Endless Happy Beginnings: Forms of Speculation in Adam Silvera’s More Happy Than Not / William Orchard

Adam Silvera, More Happy Than Not, 2005

The following is part of a cluster on the Futurities of Latinx Speculative Fictions. To read the editor’s introduction to the series, click here.

During a conversation in the first part of Adam Silvera’s 2015 young adult novel, More Happy Than Not, the protagonist Aaron Soto begins to bond with his new friend Thomas Reyes over their mutual enthusiasm for the Scorpius Hawthorne novels. With titles like Scorpius Hawthorne and the Monster’s Scepter and a film adaptation starring Emma Watson, the book is a clear nod to J. K. Rowling’s wildly popular Harry Potter series. Thomas enthusiastically recounts attending a midnight screening of the last film installment where attendees dressed like the characters, offhandedly noting that he “was the only brown Scorpius Hawthorne” (65). With this brief comment, Silvera’s novel acknowledges something that Ebony Elizabeth Thomas addresses outright in her review of the book in the Los Angeles Times: “[t]he near absence of young people of color in the speculative genres.”1 Although this novel was published a mere four years ago, there has been a discernible uptick in speculative YA novels that feature Latinx protagonists, by writers such as Zoraida Córdova, Daniel José Older, and Lilliam Rivera, among others.

Scholars of Latinx literature have noted a similar rise in speculative writing in literary fiction. In his work on “speculative realism,” Ramón Saldívar argues that contemporary ethnic American writing often deploys the devices of speculative fiction in order to articulate a new racial imaginary suited to the historical conditions of the present, while still retaining the commitments to racial justice expressed in the social realist fiction of their predecessors.2 When she describes More Happy Than Not as a book that “combines the best features of science fiction with social justice,” Thomas figures Silvera’s text in these terms. It’s worth further scrutinizing the specific deployment of speculative forms in More Happy Than Not in order to bring to the surface the type of justice it imagines. Although the novel is mostly read as a queer coming-of-age narrative, attending to its speculative aspects exposes how More Happy Than Not deftly places two types of speculation—a science fiction thread invested in technophilic futures and a fantasy one affiliated with the forms of imagining promoted in comic books—into dialectic tension with each other. This tension results in a work that imagines future forms of care capable of sustaining not only emergent queer Latinx subjects but also a range of persons whose experiences of trauma render them vulnerable to further violence, whether from others or from themselves.

Adam Silvera, More Happy Than Not, New York: Soho Teen, 2015

A short plot synopsis makes clear why scholars have focused on More Happy Than Not’s coming-of-age aspects. The novel is narrated by Aaron Soto, a 16-year-old Puerto Rican in the Bronx, who, at the start of the narrative, is recovering from a suicide attempt that occurred in the aftermath of his own father’s suicide. He’s also anticipating his first sexual experience with the girlfriend who supported him through these events. When his girlfriend goes away to a summer art camp after they have had sex, Aaron strikes up a friendship with Thomas, a boy from a neighboring housing development whose masculinity is markedly different from that of Aaron’s other male friends. Although Aaron and Thomas preface expressions of affection with the phrase “no homo” that Aaron uses with his other friends, Thomas rejects the types of violent homosocial bonding that Aaron’s other friends engage in. In response to Thomas’s objections to this behavior, Aaron thinks, “I’ve been exposed to fighting my entire life, and I never really stopped to think that there were alternatives being laid out” (97). For children’s literature scholars E. Sybil Durand and Marilisa Jiménez-García, “Silvera presents an alternative model to youth for how they might perform masculinity.”3 While the relationship with Thomas opens Aaron to new ways of inhabiting masculinity, it also awakens his sexuality. Aaron eventually comes out to his friend, and then, later, clumsily kisses him as he confesses his attraction for Thomas. Although Thomas rebuffs the kiss and declares his heterosexuality, the two remain friends.

Mortified by this event and afraid of losing a friendship that sustains him, Aaron considers undergoing a memory erasing procedure to forget he is gay. This is the story’s main speculative device, which has understandably inspired many comparisons with Michel Gondry’s 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Indeed, as Silvera explains in an interview, his agent “pitched the book to publishers as a young adult version of the genius film . . . But Aaron isn’t so much trying to forget a single person who broke his heart as he is trying to forget his sexuality and all the tragedies that may come from growing up gay in a small-minded neighborhood.”4 In Eternal Sunshine, clients enlist a memory erasing company in order to forget former lovers and recover from heartbreak. The film asks viewers to think about how, in forgetting a past love, we inevitably also lose aspects of ourselves. In the case of Silvera’s novel, the goal is to forget oneself, or, in this case, to re-engineer memory so that you’re located in a moment when you didn’t know that you were gay.

