently saying “My friend James wrote a story with a similar style to yours.” After reading the book several times, I can fully understand why it is adored, especially within the queer community. 

There is something special about works written by queer people for other queer people (and I use the word queer loosely, as I cannot define who Thomas really wrote this for). To unpack the plot, why I adored it so much and what really worked for me, here's a short synopsis (warning, there's spoilers). 

The structure of the book switches between the narration of F&N when they were in school and Fay and Nell respectively around 15 years later, reflecting back on their friendship. The structure was inspired by Donna Tartt's “The Secret History.” Thomas said the book is “an influence on “Idlewild” in the same sense that Shakespeare is an ‘influence' on the English theatre.” 

Teenagers Fay and Nell attend a Quaker high school in Manhattan in 2002-3. They become friends the day 9/11 happens. Nell is a pretty stereotypically-described lesbian: she's obsessive, craves validation and love and becomes hopelessly infatuated with her new best friend Fay. Fay is the type of person that is obsessed with gay couples—to the point where it may be considered a problem—but she is definitely not a lesbian. She's on her own path of self-discovery throughout the book, although I had gotten a teaser on this discovery based on my fellow's synopsis. 

It is hinted to, at the end, that Fay is transgender—or at least, not a woman. Fay never makes a pronoun change or anything explicitly in the book, but the fact that Fay's epilogue ended in a page of her really realizing that she wanted to be a gay man is quite telling (in all caps, too!). 

The two are best friends. They like to gossip and write notes to each other during class. However, it seemed as if Nell is more invested in the friendship than Fay really is. Fay seems to be looking for a distraction, something to get her through the school days. Meanwhile, Nell has a secret online blog of everything Fay: you can call her a stalker, because her teenage-self did, in fact, obsess over Fay that much. They write fanfiction together, which I consider to be extremely cringey but also extremely queer-teenager-coded. 

It all changes a little when a boy named Theo transfers to their school after 9/11. He's friends—and living with—a boy named Christopher, and Fay and Nell are completely convinced that the two boys are gay for each other. 

Did I mention they're theater kids? The four are all in theater together, and Theo and Fay get double-casted as Iago (who Fay and Nell are totally convinced is gay). Theo and Fay become close friends, especially after Theo calls Fay out for not being a girl. They have a certain kind of bond that is never really fully described at the capacity I wanted. 

In the spirit of not spoiling any of the plot twists (because many happen!), I will simply say that there is much drama around friendship, college, fanfiction, bombs, etc. I personally believe it is more fun to read knowing who ends up transgender—it leaves room to search for evidence throughout the book.

To place my opinions of the book pretty openly while not providing any explicit spoilers about the big plot twists: I liked Fay more than Nell, even in my second and third readings. I probably was not supposed to be comparing the two because my teacher had spoiled which one ended up trans, but Fay had more of the layers that I particularly wanted to read about. She didn't wear her heart on her sleeve like Nell did. She was loud and sometimes obnoxious, but I saw it more as a way to shelter who she really was. 

But I have to give Nell some credit, too: the reason I preliminarily disliked Nell so much was because I used to be so similar to her (minus some tidbits, such as the fanfiction about real people). Nell's obsessiveness is painfully relatable. Over-analyzing your every reaction is such a visceral, queer teenager experience. And honestly, the fact that they went to a Quaker school is just the cherry on top. Being an open lesbian at your religious high school—having everyone know your business and assign stereotypes to you just from a label—can rightfully make you go a little stir-crazy. 

When I initially started this book, I did not know what I was getting myself into. I did not read any previews, solely going off what my teacher told me. I thought it would be a coming of age story or a gay love story, which I was happily surprised that it was not just that. It was kind of a coming of age storyline, grappling with self-acceptance and friendships, but I think the plot was about so much more than that. I found Fay's brain to be so colorful and vivid: her sections had detailed words, such as “I was deranged with joy. I was incandescent, iridescent, bioluminescent inside. I was in a conventional dither with a conventional star in my eye.” (p.201) 

I think this book is made for a specific audience specifically by its hyper-chrononically-online references—the kind of phrases and language that only certain people will know. I am a firm believer that the intended audience must have been a queer audience, as who else would understand the teenage, sometimes-cringey queer experience?

While some may argue that this book did not have a “complete ending,” I would argue that it does have a complete ending due to the fact that both Fay and Nell grew out of their younger selves and into who they really were (trans for Fay, confident lesbian for Nell), using their high school experience as a learning, growing step rather than the one defining factor for the rest of their lives. Everyone makes mistakes; it is about what you do after that is more of a reflection of who you are. 

There were so many notes to this story that I wanted to touch on, but I'll narrow it down to some of my favorite quotes from the book, without any context:

  • “”You're not a girl,” he said. “You're like this weird sad pervy gay guy in a girl's body, cruising me.” 4. Identification in the wild: He saw me. He understood me. He knew me.” (p.190)
  • “I would inhabit both boys at once and experience their pleasure multiplied. I would exist only as light, as vapor, as pure elemental boy-kiss.” (p.274)
  • “The image set my heart racing with joyful narcissism, a full-body epiphany that this was it—with “it” existing simultaneously as “the physical manifestation of what I like best about myself” and “that which I most wish to f*ck.” (p.102)
  • “The flirtation was asymptotic, the attraction displaced: my object of desire was not Theo himself, but the abstract idea of Theo being gay.” (p.189)

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and cannot wait to read it again. 

A small note: I use she/her to refer to Fay in this review because that is how the character was referred to in the entirety of the book. The evolution of one's queerness/transness can be more than a simple name change—also by actions, thoughts, one's perception of themself. Of course, I believe this is an individual opinion and am constantly curious which pronouns Fay would use after the ending of the book. 

Overall rating: 4.5/5

TAGS

FICTION HIGH SCHOOL IDLEWILD JAMES FRANKIE THOMAS QUEER RAY KIRSCH

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