REVIEW: “The God Box” by Alex Sanchez
Simon & Schuster, 2007
CHALLENGE(S): GLBT Challenge
[LAMBDA LITERARY AWARD WINNER]
Finished 4 Jan 2010
I read this book directly after I finished Child of My Right Hand – the same day, actually – and I think it suffered a great deal from the inevitable comparison. In some ways, God Box could almost have been the flip side of Child: the main character has lived in a small, conservative American town since he was born and has consequently been denying his attraction to other guys since he entered puberty. He has a girlfriend, is deeply involved in the Bible Study Group, and goes to church religiously (pun totally intended). His carefully constructed life is shaken, however, when a new boy, Manuel, starts at his high school. Like Simon from Child of My Right Hand, Manuel is gay and he’s not shy about it. The only real difference (aside from personality) is that Manuel also claims to be a devout Christian. Naturally, his arrival stirs up a great deal of turbulence both for Paul and for the rest of the town, culminating in a brutal and unprovoked attack on Manuel one night in the theatre parking lot that nearly takes his life.
On an intellectual level, I found this book very interesting. While it didn’t break new ground for me, it did give a clear depiction of the way the controversy surrounding homosexuality can impact the lives of both gay and straight teenagers. I particularly enjoyed those conversations between Paul and Manuel where Paul tries to “deconvert” Manuel from homosexuality but finds all of his arguments neatly shot down. The author was very thorough and I think this will be a good resource for teens looking for ways to defend themselves on a rational playing field or to reconcile with their own religious beliefs.
Unfortunately, however, I really didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d hoped I would. I’ve rewritten this review about ten times trying to clearly express what it was that bothered me, and I think basically what it comes down to is both writing style and characterization failed, in my opinion, to give any suggestion of depth to the narrative. Paul’s only major character trait seemed to be his inability to accept his sexuality, while Manuel was the Perfect Christian, open and forgiving and (I’m sorry!) irritatingly flawless to boot. In addition, the issue of homosexuality was treated in a very black and white fashion: either a character was open to the concept, or they weren’t. Only Paul seemed to have any trouble coping – everyone else fell neatly into “For” or “Against” camps. Even after Manuel was attacked, I could only sympathize distantly with the main character’s pain and dismay, as the narrative kept me at arms length, telling me what was going on without letting me experience their emotional lives. Essentially, both characters and plot felt like a vehicle for the author’s message – exactly what you don’t want to do when writing message fiction.
Something I also disliked was the ‘reveal’ at the end that the main antagonist had been raped as a child. In the first place, a tragic back-story does not a well-rounded character make (hello there, Mary Sue!). More seriously, though, the whole thing seemed to be dropped into the narrative as a cliché afterthought to provide a convenient explanation for his behaviour and a way of allowing the reader to be impressed by Manuel’s forbearance, not because the rape was a legitimate issue which had any real bearing on the character or story. To my mind this risks leading readers to make the assumption that all homophobia has its roots in a single, negative experience which seems unrealistic and minimizes the cultural and religious aspect the rest of the story deals with.
I feel kind of bad for not liking this. It was obviously written with good intentions and anything which goes to such lengths to dismantle anti-gay arguments that kids probably hear on a daily basis can’t be altogether bad. However, I really think Sanchez would probably have been better off writing a non-fiction book on the subject, either a memoir or possibly an academic study. He clearly has a great deal of conviction, but I ended up feeling a bit browbeaten. It’s clear that I’m not the intended audience for the novel and while I’m sure they will get much out of it, I did not.
All in all, not as good as I was led to believe, although clearly a writer with the strength of his convictions. Worth reading if only as a way to explore the various arguments both for and against homosexuality commonly advanced by Christians.