"I can't believe I've always had such awful taste..." This week, my brain has been furiously consumed with the release of Fairy King Oberon on the JP server of my favorite mental poison, Fate/Grand Order. His personality and play style can only really be described as "humorously bastardous" and the character art by manga artist Chica Umino is so beautiful and cute in a kind of awkward and scumbag-looking way that I couldn't even wait patiently for his arrival on the English server... reader, I made a JP account for the anime boy with chubby cheeks, a horrible smug grin, and Literal Bug Feet.
But that's always been my type. Or rather, I have a variety of "types" but also always find attraction to be more complicated than simply something "being attractive." Why do I keep going back to the most withholding and infamously player-hostile gacha titles when there's tons of Wholesome Indie Titles that let me have elements of romantic frisson with a bunch of people who just look like, basically, Target underwear models? Well, the answer is kind of in the question. The closer someone, a person or a character design, gets to being unambiguously "attractive" the less interest I can sustain in them, and this seems to be something seedy BL games and certain gacha promotions have a better handle on than self-consciously pro-social content.
There's an obvious draw in disgust, assholishness, "unconventional features," the weird and the perverse that I wished more things tapped into freely in general. In this case Chica Umino gave her fairy king a round face, lazy-looking eyes, a wide, frog-like mouth, a garish outfit, probably covering up a pretty undefined physique, and even grossed herself out studying photos of bugs to complete the design. Fan art making him buff, giving him model bone structure, etc is completely unappealing. Go back to Howl's Moving Castle you philistines!
Anyways, based on how much I loved the design, I was also inspired to revisit Chica Umino's slow burn josei dramedy, Honey & Clover, which follows a group of art school students at various stages of their college experience, attempting to start their careers and figure out their own life goals amid a recession while also getting into a variety of love triangle scenarios. While the central romance is pitched as the one between Takemoto and Hagu, who are complementary in the sense that their main character arcs are both figuring out what the fuck they actually want to do with their (up until that point, largely predetermined) lives, the unrequited love between Yamada and Mayama is one of the parts of the series explored in the most brutal detail.
Mayama is always aware Yamada is in love with him, and he's not emotionally unavailable, he's actually only just emotionally available enough to never definitively shut down the possibility of returning her feelings someday. This is because he's obsessively attracted to Rika, an older woman he works for as an architect-in-training who is recently widowed and very obviously has an entire life and history of her own that he's not a part of, and he similarly can't definitively distance himself from her. There's a brief moment where he shows his hand in the situation rather than being oh-so-mysteriously aloof-- when a womanizing colleague of his seems to become genuinely interested in Yamada's ceramics and offers her work furnishing some of their firm's designs, he interferes. It's a truly petty and ugly impulse, and yet... it doesn't even give the romcommy satisfaction of building up into a realization then declaration of true love for Yamada, he just doesn't like the thought of her having the option. It's a scenario that hits very realistically for anyone who's only had a guy decide maybe they like you, or at least like the idea of you liking them only after a series of visceral humiliations.
Reading romance stuff generally makes me feel sweeter on my current partner who makes life easy, which I think is a good sign. But it does also make me a bit nostalgic, now that I'm Old and Married, for the emotional extremes this longing, prostration and humiliation offered (maybe I need to exercise more then). I call my late-teens/early-20s heart-rending experiences with particularly flaky and inconsiderate guys my "heterosexual adventurism" period, because in hindsight it seemed like throwing myself at scenarios which could only go wrong just for the experience of them, but this sort of exultation/devastation roller coaster has been one I've also been on with women and maddeningly respectful men as well. In general any crush is kind of putting out a small bit of yourself in anyone's hand, and seeing if they'll destroy it. Feeling hot is a bit sexy, but there's something that really gets me sweating and gets my heart racing about the game of chicken where you try and find out how much someone really likes you or just likes someone liking them, what parts of you they'll respond to with annoyance or repulsion, what about you will pull them back into your orbit with fascination anyways, and how this can feel like intense series of psychological victories and defeats, to the point that it can become as addictive as gambling or sports (especially if you have little else to do). It's true death-drive wrangling.
And yeah, unfortunately I guess this post is also a bit of a Sally Rooney Take. It's in the air! I guess I find her a bit fascinating because elements of her work seem like they would be catnip to me; painful romance, "weird" girls, bi characters, lives of precariat cultural/intellectual workers, etc. But in each case these things are inevitably kind of glossed on or disappointing in execution. Characters are notatively "bisexual" but seem to have no concept of non-heteronormative desire even while mentioning past same-gender relationships, nor do they seem to have any self-consciousness or baggage about being, in essence, polymorphously spinning compasses in a social context still very attached to the metaphor of a "true" "sexual orientation" as a part of one's core identity (my guess is it appears again and again because it's just something "interesting" and "contemporary" like glam rockers).
