Guy is Real Life features alternating first person narratives between Lesh, a trench-coat wearing punk guy who gets sucked into playing a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG, or MMO) and Svetlana, a willowy hippie girl who is the dungeon master for a tabletop role-playing game. Their lives collide quite literally when she wings him while on her bicycle, and they both expect that will be their last interaction.
After he’s grounded for the shenanigans that led him to be in the path of Svetlana’s bicycle, Lesh’s friend convinces him to sign up for a MMO. Half-hearted about playing an orc with his friend, Lesh remembers the hot girl he’d run into and creates a second character that looks like her and uses a variant of her name.
Their lives intertwine as they find themselves in the same lunch period, and as Lesh gets to know her, he realizes how different she is than the idealized character he’d made on the game, but he also realizes that he likes the experience of imagining himself in a woman’s role, and he likes the attention he gets from the other gamers. His reconciling his attraction to the real girl and his exploration into who girls get to be in this culture is by far the most interesting aspect of the book.
Their voices are fairly distinct and authentic, definitely a high point. It’s not a fast-paced book, but the alternating narratives help it move along. The exploration of gender roles and expectations makes this one worth a second look. Though Lesh is not gay (though he wonders briefly about it) and he’s not becoming a transvestite (though he wonders a little more about that), he still confronts some of the plusses and minuses of being labeled a “girl” in this culture, and he comes out a different person because of it.
One of the fallacies of the book is that there’s not a lot chances for social overlap between Svetlana and Lesh before they make an effort, but I don’t think that’s true. I am a gamer, and most of the gamers I know who play tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons also enjoy computer and console gaming. I also know a fair number of gamers who were or are into grunge, punk, and all things gothic. I suppose some people make anything into a social distinction, but this is something that doesn’t match up to my experience of the subculture at all. It lessened my enjoyment of the book, but I think its handling of other issues more than makes up for it.
For 100 Sideways Miles, my first recommendation to anyone even thinking about reading it is to skip the front cover flap. Over 50% of the events listed in the hook on the front flap don’t happen until after page 200, and it doesn’t do justice the book’s strengths. The book is light on plot with not much to write in a traditional summary, rather the story is about self-discovery and coming of age in a hundred little ways, often with a hilarious edge to it.
Flynn is epileptic as the result of an injury he sustained while he was seven, and though he’s recovered well, he feels like the epilepsy limits how those around him see him, particularly his father. Flynn’s father is a misanthropic author who had one hugely successful book: an apocalyptic science fiction featuring characters that are very much taken from Flynn’s life after the accident. The publicity that the book generated leaves Flynn feeling trapped within that portrayal. The bulk of the action is the everyday progression of incidents that leads Flynn to discover that he’s not limited by what people think of him, that he’s more than how he’s portrayed in his father’s book, and that his future is his to decide.
The characters are a delight. Flynn’s best friend is the most inappropriate guy in their class (there’s one in every class) and provides most of the humor and profanity in the book. Flynn’s love interest, Julia, has her own quirks and issues that are portrayed well. Flynn’s father was my favorite character from the book – he has his own understated humor, and most interestingly, he had his own issues about coming to terms with Flynn’s disability. Flynn himself is a compelling narrator. He’s a fairly literal guy, which it is suggested is a side effect of the accident, but Smith did not get most of the other details of epilepsy right. Flynn does a lot of things that an epileptic really should not do. The most glaring example is the several times that Flynn swimming is a plot point. It seems like Smith was selective about what aspects of the disorder that he wanted to include, and they only crop up in the plot when it’s convenient, disappearing the rest of the time into a generic feeling of not belonging.
At the start of the book, Smith writes in a more stream of consciousness narrative, with many tangents and side scenes that all eventually do add up to a point. While being more true to actual trains of thought and courses of conversations, it was a little disconcerting. Making it an even more questionable stylistic choice, the narration style only lasted a few chapters before becoming much more linear for the rest of the book. It might have been more of a plus if he had been more deliberate with it; as it is, it seems like a half-hearted stunt to get attention early on in the book.
So, the verdict: They both have strong characters and voices. They both have plausible enough realistic fiction plots. Both have some sexual sparks but deliberate choices for no actual sex. Both have a sense of humor without being just a funny book. 100 Sideways Miles, however, wishes it was Catcher in the Rye and falls short, while Guy in Real Life at least brings up interesting and timely questions of masculinity and how men are and are not allowed to express themselves in our society.
Guy in Real Life, For the Win!