Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
I very quickly decided I did not like Jill McTeague very much. In fact, my dislike of her was exceeded only by my dislike of her mother (but we’ll get to that). I thought Jill was shallow, rude, and selfish in the way she handles her monthly transformation into Jack.
And I was right.
And that’s one reason why Cycler is a powerful book. Although Jill is one of the protagonists and one of the people undergoing this unique experience, this does not automatically make her a better, more understanding person. Her unique perspective doesn’t automatically make her more accepting of Tommy’s bisexuality. Her reaction to notes from Jack asking for more porn isn’t “Oh, that poor boy who is stuck in my room, all alone, for the four days a month he is allowed to exist.” It’s “Eww, porn, boys are gross.”
By portraying Jill as a … shall we say, an unenlightened teenage girl, Lauren McLaughlin creates a more fulfilling story arc for Cycler. Jill is both victim and complicit (in Jack’s suffering). The problems she faces—trying to get a date for prom, Jack’s appearances coming more frequently and less predictably, her poor reaction to Tommy telling her that he’s bi … these are all important problems to her. Because they are normal problems, and Jill, like most teenagers, has the idea that she wants to be normal. Despite the fact that she is a walking metaphor for “no one is normal,” Jill rejects Jack as an aberration and does everything she can to negate him—as the mantra “I am all girl,” literally the first line of the novel, indicates. Jill isn’t all girl, as Jack demonstrates.
Giving Jack his own voice is McLaughlin’s second stroke of genius. The sense of desperation and mounting existential crisis that he communicates is very moving. At first, it’s difficult to grasp the extent to which Jill and her family have fucked up here … but after a couple of Jack chapters, it is obvious that we have gone far down a rabbithole of twisted abuse.
But it’s all for Jill’s own good, right?
The only person I liked less than Jill was Jill’s mother. I can forgive Jill her faults—partly because they are very much a product of her mother’s influence, mixed with the questionable upbringing provided by American media…. While I can understand and sympathize with the plight that has driven Jill’s mother to these extremes, I can’t bring myself to forgive her the behaviour. Unfortunately, Jill’s mother represents an all-too-common type of parent portrayed—sometimes championed, sometimes mocked, sometimes deconstructed—in media. She doesn’t want her child to be special; she wants her child to be normal—and so help them, if that means breaking them, she will do it.
Arguably the full-on creepiness of Jill’s mom’s obsession is apparent in the lockdown they put Jack into later in the book. For me, however, the most creepy moment is probably when they go wig shopping. The determination that Jill ascribes to her mother’s epic search for the right wig to disguise the “damage” that Jack wrought to Jill and Jack’s hair is deep. Deeply deep, even, to borrow a turn of phrase from Jill and her friends. As we see more and more evidence of the way Jill’s mother views Jack as an unhealthy parasite rather than, you know, her child, it’s easier to understand why she is so set on delivering to Jill as “ordinary” an American teenage girl experience as possible. Even if that means wigs and tranquilizers and locking Jill up for four days like a werewolf.
(Can I just say that it sucks that Jill turns into a dude for four days a month and still gets her period and she doesn’t get any superpowers to boot.)
But really, of course, Jill’s mom is just the representative in this microcosm of how most of our society views gender as a binary and a normative concept. You are punished if you step outside of either of these boxes. Jill’s mother is more interested in ensuring her child stays inside the boxes. And it’s an understandable perspective, as I mentioned, because she’s concerned for how society might judge her child for deviating from these norms. I just wish she had the courage to recognize that, in protecting her child, she is harming her child too.
Now, the young adult audience reading Cycler is not necessarily going to have the language to talk about these things like I am now. That’s an artifact of my ivory tower days and, you know, reading lots of books. But I’d like to think that books like this one help adolescents think more about these issues, and about the assumptions that they themselves make when it comes to gender. McLaughlin highlights this in how Jill, Ramie, and Daria discuss Tommy’s bisexuality. And again, this is where Jill not being perfect is really useful: as a flawed protagonist, she is easier to identify with. We can see a character who, like us, makes mistakes and has prejudices when it comes to gender and sexuality … and we can see her being challenged, overcoming those prejudices, and becoming a better person. Flawed characters are valuable because we are flawed readers.
I also like how the premise that McLaughlin uses here has connotations beyond gender that feed back into our stereotypes about gender. Obviously there is the whole parallel with menstruation—monthly cycle, lasts three or four days, onset at puberty, etc. And, as I alluded to earlier, it’s comparable to a monthly curse like lycanthropy: every full moon, Jill becomes a monster … a teenage boy! Get it? Because boys are monstrous from a teenage girl point of view?
What this taps into, of course, is this idea of Othering the things we are not. Jill transforms monthly into the Other, a boy, something she could not possibly understand. McLaughlin emphasizes this through the language that both Jill and her mother use, the stereotypical “boys are so weird” lines. Where do girls and women first hear those? From parents. From adults. From school.
The thing is, we aren’t all that different. Or at least, if we are different, are we not also similar? After all, everyone poops. Therein lies another pernicious danger of the gender binary. It’s one thing to accept that some people want to perform gender differently from how it was assigned to them at birth. Tt’s another thing to follow this to the logical conclusion that gender boxes themselves become an increasingly tenuous concept. But I’ll argue that you can’t support rigid gender roles and still be supportive of people who perform gender in a non-cisgender way.
(I’ll point out that 2009!me might not have thought this far—I know 2008!me certainly didn’t, because at that point I was still shaky on this idea that gender is entirely a social construct. Yay for changing and learning!)
So much of the cultural activities we engage in reinforce these stereotypical binaries, though. From prom to sex ed to celebrations of matrimony and childbirth, there is an emphasis on separating and Othering the genders. But this is so harmful, because Othering leads to alienation, which leads to the fear and hate that then becomes misogyny, prejudice, and structural oppression.
But I digress.
I digress because Cycler is really good at hitting the notes required to make people think about these things. Jill’s experience is both atypical and science-fictional—she is not, it’s important to stress, an example of someone realizing that their gender doesn’t coincide with the one they were assigned at birth. In Jill’s case, her sex is quite literally changing in a physical, biochemical way—and, consequently, over the years Jill’s personality has bifurcated into another person who performs gender as a man. Whether she can come to accept herself for who she is and achieve the synthesis her dad advises remains to be seen. Alas, my library does not have Recycler, and it’s not actually available from Chapters, so I had to resort to the Amazon marketplace to find a copy. But it’s on its way, because I want to find out! (I don’t hear great things from the Goodreads reviews, alas … but I live in hope.)
I put this book on my to-read list in 2009, back when the sequel came out, but I never got around to reading it until now. In the past six years, my understanding of gender issues has changed and deepened, so my perspective on Cycler is very different from what 2009!me would have thought of it. I was much closer to the target audience back then, of course. Would past!me have liked this as much as I do now? I would like to think so.
And as I mentioned already, I don’t think you need the knowledge and language I have to understand, appreciate, or talk about the issues in this book. Instead, it’s a great way to get that conversation started and get young people thinking about gender. As a lover of reading, and now as an educator and especially an English teacher, I’m trying to read more YA literature so I know what to recommend to students. This goes on the “definitely recommend” pile.