At some point in the last few years, I reached my dystopia tolerance threshold. It’s not that I dislike them, but they all started blurring together in my mind into an indistinguishable clot of cynicism, resignation, and bitterness at the way real life kept collapsing into fiction. Was that a plot point from that book I read, or was it a headline I scrolled past on twitter? Did a character say that, or was it a soundbite from the news? For all that some dystopias try to dazzle readers with sophisticated political commentary by way of ingenious conceits and figurative language, they kept falling flat for me. Until M. Crane showed me what I’d been missing, I couldn’t understand why.
Is it brazen to declare one of my Books of the Year in January? Yeah, it is brazen, but so am I. This one’s a hall-of-famer. I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself showed me I’d been frustrated by books that made their worlds feel too real only to flinch from making their characters feel real. It’s an impulse that I am sure comes from other authors’ well-intentioned generosity — “here, I’ve designed a world that is hard and bleak and reminiscent of all the things that make our present reality feel hard and bleak too, and part of me doesn’t want to look toooooo closely at the people I’ve invented to inflict that horror upon, so instead I will let them be Types representative of Concepts rather than flesh, blood, and feelingswp_posts— but it’s a cowardly impulse nonetheless! Crane is every bit as generous in their storytelling, but absolutely no coward. If anything, this book is relentlessly personal, ferocious in its adamance that to care about the big-picture conceptual issues like bigotry and discrimination in a surveillance state, you have to be brave enough to give a shit about all the myriad quotidian hurts. If you’re going to claim to give a shit about the forest, you need to be brave enough to look real close at the trees. You owe it to them.
And hooooboy, does that insistence upon character pay off. In a future close at hand where government cameras surveil the populace in every room of their homes and sphere of their lives, people convicted of any wrongdoing are sentenced to have additional shadows affixed to them; a permanent and hauntingly intangible reminder of whoever they’d harmed and of the inescapable guilt they “deserve” to be haunted by. Kris is one of these shadow-having Shadesters, and we meet her as she is handed her newborn daughter moments after her wife Beau has died of a complication during labor. For the crime of killing her mother, or maybe for the crime of having been born to queer parents in the first place, the kid (as she is known for most of the book) is deemed guilty from the get-go and given a second shadow at birth. Even by the standards of this not-too-distant society, obsessed with moral purity and determined to enforce cishet homogeneity by weaponizing shame, to convict an infant at birth like this is painfully egregious. Marked out by their shadows as guilty and therefore deserving of mistreatment, Shadesters are disproportionately targeted for punishment in schools, reduced to insecure and demeaning jobs, taxed into poverty, excluded from healthcare, and humiliated at every step of day-to-day life. The parallels aren’t coy. We all know which bells are ringing.
Because of this, I came into this story thinking I knew what it was about; I expected grief, I expected complicated family dynamics against a backdrop of political doom, I expected some clever playfulness with shadows’ potential for metaphor. I got cocky! But to set these particular characters within this particular set of circumstances, and to set those circumstances within this particular dystopia? I wasn’t ready for how this combination would lead through the subjects I anticipated into surprising and profound examinations of kink, intergenerational reconciliation, the school-to-prison pipeline, differences between guilt and shame and responsibility, and the conversations we continue with our loved ones even after they’re gone.
This obsession with conversation and internal monologue is where Crane’s characterization really shines: The story is narrated by Kris, but addressed specifically to her late wife Beau, replete with their inside jokes and references to their relationship story, and peppered throughout with tongue-in-cheek pop quizzes, counseling-reminiscent conversational scripts, and “reality testingwp_postscoping mechanisms that feel totally on-point for a teacher and social worker couple. It’s a beautiful way of getting past the exoskeletons Kris envies and recites to self-soothe (“Shrimp, lobster, crab, I whisper over and over again.”) and into the guts of Kris’s feelings. Sometimes, being sad is less about being sad and more about being angry that you have to be sad in the first place; sometimes grief is about finding something funny and realizing you’re alone with that humor. By letting us inside Kris’s conversations with what’s left of the person she knew best and misses most, we get to bypass the superficial description of events and emotions, and that opens this grief-and-resistance story into something surprisingly funny and sweet.
But in a sea of wonderful, lovable characters (a playful platonic coparent who talks trash and loves graffiti! a formerly-estranged father who is desperately proud of his technological prowess! hippie neighbors across the hall who become family! classmates roasting primly-incompetent elementary school teachers! hot cashiers! vigilante semi-feral house pets!), the standout is the kid. Plenty of authors have devoted their considerable talents to accurately rendering parenthood’s emotional depths, but few authors have been able to do justice to both the parent and the kid’s interiorities simultaneously. I’d thought of it as a question of gaze — is the reader in the eyes of the parent, looking at the somewhat alien kid, or is the reader in the eyes of the kid looking at their inscrutable parent? But this book is proof that it’s less a matter of gaze or direction, and more like a house of cards, where the entire narrative depends on two delicate perspectives leaning on and reflecting each other.
