(Cross-posted from We Read to Seek a Great Perhaps)
Fly on the Wall: How One Girl Saw Everything
by E. Lockhart
Published by Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2006
English teacher’s ugly confession time: I’ve never read The Metamorphosis. I’m familiar with it, of course (one of my favorite childhood shows was Chip & Dale’s Rescue Rangers, after all) and so the reference in Lockhart’s book didn’t miss me – but even if you’re entirely ignorant of Kafka, you’ll still get your money’s worth out of this short novel.
The protagonist, Gretchen, is a sixteen-year-old student at a prestigious art school in New York. Even in a school full of extraordinary students, though, Gretchen struggles to fit in. Her comic book-style art isn’t the kind of art that her teachers want, and she worries excessively about what other people – especially boys – think about her. One day she wishes that she could be a fly on the wall of the boys’ locker room, so that she could find out what everyone says behind her back… and when she wakes up the following morning, the wish has come true.
Gretchen-the-fly spends the next several days trapped in the boys’ locker room, witnessing – sometimes against her will, since flies lack eyelids – what happens in that inner sanctum of adolescent masculinity. She has her first, moderately traumatic look at male anatomy (followed, of course, by many more) and learns quite a little bit more about the boys and their opinions than she’d bargained for. Lockhart’s descriptions of what Gretchen sees are, well, descriptive, and conservative parents may be uncomfortable with some of the language.
Gretchen’s metamorphosis from insecure kid to confident young woman (by way of diptera) is aided by her voyeuristic discovery that other people have bigger problems with fitting in than she does – specifically when she observes boys launching, and being the target of, homophobic attacks. When she is returned to human form, Gretchen not only has a greater understanding of people outside her own head; she also has a cause that helps her find her place in the school community by securing a place for others.
Fly on the Wall isn’t a book about LGBTQ students, but the message and gay secondary characters certainly make it a good fit with a LGBTQ theme. The ideas that everyone has problems, that most young people are unhappy about some aspect of themselves, and that understanding one another is key to accepting and embracing one another, are the thematic bullet points to the story’s principle message: helping others will help you help yourself (or, for the cynical, stop obsessing so much about yourself and go do something productive!)