I just finished Brent Hartinger’s Split Screen (Bride of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies/Attack of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies), this year’s Lambda Literary Award winner in the Bisexual category. It was cute, but I have to say I was disappointed. I have trouble believing there wasn’t a better bisexual book published all year. Especially since I’ve read three of the other nominees — Look Both Ways, Landing, and Baby Love — and liked all of them better.
Split Screen is two books in one, following two different characters through the same story – Russel, the 16 year old gay protagonist of two of Hartinger’s previous books; and his bisexual best friend, Min. They work as extras in a zombie flick, and each have romantic trouble along the way – Russel in choosing between his long-distance boyfriend and the ex who wants to get back together with him, and Min deciding whether she can date a girl who won’t risk losing her cheerleader friends by coming out of the closet.
I read Min’s book first (my own little feminist statement), but it felt like an afterthought: “Look how funny it is that so much can happen when Russell’s attention is elsewhere!” Hartinger seems to understand what should make up a teenage girl’s inner life, and many of the sentiments expressed were dead-on, but it didn’t seem to flow. It felt like an illustration of why writing teachers harp on “Show, don’t tell.” On the other hand, his politics are pretty good (even if he did title the book about a boy with the title of the movie it’s about, and the book about a girl “Bride of” same – why, horror genre? Why?), and I appreciated the presentation of bisexuality. 9 pages in, we find Min thinking to herself,
Most people really don’t understand bisexuality. I hate it when people talk like bisexual people are indecisive, unable to make up their minds. It’s not a question of being changeable, like a sea anemone, able to switch genders.I don’t shift or waver or change, and I’m not on my way to anything other than being bi; I’ve always been bisexual, and I always will be. Why is that so hard for people to understand?
It’s also not the case that I’m attracted to all guys and all girls — “anything that moves,” as some people like to say. Like anyone, I’m only attracted to some people — some of them guys and some of them girls.
Thanks, Brent! That’s pretty awesome. As is the way Russel also accepts Min’s bisexuality as permanent and meaningful, when he’s narrating. But I was disappointed that Min is presented as being sanctimonious and uncompromising because she doesn’t want hide who she is to be with her closeted girlfriend. Not wanting to sneak around and misrepresent your politics and desires seems pretty reasonable to me, so the way the book pushed her to take chances and be more open-minded felt a little off.
Russel’s book read much better. Unsurprisingly, Hartinger seems to have a much better idea of what it’s like to be a gay high school boy than a bisexual high school girl, and either I’d gotten used to the woodenness of the writing by then or the writing on that side was just better. It seemed pretty clear that readers were expected to read this half first, but you didn’t have to — it made sense the way I read it — and I’m going to chalk that up to the series being about Russel, rather than everyone always putting girls second. And Russel’s dilemma (stay with a boy who lives 800 miles away, or dump him for the guy who 8 months ago joined in with his friends to call you a fag rather than come out, but has now come out to win you back?) seemed much less clear-cut to me, so I didn’t find myself thinking he was handling it horribly wrong. And his parents’ reaction to finding out he’s gay was a believable side plot. All in all it wasn’t a bad way to spend two days’ worth of train rides, but I thought Lambda could have done better.
Did anyone else read this? Am I totally off base here – is it fever brain from this nasty cold making everything seem wooden?