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BOOK REVIEW: All the Dirty Parts by Daniel Handler

BOOK REVIEW: All the Dirty Parts by Daniel Handler

Bloomsbury
October 2017
Hardcover, $24.99
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell

Young Adult

4/10

 

 

 

Cole is a boy in high school. He runs cross country, he sketches in a sketchbook, he jokes around with friends. But none of this quite matters, next to the allure of sex. Let me put it this way, he says, Draw a number line, with zero is, you never think about sex, and ten is, it’s all you think about, and while you are drawing the line, I am thinking about sex. Cole fantasizes about whomever he’s looking at. He consumes and shares pornography. And he sleeps with a lot of girls–girls who seem to enjoy it at the time and seem to feel bad about it afterwards. Cole is getting a reputation around school–a not quite savory one–which leaves him adrift and hanging out with his best friend. Which is when something startling begins to happen between them–another kind of adventure, unexpected and hot, that might be what he’s been after all this time. And then he meets Grisaille. 

All The Dirty Parts is an unblinking take on the varied and ribald world of teenage desire in a culture of unrelenting explicitness and shunted communication, where sex feels like love, but no one knows what love feels like, the novel gives us a tender, brutal, funny, and always intoxicating portrait of an age in which the whole world is tilted through the lens of sex. “There are love stories galore,” Cole tells us, “and we all know them. This isn’t that. The story I’m typing is all the dirty parts.”

 

 

Akin to What Girls Are Made OfAll the Dirty Parts is a book about teenage life, though this time from a male point of view. Where What Girls Are Made Of is about growing up in a world of double standards in which many of the gory details about being a girl are not shied away from, All the Dirty Parts is about being a teenage boy and dealing with the hormones, friendships, and uncertainty around relationships, and it doesn’t shy away from the gory details of masturbation and being a teenage boy.

Let me put it this way: let’s say you had an arm. Let’s say it was an arm, instead, that got stiff and stuck out suddenly and unsightly, and calming it down felt amazing. Tell me you would not think, not wonder what the big deal was to ask people if they could just take a minute and take care of that arm for you.

There are some funny moments:

—Hold it like a candy bar.
We are both giggling. She wipes her hand, sweaty, on the sheet and clutches me again.
—Ow. No. Like a candy bar.
—You know, it’s not really helpful because I don’t go around holding candy bars all the time. Or do this. Show me.
—OK, like—
—Oh. OK. This is like a candy bar? OK. And now, what next do I do?
—Now eat it.
I am pulsing, still laughing, close. It will happen quick and surprise her.

And some very raw and profound comments on teen romance and heartbreak:

—Officially together?
She repeats this in the tone of what’s-the-problem-officer. I already thought it might not work, to ask her.
—OK.
—Do we need a permit, Cole? Do I have to pay for the whole year up front?
—I was just asking.
—Can we just, play it as it goes along, by ear?
And, like a sock to the stomach, I get how every previous girl felt looking and asking that question, officially, at me.

Sexuality:

—We could try.
It’s the thing Alec keeps on saying. We are, I want to say back. I am. Trying, I’m trying it. But he means something else. I’m trying it like, you find a coin on the table and you spin it for no reason but to see it happen. He’s trying it like medical school, because maybe he’ll grow up to be a doctor.

The first Monday after the first time, I watch Alec watching what’s-her-name bend over to get something out of her bag on the floor. It’s a deep wide relief. Still into girls, me too, everything’s cool.

 

Double standards:

—Do you want to go to Greta’s?
She yawns a little. —Whatever. I’m easy.
—I know.
Her eyes go dark right quick. —I mean it. Don’t ever. You’re pretty easy yourself, but I bet nobody says it, yes?
—Yes. They say I have a rep.
—For a boy, that’s like a medal. Or maybe a hat, like even if you don’t like it, it’s just something he wears. For girls, it’s like, she’s a ruin, stay away from her.
—It’s not like that. People get mad at me too. Girls I’ve been with, their friends, it’s like a minefield.
—Not the same. You know Allison? Never mind, of course you do. She won’t talk to me hardly, and we’re next to each other in three classes, because she knows we’re fucking.
—That’s nuts. All the guys she’s been with, she needs all the friends she can get.
Her eyes do it again. —This is what I mean, Cole.

and many of the other things that come with being a teenage boy who is discovering who he is going to be.

But that doesn’t mean it’s without its flaws… or even particularly good.

To be sure, there are things here that are infrequently discussed and treated as taboo in our modern world, things that would be beneficial to the kids going these experiences to discuss… and I admire what Handler was trying to do. For some this might be a life-changing book, but for this reviewer there were issues with the main character.

He was hard to find personable, due to his obnoxious attitude, and one can’t help but think that even though there were some gay/bi interactions, and a certain level of… acceptance of this, the main character still had himself convinced that it was a convenience thing only when he had sex with a guy, but other guys were “gay” when they did the same.

—OK I did some gay stuff but I don’t feel gay about it.
—Tell me what stuff.
—OK but don’t tell anyone.
—Well I’m a guy on a random anonymous chat. Think you’re safe.

He did go from a guy who slept around with every girl who would consider it to a guy who understood what it was like being on the other side of that equation and learnt from his mistakes, so that’s a positive.

The biggest issue for this reader was the formatting, and this was enough to knock it down by a whole point in the rating. There are no dialogue tags, and the weird formatting makes it hard for readers to know if it’s the character talking (or texting, or writing) or the narrator explaining to the reader who was talking. This means the reader has to work hard to decode what’s going on, and if they’re focused on trying to work out who is speaking and to differentiate the spoken stuff from our narrator’s thoughs, they are not going to become involved in the stories and care about the characters. What is the point in being “artsy” like that when it adds nothing to the story and gets in the way for readers?

This was just impossible at times, especially when the MC was talking to two people at once (maybe one in person and one via text message?).

—Are you doing something later?
—Later? This is Alec, by the way.
—Hi.
—Hi, Grisaille.
—Later?
—Later? No.
—Good, call me.

Is the bit after the question on the second line clarifying that Alec is talking in the first line? Or is Alec saying that in his message or on the phone (seems weird since these guys are such good friends, but… maybe Alec got a new number or was calling from a different phone). It’s never made clear and is incredibly frustrating! Perhaps this is meant to emulate a teenage boy writing in his own words, but rather than offering that atmosphere it came off as needlessly over-complicated.

In the end, the layout got in the way of immersion. Had Handler written this with standard dialogue tags and text structure, this might have been 6/10.

BOOK REVIEW: All the Dirty Parts by Daniel Handler

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