In his drive to annihilate his gay self, Aaron could be figured as what Sara Ahmed has termed an “unhappy queer.” As Ahmed explains, an unhappy queer is “unhappy because the world is unhappy with queer love” (98). In contrast, “[h]eterosexual love becomes the possibility of a happy ending” (90). Throughout More Happy Than Not, Aaron is obsessed with trying to achieve a happy ending to his life. He refers to his suicide attempt as “a happy ending exit strategy” because it would put an end to the pain that he felt after losing his father (82). When he sees the diagram that Thomas keeps to track his various attempts to discover love and purpose, Aaron thinks, “the chart is the work of a madman who wants a happy ending” (77). By promising to orient his life toward a happy ending, Leteo’s memory erasing technology operates in the service of normativity. Alexis Lothian notes how much mainstream science fiction often aligns itself with “the reproduction of racialized normativity” (19). More Happy Than Not seems conscious of this tendency, interrogating the promise of happiness that the technology offers while acknowledging its productive uses.

The Leteo offices are located in the Bronx, and the procedure is presented as a technology that emerges from the Latinx community rather than as one that is imposed upon it. The name of the company, Leteo, comes from the Spanish word for “Lethe, the mythological river of forgetfulness in Hades” (161). The procedure was developed by “Dr. Cecilia Inés Ramos, PhD, MD, a Nobel-prize winning neurosurgeon,” who “unlocked the procedure while researching psychological disorders” (161). Medical personnel screen candidates for the procedure to ensure that trivial uses are eliminated.  Instead, they help “people who hurt themselves because of harmful memories” (201). Examples include an obese young man who overeats to compensate for childhood traumas and Aaron’s friend Kyle whose twin brother Kenneth was killed by a man who intended to kill Kyle. In these instances, the past is as an obstacle to a person’s flourishing. Before Leteo alters Aaron’s memory, the doctor administering the procedure asks him, “Would you still carry on with this procedure if your sexuality weren’t an issue?” (206). The question implies that the Leteo doctors have no objection to homosexuality but perform the procedure because they see it as connected to a web of events that inclines Aaron to self-harm.

The promise of Leteo’s procedure is actively questioned. Aaron and Thomas attend a protest outside the company’s Bronx offices where protesters make the case that we need to live with the guilt and trauma that our histories bestow upon us. In another subtle qualification of Leteo’s vision of a future encumbered by the past, Aaron notices a paragraph in the brochure about Leteo’s cost and whether it is covered by insurance. Throughout the novel, Aaron compares his family’s poverty to the different class status of his friends. For instance, he sleeps in the living room with his brother, while his girlfriend lives in an apartment where she has a private bedroom and her father has an office. When Aaron visits Kyle, they mention that, in order to keep Kyle away from the past that was wiped from his mind, they had to move from the Bronx to a cramped apartment in Washington Heights. Lothian notes that science fiction often presents the future as a resource that is maldistributed and sees speculative writing by queers and people of color as asking “what imagined futures mean for those away from whom futurity is distributed” (5). In the case of Leteo, the futures resemble the promises proffered by medicine and mental health care, some of which, in their attempts to minimize pain, discount the histories and contexts that produced a given crisis.

The most significant critique of Leteo occurs after Aaron’s friends attack him when they see him hugging Thomas farewell. Telling him to “[f]ight back, faggot” and that the beating is “for your own good,” the fight concludes when one friend hurls Aaron through a glass window, a trauma that “unwinds” Aaron’s memories and reveals that he had already been treated by Leteo (169-70). What he forgot was his earlier relationship with a neighborhood boy, how the two were gay bashed while riding the subway home, how his father dragged him out the apartment by his shirt collar when he came out, and how he found his father dead in his bathroom. Seeing his father’s suicide as a response to his coming out, Aaron attempted to kill himself not out of sorrow for the loss of his father, as he originally told Thomas, but because he felt responsible for his death. However, his mother and others assure Aaron that his father suffered mental illness that was exacerbated by a recent stint in prison. Angel Daniel Matos sees the story of the father’s rejection as a melodramatic instance of a common trope of familial rejection in queer Latinx YA stories, one that typically initiates the protagonist’s move from Latino to queer communities (46-47). However, in More Happy Than Not, the science fiction of the Leteo procedure grounds the narrative in the material conditions of a multicultural, largely Latinx, Bronx community.

