I typically don’t like to read sad books. So from the get-go, I was leery of a book titled More Happy Than Not, as anything with a name like that promised to be bittersweet at best. While I wasn’t wrong in this first impression, I don’t regret having read it. More Happy Than Not is a beautifully told story about regret, memory, and queerness in the very near future, and contains an important message about the damage compulsory heterosexuality can do.
Major spoilers for the story below the jump, as well as mentions of suicide and violent homophobia.
More Happy Than Not is almost contemporary fiction, except for one addition that makes it a sci-fi twist on magical realism: an organization called the Leteo Institute. Named after Lethe, the river of forgetfulness in the Greek underworld, Leteo scientists have pioneered an experimental procedure that allows the people who undergo it to forget things. The whole process seems kind of shady and unnecessary to Aaron Soto, the protagonist of the novel. Despite his father’s suicide and his own less successful attempt at the same, Aaron doesn’t feel that he has anything he wants to forget that desperately—until he begins to fall in love with his very male friend Thomas. He breaks up with his girlfriend and begins spending more time around Thomas, eventually coming out to him and confessing his feelings. Thomas doesn’t return them, but he is supportive of Aaron—far more so than Aaron’s other friends. Aaron knows that his life as a Latino kid in the Bronx, which isn’t easy to begin with, will not be any easier if he adds homosexuality into the mix, and briefly considers undergoing the Leteo procedure to forget his queerness and his crush. Ultimately, however he decides against it, opting to accept this part of himself and move on.
The rest of the world isn’t as okay with this. When Aaron’s other friends see him hug Thomas out on the street, they’re so disgusted at this display of platonic affection (which they see as queerness) that they take it into their hands to beat the gay out of Aaron. The trauma they inflict causes brain damage, and unlocks a secret Aaron didn’t even know existed: he’s already had the Leteo procedure once before, and for the same reason he was already considering it. The memories come flooding back: his trysts with another neighborhood boy, whose coldness toward Aaron over the past several months Aaron suddenly understands, his beatings at the hands of homophobic thugs, his father’s suicide, which, he remembers now, was the direct result of his coming out. The specialists at the Institute warn that it would be unsafe to attempt to lock the memories up a second time given the damage to the brain. Aaron must live with everything now, as well as an additional complication: he is experiencing anterograde amnesia, the inability to form new, lasting memories, from his injury onward. While Aaron is shortlisted by the Institute for a remedial procedure that might help, the book ends on that bittersweet note.
So what is compulsory heterosexuality and what does it have to do with any of this? Basically, it’s the idea that heterosexuality is the default, and, more than that, that it’s the only acceptable sexuality. All of the problems in this book, at their root, stem from this idea.
While Aaron himself doesn’t have a problem with being gay, he has been bombarded his whole life (from the men in his life) with the message that pretty much everyone else would have a problem with it. He was beaten severely when he went out with his pre-Leteo boyfriend for not passing as straight friends. He was also beaten severely by people who called themselves his friends for simply displaying platonic affection for another guy. His father actually killed himself when Aaron came out rather than “suffer” with a gay son.
And while these are major traumas, there are also more insidious examples of homophobia and compulsory heterosexuality in his life as well. Aaron has never actively come out to his brother Eric (although Eric knew) because Eric always made fun of him for identifying with female comic book characters or wanting to play as female avatars in video games. When Aaron challenges him after the programming unwinds, Eric brushes it away, saying that it was just teasing and he never meant anything by it. However, he also never gave Aaron any indication at all that he was okay with Aaron being gay. In the end, it’s on the tamer side of the bullying Aaron receives for not achieving a heterosexual masculine standard, but it is still bullying.
This persistent homophobia leads Aaron to his first Leteo procedure, after which he believes he is straight, even beginning a relationship with one of his best female friends. And the thing is, there’s no arguing that his life isn’t easier as a straight kid. Because compulsory heterosexuality exists, even after he realizes he is gay, he still carries on with his girlfriend Genevieve for a while, because it’s how things are quote-unquote supposed to be. No one questions him when he’s with her. He can go on dates and be publicly affectionate; he can talk about her with anyone without worrying about the other person’s reaction over the gender of his significant other; he can talk about having sex with her with his friends and get a high five rather than a fist to the head. And Genevieve has bought into the compulsory heterosexuality too. When Aaron’s memories unwind, she admits that she knew he was gay all along—she had been enlisted pre-Leteo procedure to help him provide a straight front to the world. Despite knowing that he was gay all along, she doesn’t just act as a casual beard; rather, she actively encourages their relationship to progress and become more serious. They even start having sex at her suggestion. Even though she knows Aaron is gay and doesn’t have a problem with that per se, she still actively plays a part in maintaining the heteronormative expectation.
It’s all well and good to sit on the internet and tell people that the truth will set them free, but that ignores the culture of heteronormativity and homophobia that still endures in so many communities and the real danger that queer people face there. While it’s easy to scoff at homophobic people as conservative fundamentalists, and at the idea of compulsory heterosexuality as dated and insincere, More Happy Than Not points out that bigotry is not solely the realm of the religious. As Aaron recovers from his beating and attempts to put his life back together, it turns out to be easier in some cases to break off his relationships than to try to teach his “friends” to be more accepting. The instigator of the beating ends up in jail; Aaron’s mother frightens some of the others off by threatening to call the cops if she ever sees them near him again. Aaron personally kicks the ass of the one boy who had ostensibly been his best friend. All of these people are still so tied up in the mores of toxic masculinity and compulsory heterosexuality that, even seeing the effect they had on this boy who was supposedly their friend, they still think he’d be better off straight.
The Shakespearean, no-one’s-a-winner tragedy of the ending is heartbreaking, but it still serves to send an important message about the real, demonstrable damage these hurtful societal mores can do. From religious conversion therapies to hate crimes, from playground teasing to hurtful words that cut deeply, the world is still full of micro-and macro-agressions against people who do not perform up to the standards of compulsory heterosexuality. More Happy Than Not reminds us that these things do exist, and reminds us of the danger (and the courage) inherent in challenging these standards, even if doing so just means being your authentic self.