We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell.
── Oscar Wilde, The Duchess of Padua
Female-targeted gay romances, also known as male to male or boys’ love romances, celebrate the glamour of the romantic heroes and venture into different shades of love in popular romantic narratives. Female readers’ androgynous identification with the heroes enables an alienation effect to the strong empathy caused by an emotional love story. Readers can sympathize with the protagonists for their actions for love while keeping a rational distance because of the gender difference. The sexual exploration can be bolder, the elaboration of the heroes darker and the catharsis more provoking and incisive in the MM romances. The subgenre offers an alternative to the characterization of the romantic heroes as well as the narrative variety.
In a formulaic heterosexual popular romance, a romantic hero is the love interest and the devil to fight against throughout the heroine’s quest. He disparages, cheats and betrays the heroine while protecting, supporting and rescuing her from other malevolence and evils. The contrariness of the romantic hero is the core of his fascination and of the dramatic tension. On the other hand, the romantic heroine is tacitly good-hearted, if not well-intentioned. Readers’ spontaneous identification with the heroine confines the protagonist to a less controversial and less offensive depiction in the female-targeted popular genre. In MM popular romances, however, female readers cannot instinctively and instantly locate the object of their identifications in the story. The empathy suspension resulted from gender difference estranges readers from their uninspired expectations toward the too-familiar genre and permits more revisions to the romantic formula.
Alexis Hall illustrates a provocative but still empathizing case of romantic heroes/ antiheroes as the protagonist in the first-person narrative of Glitterland. An antihero is a main character who lacks conventional heroic qualities, such as honesty, courage and compassion. In fact, a romantic hero is supposed to be antiheroic in a formulaic heterosexual popular romance. The hero, however, are not the leading character or the main object for the readers’ identification. A romantic hero is the Other, villains for the heroine to defeat, dragons to tame in the female-targeted popular genre. Hall docilely adopts the genre convention and cunningly switches the villain to the hero. Ash is his own devil, the oppressor and the oppressed, the dragon destined to slay himself and the hero to rescue his love, or himself. The dilemma of the protagonist in a popular romance changes from external/ social oppression to internal/ mental struggle in Glitterland. Ash’s suffering comes more from his own character and wrongdoings than others’ harms. His quest as a romantic hero turns from an outward conquest to an inner pursuit, from self-realization to self-salvation. He is portrayed as self-centered and cynical, carelessly causing harms and distress to others. Ash Winters is neither Snow White nor Prince Charming, but a mere mortal, flawed, blundering and vulnerable, just like every one of us. Such an unromantic protagonist betrays genre readers’ expectation and would have been offensive in a heterosexual popular romance. Nevertheless, the alienation effect resulted from gender difference between readers and the protagonist in MM romances allows a more rational scrutiny of the hero’s behaviors while readers are emotionally involved in the romantic narration.
In Glitterland, images of ashes and glass are well employed to exemplify Ash’s mental states. Ash used to be clever, talented and affluent, a very ideal example of a hero in popular romances. The unanticipated manic depression crashed his life and burned all his expectation, his hope for future into ashes. As a conceited literary genius, Ash is especially agonized by the emotional disorder and paralysis. The depression separates him from other people while the meditation as well as his own pride and egoism thickens the invisible wall between him and the world, making him more indifferent to others’ feelings. The titles of his works, The Smoke Is Briars and Through a Glass Darkly, signify how Ash feels about the world. Everything seems behind an ambiguous veil of grey and a wall of glass, with his emotional indifference surrounding like thorny briars. With time, Ash writes more and more of his Rik Glass, slaughtering all the characters who Rik cares for, and heightens his obstinate but fragile wall of glass against his mania. Ashes turn into glass through inferno and glass breaks down to shards under pressions. The wounding wrecked shards persistently, involuntarily glitter, reflecting and aspiring to a silver lining of the clouds, despite their unbending motionlessness.
Being the other protagonist of the story, Darian is the opposite of Ash, a different bloom of the same root. He is cheerful, optimistic and compassionate, of more heroic qualities for a romantic narrative. As an abandoned child, Darian bears little bitterness toward the world. He is a much brighter shade of grey, offering a different attitude toward the shadow of life and lightening up Ash’s spirit as well as the story with his laughter and vitality. In the story, Darian is often associated with silver. The symbolic association indicates not only Darian’s brilliant appearance and disposition but also his open-mindedness and forgivingness, like shining, ductile silver, a contrast with colorless, breakable glass.
Ash’s quest as a romantic hero concludes with the revival of his long-lost courage and his reconciliation with Darian as well as, more importantly, with himself. Ash finally recognizes himself, though broken and depressed, as someone deserving to be loved. He no longer wanders in the ghost of his “normal” days and looks forward to a dawning future. The hero staggers through a prolonged night, fighting against his inner devil and gaining a hard-earned victory, in a chase of light. Love does not conquer all, in Ash and Darian’s story. The shadow of Ash’s depression hovers around and the happily-living after presumed in the popular romance formula is not guaranteed. The ending may be, of course, unsatisfactory for the genre readers. The deprived contentment, however, relieves us from habituality and inspires a rediscovery of love. Love does not guarantee happiness and love does not solve all our problems. Instead, it motivates us to move forward, to become a better self, to be closer to the shimmer at the horizon, where our hearts belong, a glitterland.
#A Chinese version of this review will be included in the Taiwan edition of Mr. Hall’s Glitterland, published on May 12, 2022.