Jeff Garvin’s debut young adult novel, “The Symptoms of Being Human,” begins in familiar territory. Riley Cavanaugh, a transfer student to Park Hills High, must negotiate the social landmines of tenth grade. In “Symptoms,” Garvin includes hallmarks of the teenscape: bullying, budding sexual desire, and well-meaning, but clueless parents. Yet the central conflict is less rote terrain: “The first thing you’re going to want to know about me is,” types Riley tentatively in the opening lines of a new blog, “Am I a boy, or am I a girl?”
Riley adds, “The truth is, some days, I wake up feeling more ‘boy’ and some days I wake up feeling more ‘girl’. And some days I wake up feeling somewhere in between.” In the wake of an emotional breakdown at a previous school, Riley hopes that Park Hills can be a place to blend in. This hope is initially realized when Riley meets Jason Solomona, or Solo, a Star Wars enthusiast who plays on the football team, and Bec, a musician with piercing blue eyes and a penchant for androgynous fashion.
Despite these sustaining friendships, Riley cannot escape the scrutinizing gaze of Jim Vickers, a “prank-enthusiast.” Each day they pass through the cafeteria “Gauntlet,” where Vickers and his girlfriend Sierra hold court. Riley’s ambiguous appearance prompts increasingly ferocious insults, made worse by Riley’s witty responses. At home the scrutiny is no less intense as Riley’s congressman father is up for re-election, and pushes for his only child’s presence at high-profile events. The result, Riley thinks, is a “whole life designed around hiding,” where anxiety attacks threaten the most benign moments.
Garvin’s choice of a gender fluid protagonist is bold. In the U.S., 41 percent of the transgender and gender non-binary community will attempt suicide. 64 percent will be the target of sexual violence. With so much on the line, Garvin’s depiction could have easily come off as inauthentic. Yet he doesn’t shy away from these statistics.
When Riley’s therapist suggests a blog to deal with frustration in a “risk-free” environment, a parallel narrative emerges. As the clever Alix, Riley simultaneously introduces blog followers and “Symptoms’” readers to a new gender lexicon. It’s a deft technique that gives substance to terms that are often without context in typical educational materials about gender identity. When the blog is picked up by an advocacy group, followers spike to the thousands and comments abound from fans and cyberbullies alike. Fame brings new risks and Riley must choose between quitting the blog in exchange for a hidden, but safe existence, or becoming an internet sensation, voicing the concerns of a newly visible population. In either, Garvin shows just how vulnerable Riley is, but also how courageous, sharp, funny and so much more than a boy or a girl.
“Symptoms” is ultimately a story that transcends its teenage audience. Teachers, parents, social workers, and members of the larger community would benefit from spending time in Riley’s head. I know I did.
"The Symptoms of Being Human" by Jeff Garvin is published by Balzer + Bray.
Reviewer Johanna Wagner teaches Italian at Penn State and serves on the university's Commission for LGBTQ Equity.