8 Novels Featuring Endearingly Messy Queer Characters

Jinwoo Chong, author of "Flux," recommends books that celebrate queerness in all its complexities

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It’s not entirely right to say that literature is starved for complex, chaotic, endearing LGTBQIA+ characters. Starved in the mainstream, sure. We are just now emerging into a post-Love, Simon popular universe in which young queer people of today do just a little bit more than come out to their Oscar-Award-Winning-Actor-Portrayed parent and embark on an endearing journey of self-discovery that also includes dancing to a choice pride anthem of the ‘80s. 

We are lucky to have novels that portray the chaotic queer identity unhindered by palatable stereotype. These kinds of stories are not new; chaotic queerness has existed in print since the time of Wilde and before (perhaps even Homer? We can’t rule it out.) What’s new are said novels about chaotic queerness being picked up for review by major publications, included in book club picks and optioned for film and television, taught in classes, topping bestseller lists and greatly influencing the new generation of writers looking to tackle the same issues.

I’m speaking, of course, as one of these new writers. When I reflect on the process of writing my novel, Flux, the singular word that comes to mind is “stress.” I was writing from the point of view of a character that a) did not know who or what he was in any sense of the notion and b) did not have any particular insight into figuring it out. There is also time travel, and ‘80s television serials, and Silicon-Valley-esque fraud on the billion-dollar scale. But that’s another story. At the core of the book is something more dear to my heart: a gay boy without a clue, making one mistake after another.

I held these book about messy and endearing queer characters close to me at a very pivotal point in my life: while writing my own book, and becoming myself.

Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett

In Kristen Arnett’s debut novel, Jessa-Lynn negotiates her family’s varying levels of grief after her father’s suicide while taking the reins over the family taxidermy business. Between razor-sharp imagery of the surgical processing of dead animals is an absolutely riveting portrayal of a young woman’s confused grief, complicated by Jessa-Lynn’s long-languishing love for her brother’s wife, Brynn. Passionate and messy, Mostly Dead Things is thrillingly alive.

Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters

The reason for Detransition, Baby’s massive success thus far might be its wit, or its originality, but for me, it’s its heartfelt honesty. Reese, a trans woman, reels from the sudden “detransition” of her once-trans, once-partner Amy, now known as Ames, who is having doubts of his own about his life-altering decision. With dry humor, Torrey Peters navigates an immensely complicated terrain of conflicting identity with seeming ease. 

100 Boyfriends by Brontez Purnell

Brontez Purnell’s raucous, brutal, and hilarious novel follows a large cast of characters, all queer men, each one as delightfully complicated as the last as they are introduced in quick succession against a world that seems programmed against them. While it is Purnell’s humor that could draw anybody in with its deadpan authenticity, it is this novel’s unshakeable self-assuredness that brings its multi-prong identity into laser focus.

Love in the Big City by Sang Young Park, translated by Anton Hur

Sang Young Park’s breakaway bestseller is joyous, heartfelt, and so effortlessly real in its ability to jump cultures, making the unfamiliar familiar, underpinning the ultimate transmutability of human experience. Young, a gay student, encounters various pitfalls in his quest for self-expression: the departure of his best friend and roommate Jaehee, and the illness of his mother. Funny, honest, and profound, Love in the Big City is a treasure.

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

This 1964 novel (somewhat glamorized on film by Tom Ford in his directorial debut of 2009) is deceptively simple, brooding, and powerful. By far the oldest novel on this list, Christopher Isherwood’s take on existentialism is through the eyes of George, a gay teacher recovering from the death of his partner. Inhabiting a suddenly colorless world, devoid of hope, Isherwood draws a pitch-perfect portrait of grief.

The Thirty Names of Night by Zeyn Joukhadar

What I most admire about Zeyn Joukhadar’s writing is his ability to ground the fantastical. The Thirty Names of Night contains some of the most beautiful images I can remember ever reading in a book, unreal yet impeccably concrete. A Syrian American trans boy discards his birth name and, in looking for a new one, encounters the work of artist Laila Z. The book follows his journey to make peace with the tragic loss of his mother, an ornithologist who died searching for a rare bird. 

Solo Dance by Li Kotomi, translated by Arthur Reiji Morris

Solo Dance, translated from the Japanese, is a short and tense novel of becoming from the point of view of Cho Norie, a young woman attempting to keep her identity a secret against the oppressive backdrop of corporate Tokyo. The novel covers an intense period of trauma, yet the most astounding thing about it is the uncanny hope that prevails throughout. 

Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor

There are certainly reasons for the words “Tight,” “Deep,” and “Hot” on the front cover of Andrea Lawlor’s novel about a shapeshifter, Paul, with the ability to transform his body and gender at will. There is of course the whipsmart metaphor for a nonbinary person’s natural fluidity within modern society’s norms. But there is also an endearing innocence to Paul that is, and remains, hard to forget. 

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