“Maybe it would be different if we lived in New York,” Simon muses. “Shady Creek isn’t exactly a progressive paradise.”
Simon Spier is 16 and gay, though at the start of Becky Albertalli’s Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda he isn’t out to anyone, at least not by choice. As this is 2015, in a high school where Tegan And Sara are mainstays and even old fuddy-duddy daddy Spier settles in for his weekly Bachelorette fix, his orientation isn’t necessarily a problem. One friend “loves gay guys, so she’d probably be freaking thrilled” if he told her. Even Martin, the classmate who found Simon’s secret email and is blackmailing him to be set up with his friend, doesn’t think much of his threat to out him. “I actually think people would be cool with it,” he says. “You should be who you are.”
This is, one hopes, about as awkward as it gets for the average kid coming out in this day and age. While prejudice and homophobia absolutely still exist, and teenagers remain masters of a particular strain of asshole, the growing support for gay rights—especially amongst younger generations, God bless them—means that someone coming out now faces a very different environment than one that existed even 11 years ago, when George W. Bush’s re-election came in part on an anti-gay marriage platform.
Albertalli knows this, but she also knows that even this kind of best-case scenario can be traumatic enough. This “coming out thing” isn’t even about being gay, Simon says. He knows his friends will support him, and that while it would be awkward with his parents at first, “they’re not going to disown me.” The issue is that he has to repeatedly identify himself who is different, not a “default.” It’s this universal “default” that makes up the titular agenda, the cause that Simon and his secret email boyfriend are rebelling against.
The book has very little plot to recap, with even the blackmail storyline falling into the background for large stretches. Simon pen-pals with another gay student at his school and spends much of his time trying to figure out who the mystery boy is; otherwise, the main narrative drive is a school production of Oliver! in which Simon plays a minor role. Mostly he takes tentative steps out of the closet, analyzing and fretting over each one.
To its great credit, Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda contains no forced or undue drama on this front. When Simon meets a gay college student, the man quickly realizes Simon’s age and shuts down his flirtation before it crosses any line. The one instance of anti-gay bullying is punished immediately and decisively; the school is progressive and well trained on these issues. When the closest thing the book has to a villain does something unforgivable, he regrets it immediately and apologizes. There’s an acknowledgement of persisting anti-gay sentiment—two boys are reluctant to publicly hold hands in their Atlanta suburb—but the real drama is more in navigating the high school politics of coming out. What happens if you tell friend A before friend B, and friend B is offended?
Simon is Albertalli’s first novel, and it shows in places. The teenage boy-ness of Simon’s voice in particular comes off as underlined to the point of sounding unconvincing. (A 16-year-old boy should not be surprised to wake up with an erection.) Mostly this is a matter of a few words here and there (Consider how wishy-washy this sounds, even for a teenager: “I’m kind of hoping to avoid finding out for as long as humanly possible. I guess I’ve been doing a lot of disappearing.”), but the cumulative effect saps the book’s effectiveness. Albertalli works with teenagers as a clinical psychologist, and often Simon’s dialogue reads like the consensus findings of her casework rather than a teenager’s conclusions.
The characters, some nookie aside, feel more like eighth-graders than juniors in their maturity. (Unless this critic is too far removed from his own teenage fumblings, which, no. He certainly didn’t have to Google what a Tegan And Sara was.) This choice could reflect the intended age of the audience; kids Simon’s age may relate to his struggle, but it seems doubtful that they’ll learn much from it. Compared with Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You—which serves as a kind of gay Catcher In The Rye—Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda is honest and well intentioned about its subject, but not at all challenging.