Kris’s fragmented narration sets a refreshingly fast pace that keeps the book’s profound introspection from stagnating and also allows for a rapid and seamless progression of events. We get to watch as the kid slides out of baby-ness, into toddler precocity, and then running third grade classroom coups in the blink of an eye. It’s hard enough to write children that feel like children — usually, adults write kids the way that renaissance painters depicted babies as “tiny but proportionate adults sitting butt-naked on the virgin mary’s lapwp_posts— but it’s another thing entirely to write children that feel like children and to stick with them so precisely as they grow. The kid is dynamite. Reading her grow up feels accurate at every step, both in the moments of resonant precocity and grounding petulance or immaturity. We get to watch her grow up without her Beau-Mom, slowly come to terms with what her second shadow means to the world around her, talk to her stuffed Olly the Octopus, turn her knack for observation and imitation into a keen awareness of how individual behaviors echo outward into patterns of injustice, learn to play her guitar. Kris’s use of the second-person lets us almost inhabit Beau’s space, like Kris is talking both to her wife and to us as the reader, like that’s our kid we’re watching grow up from afar.
Throughout all of this, as I’ve reflected on the intensity with which I have loved these characters and how fiercely I have wanted to protect them from a society desperate to pick them apart, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it takes to write a responsible dystopia. I want to know how we write allegorically about the very real dangers of surveillance and censorship and authoritarian moral absolutism without leaving room for bigots to imagine themselves reflected in the victims rather than the aggressors/enforcers of systemic harm. They don’t need more ways to think that they’re the ones being silenced! I’m done with the fallacy that “if only they related to us, if only they knew how much they hurt us, then maybe they’d stop.wp_postsNo. They don’t get to see themselves in our stories, not when they think “parents’ rightswp_postsmeans “protect my right to indoctrination and violation of my child’s autonomywp_postsinstead of “protect the parental rights of marginalized people whose cultural and family structures are destabilized by white supremacist cisheteropatriarchywp_postsand they think “justicewp_postsmeans “what did you do to deserve whatever bad thing has happened to you, and do you hate yourself enough to be compliant now?wp_postsWatching the way that people continue to willfully misinterpret and misapply 1984, Animal Farm, Brave New World, and other dystopian classics has gotten my guard up. It’s also made me hungry for books brave enough to bare their teeth at hostile misreadings, to force readers ethically at-odds into those elusive “wait, are we the baddies?wp_postsreckonings that I daydream might someday change things.
That’s why I’ll ride for this book forever. It’s not just that I want all of you to read it; it’s that I want all of you to have read it already, so that I’m not so alone with the enormity of my feelings about it and you’ll already know exactly what I mean. Crane has not only created a world that opens a door for marginalized people’s deeply felt concerns; they’ve also done the work to shut the door behind us, to preempt any both-sides-ism and make clear that our communities’ fears about oppression and suppression are never the same as reactionary distractions. Punishing those you’ve deemed undesirable by legislating them out of existence is not the same as @RebelPatriotFlagEmoji12345678’s tweet getting flagged by the algorithm as hate speech. The public nature of so-called “cancel culturewp_postsmay be fraught, but it’s not the same as the dangers of a surveillance state. If someone’s going to see themself in Kris, the kid, their friends Siegfried, Dune, and Julian, if they’re going to see themself in the allies who love these Shadesters like Beau and her mom and Kris’s dad, they’re going to see in uncomfortable detail the struggles they’re aligned with, and they won’t be able to avoid the perils of caring when the chips are down and the rubber meets the road. This is a novel about the families we make and the lives we build and the ways we defend them from a world that refuses to love them the way we do. You don’t get to indulge that in fiction and then set it down when the real-world going gets tough. In our day-to-day lives, in our communities, in our stories and our approach to telling them, the fact remains that we protect us.
If this book were an item of clothing: the most broken-in and worn-out beloved black hoodie you borrowed stole from a long-ago ex
My favorite dark-funny moment: “If I were a social worker assigned to myself, I might say, ‘Beau is sick of explaining to all the other dead people at weekly poker why her wife finds a certain nobility in moping.’”
My favorite question in the book: “I can’t stop wondering who he sleeps beside and who he loves, if they are one and the same.”
Some lines that got me in my feelings:
- “Objective: be the first player to teach her about cruelty, how it rides on the back of cowardice and calls itself bravery.”
- “As for me, I fell in love with the kid. I finally understand what all the fuss is about: a tiny someone is predisposed to trust you and you have the chance to prove them right.”
- “For a long time I thought love was merely something that lasted a long time before it got sad, but … it occurs to me that the more in love with someone you are, the sooner the sadness settles in.”