Fredric Jameson argues that science fiction is grounded by “material and historical constraints,” especially when compared with “the celebration of human creative power and freedom” that one discovers in fantasy writing (66). This may help account for the ways More Happy Than Not resists the queer drift Matos describes, and it also allows us to think further about a subtle attention to fantasy in the novel that is largely rooted in Aaron’s enthusiasm for comic books. Early in the narrative, Aaron identifies his favorite place in the world as Comics Asylum, a comic book store whose slogan is “We Got Issues” (11).  With “asylum” suggesting a psychiatric hospital and the slogan psychological “issues,” both the store and its products are figured in therapeutic terms, counterbalancing the forms of medical relief offered at Leteo. Asylum also signifies politically, suggesting a place of refuge for someone who is persecuted in one’s own country. For Aaron, comic art is both a way to work through the past and a place to imagine life otherwise. He begins making comics as a way to compensate for the absence of his friends, but later indulges in comic making instead of talking to others as his therapist recommends: “I draw instead because putting thought to page helps, it really does” (107). Comics, then, are a form of thinking for Aaron.

This thought allows Aaron to simultaneously imagine himself in two different narratives. Aaron’s affinity for this kind of thinking draws him to The Dark Alternates, which he describes as “a new Marvel series where all the heroes are combating themselves in and their dark counterparts” (187). The Dark Alternates is a comic that invokes alternative universes that disrupt the canonical continuity and opens the possibility for unexpected events to transpire. The ability to think in these two ways—the world as it is and the world otherwise—proliferates in contemporary fiction about marginalized persons. We see an early version of this in Junot Díaz’s short story collection Drown when the disfigured boy who is tormented by other boys in “Ysrael” is reimagined as the hero “No Face” who swiftly eludes his tormentors. It is also apparent in the recent film Spider-Man: Into the Spidey-Verse when Miles Morales learns that “anyone can wear the mask,” which points to a potential heroism that resides in us all.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, 2018

Neither fantasy nor science proves sufficient to help Aaron in the end. After his “unwinding” when the memories that preceded the Leteo procedure return, Aaron suffers from a side effect: “anterograde amnesia . . . an inability to form new memories” (263). The strategy that Aaron develops to cope with this state synthesizes the two approaches that he takes to his problem. Lothian notes that queer theory, with its investments in world making, has strong affinities with speculative fiction (4). It therefore is not surprising that queer theory—in particular, the queer theory of José Muñoz – provides us a framework for understanding the novel’s ending.  Muñoz defines queerness as “a temporal arrangement in which the past is a field of possibility in which subjects can act in the present in the service of a new futurity” (16).  In More Happy Than Not, Leteo enrolls Aaron in an experimental program to help him remember, while his power to imagine comic book stories is depleted. Instead, he relentlessly draws pictures of the present, and turns his imaginative powers to reexamine the past that he can recall. In his words, he becomes a “happiness scavenger who picks away at the ugliness of the world” in order to imagine his life not as “one sad ending” but as a “series of endless happy beginnings” (292). In the process, Aaron transforms speculation into a form of care that resembles Muñoz’s queerness and directs its powers toward the past in order to imagine a potential future that does not culminate in a simple happy ending but rather in a life that is more happy than not.

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Endnotes

  1. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, Rev. of Shadowshaper, by Daniel Jose Older, and More Happy Than Not, by Adam Silvera, Los Angeles Times, June 18, 2015.
  2. Ramón Saldívar, “Historical Fantasy, Speculative Realism, and Postrace Aesthetics,” American Literary History 23, no. 3 (2011): 573-599.
  3. E. Sybil Durand and Marilisa Jiménez-García, “Unsettling Representations of Identities: A Critical Review of Diverse Youth Literature,” Research on Diversity in Youth Literature 1, no. 1 (2018): n.p.
  4. Tariq Kyle, “Cover Reveal: More Happy Than Not, Plus an Interview with Author Adam Silvera,”August 29, 2014. Accessed July 1, 2019, https://www.hypable.com/cover-reveal-more-happy-than-not-plus-an-interview-with-author-adam-silvera/