Characters are also notatively "mentally ill" but are fixed through CBTing themselves out of low self esteem or simply removing the unambiguously toxic people, abusive family, boyfriends into BDSM, et cetera, from their lives. Characters are notatively "unpopular" and "struggling" but always manage to become thin, attractive (everyone agrees!), and inevitably successful in the most boring ways (literary magazine features! NYU MFA!) while employment and cash flow cause surprisingly few speed bumps in the plot. They don't have many friends because everyone around them feels like transplants of illustrative unpleasant Twitter personality archetypes, so who in their right mind would anyways? (For an author who always talks about how offline she is in interviews, she sure loves staging Iconic Stupid Twitter Argument moments for her characters to win or lose at.) Et cetera.
In almost all cases, and early word about her new work that notes the recurrence of "bay leaf bisexuality" (lol) and neat platitudes about idealized family relations and religion, doesn't fill me with confidence that her forthcoming book is not basically a doubling-down on these ideas: that "healthy" heterosexual femininity, the idealized loving nuclear family made up of The Couple and their biological offspring, and religion, specifically Catholicism (lol), tend to work as uncomplicatedly good and normalizing forces. Becoming normal through these means is often depicted as a sort of religious epiphany and functions as self-actualization in a way that not only feels uncritical and unambitious for supposedly "literary" works, it gives them the elements of neatness and didacticism that place them firmly in the "YA" category vibe a lot of people detect coming off of them. (It's not just the romance themes or the idealized characters, in my opinion, basically. Selin from The Idiot, for example, or even the characters in Honey & Clover are often prodigies who secure rare opportunities and experiences as well, but their characterization is much less, well, juvenile.)
I found Normal People the most compelling and least frustrating of her work because at least the first half of it seemed to open the door to being and staying truly "weird," and elements of the second half, while a lot weaker in characterization and a lot more tidy in narrative arcs, has parts where it does try a bit maybe to work out some psychological and practical problems that come from normal-izing oneself. My embarrassingly huge meta post on autistic interpretations of the characters goes into this in more detail, but to summarize, what attracted me to Normal People the novel (which the TV series necessarily excludes), and made the first few chapters of it honestly kind of enchanting and hot is that it deals with specifically romantic attraction/disgust, and from a male perspective.
Marianne is not only a social outcast at her high school for her anti-social behavior and general "bad vibes," she's kind of gross, "grimacing" in photos and often getting yogurt or stick deodorant on her clothes. And yet, Connell is pulled to her in a way that makes him kind of uncomfortable, and eventually quite cruel to her. That's the interesting premise, past that, everything kind of proceeds like an overly-neat fairy tale. They go to college and Marianne Gets Hot and gets a boyfriend to ensure Connell's interest and jealousy, and the weirdness and ambivalence of their relationship beyond romcom-esque miscommunications and failure to embrace that They Belong Together mostly goes into the background, beyond some references to how the friend group Marianne ascended and then fell out with were kind of shallow assholes. But not her, of course, haha. While she loses her hot friends she does not lose any of her own hotness or loyalty to the ways she otherwise conforms to upper class campus life. In this context, the hotness and power plays and push-pull of desire that makes their relationship interesting end up ringing hollow. The door of a life and desires outside of normalcy tragically swings shut...
Basically, these stories are inevitably disappointing to me in the last third in ways that other stories that let themselves focus on the draw of disgust and the humiliations and failure of romance are not because they seem to say "by god, if you can become normal, then BE NORMAL!" Of course (and maybe more annoying than the normalization impulse of your typical low brow rom com), "normal" is also ubiquitously recognized as pretty, thin, intellectual and successful ideally all before turning 30 (alternate thesis of Normal People: maybe the Forbes 30 under 30 list DOES have a point!). This is the clever trick of normalcy, or maybe the banal carrots it holds out in front of us. What are the options for those of us who can't and/or don't care to be normal? Well, for now, I'm developing increasingly sophisticated tastes in bug boys, but I still have to say that within literature, that form that can so economically offer a point of sympathy and understanding across time, the glorification of the socially "normal" seems like a pretty narrow and uninspiring area to cover. More disgust please!
Anyways, in other news, in case this wasn't a massive enough can of psychoanalytical worms for you, I released my first bipsi via DOMINO CLUB, it's called The Dream Sequences and is a collection of (sliiightly fictionalized) dreams I had during the prolonged social distancing this year.