Collaborative Review: Every You, Every Me
David Levithan’s newest book, Every You, Every Me, is a collaborative work with photographer Jonathan Farmer. In the spirit of collaboration, I read and reviewed this book with Isaiah Vianese in a series of email exchanges.
I just finished Every You, Every Me. My feelings about the book are mixed, so I thought I would start out by telling you what I think works in the novel.
First of all, the tone is appealing for the majority of the book. It reminds me a lot of film noir from the 40s and 50s, particularly the suspense/thriller plot. There’s also an almost-overwhelming cynicism in the book. We know the protagonist, Evan, is being harassed, but we don’t know by who or for what reason, exactly. Evan is hardly an optimistic narrator, and the photographs he receives (that are printed amidst the novel’s text) also have an emo-meets-noir aesthetic–so much so that I half-expected the characters to be wearing fedoras and trench-coats. (Are mohawks and studded belts the new trench-coats?)
As for Evan, he is hardly Levithan’s most interesting or appealing protagonist. (How can one top the wonderful Paul from Boy Meets Boy or the compassionate Will Grayson?!) However, to Evan’s credit, we know he has a heart and that his heart has been horribly broken. I felt for him; I wanted his pain to end. In turn, I also wanted him to solve his mystery so he could find peace. Maybe as a happier person, he would be a happier and more reliable narrator. Of course, his faults as a character also make him compelling.
What did you like about the novel? Evan?
I have gone back and forth about Every You, Every Me quite a bit as well. One of the things I admire most about David Levithan’s work is that it can be so experimental. As with any experiment, I think some things worked well while others fell a bit flat.
Levithan moves very successfully between campier, lighter books and turmoil-filled, darker books. This novel certainly landed on the darker end of the spectrum. I don’t mind emo kids and teen angst, but I know that is not your usual cup of tea, so it wouldn’t surprise me if Evan was not your favorite of Levithan’s characters. For me, what made Evan less of a favorite was not his attitude so much as that his characterization was dampened by the experimentation. He didn’t develop as a fully fleshed out person in the way that I’ve come to expect from Levithan. He wasn’t an easy character to get to know. Though I ultimately enjoyed the book, I don’t think Evan will stick with me in the same way as Levithan’s other protagonists.
A large percentage of Evan’s thoughts were written with strike-through text. I’ve seen this work well before (in Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls, for example). It can be an excellent technique for showing a character’s inner thoughts and self-editing. Evan is certainly someone who is struggling quite a bit with his thoughts and traumatic experiences. Unfortunately, while I didn’t have a problem with the technique itself, I found it overdone. I couldn’t decide at times if it was brilliant or gimmicky. (As you may remember, I felt the same way about the use of symbols in Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List.) While I appreciated it conceptually, I ultimately found the strike-through writing distracting.
Despite that, I still liked Every You, Every Me. The plotting was fast-paced and suspenseful; I was glued to my seat and rapidly turning pages to find out what happened to Ariel and who was stalking Evan. I have to admit that I guessed wrong a few times, and I’m always impressed by thrillers that manage to surprise me. Though I don’t want to give too much away, the inclusion of some mental health components was obviously a huge bonus for me.
The photography featured in the book was the impetus for the plot, but its inclusion also really enhanced the storytelling. I was skeptical of the almost imperceptible photos on the beginning, but the images grew on me quite a bit as the book continued. I don’t think this book would have been anywhere near as creepy without the photographs. Seeing what Evan saw sucked me in, and I couldn’t help but get that eerie being watched feeling while I was reading. I’m especially curious what you think about the collaboration between photographer and writer since you have done some of this kind of work yourself.
I agree with your sentiment that the novel is an experiment with mixed success. I admire Levithan’s creativity and his interest in expanding how we think about the YA novel.
I am also skeptical of the strike-through text that pervades the novel. My primary issue with using this kind of device is that it has too many functions in the novel; strike-through text represents places where Evan changes his mind, private ideas he is trying to forget, and stories that he feels he should not tell. These are simply too many functions for a gimmicky tool. In many places, I think Levithan could have disposed of the strike-through text and not harmed the narrative; it seems to allow him to say things that seem cliche, rather than remove them. Any technique that allows an author to keep lazy writing hurts a novel.
The most successful experiment in the book is definitely the photographs. Though like you I questioned the inclusion of the smaller photos at the beginning of the novel, I now see that the photographs becoming more engaging as the book goes along is intentional. As the photos become more lucid, the mystery steps closer toward its resolution (no pun intended!).
Overall, Levithan and Jonathan Farmer’s collaboration is refreshing. As a regular reader of Levithan’s work, it is easy to see how Farmer’s moody photographs pushed Levithan into new, dark territory. Of course the novel has plot gimmicks reminiscent of other Levithan collabs. (Doesn’t the photograph treasure-hunt plot feel like an unsettling variation on Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares?) However, Farmer’s photographs set the mood for this novel–a mood we rarely see in Levithan’s work. As a writer who has collaborated with a photographer, my experience would reinforce this observation. When I collaborated with Stephen Parry for a poetry and art show, his video-art and photos pushed my poems into a new direction–coincidentally, a darker and more experimental one. Collaboration can be very generative and revitalizing; Every You, Every Me shows that.
This novel has been a pleasure to read with you! Stay warm as fall settles into the hills. Aren’t the leaves beautiful?
Thanks for reading Every You, Every Me with me! The read-along experience has itself been experimental, but a lot of fun. I’m glad to see that we are mostly on the same page–that certainly is not always the case. Levithan’s experimentation may not have made for our favorite of his books, but it is boundary pushing, and I look forward to seeing what he comes up with next.
It’s the perfect weather for curling up with a great book, a cuddly puppy, and a warm drink. I’m planning to enjoy quite a few more books over my fall break in the next few days. Hope you are able to do the same.