Desert Isle Keeper
Looking for Group
OMG. How many ways could this latest book from Alexis Hall have put me off—and yet somehow didn’t? Why did I give this an A in spite of the many hot buttons it pushed for me? Let me explain. This will have to be personal, since my shifting reactions to the book were intensely personal.
The key characters in Looking for Group are Kit (Solace) and Drew (Orcarella), both of whom are nineteen-year-old university students in Leicester, England. Both of them have adopted female avatars in the online gaming community that Drew joins at the beginning of the novel. The romantic comedy premise of the plot is that Drew, who has until this point dated only girls, finds himself attracted to Solace, only to learn that she is a boy—Kit (aka Charles). This is the reveal from which the rest of the plot unfolds.
Looking for Group is written mostly in a foreign language: the language of the high-level online gaming community. Most of the dialogue is in the form of online communication, replete with vocabulary related to a world that is completely alien to me. It was like reading Shakespeare or Medieval French. At first, it was barely recognizable; and yet after a while, I got into the rhythm of it and it all began to flow. Belatedly I discovered the long glossary at the back, and realized that I’d figured out the meanings of most of the abbreviations and terminology through context.
One of the main motifs in the narrative is the relative reality of online communities versus actual human friends in real life (IRL in the glossary). This tension becomes the core trauma that Drew and Kit need to handle. So, I’m a sixty-one-year-old who hasn’t played a video game since Myst III (that’s 2001, if you didn’t know), and never online. While my twenty-one-year-old son plays horrible war games online, I’ve shied away from this completely. However, I do know something about online communities, having been a devoted participant in the late lamented gay pop culture website AfterElton. And, of course, I’m part of the global m/m and gay fiction online community. As anyone who knows me knows well, the world of pseudonyms and coy secrecy in both of these worlds drives me insane. As an aging gay man for whom public identity and pride has been at the core of my psyche since I was twenty, I have real problems dealing with assumed identities, of not knowing who my supposed friends are IRL.
Hall (is this is real name? Good chance it’s not) deals with this issue thoughtfully and, ultimately, in a profoundly moving way, through two of Kit’s online raiding friends, Ialdor (who is Jacob, a gay man married to Stefan, who have two children) and Morag (Tiff, a lesbian who is dating a poetess). For Drew’s part, we have his somewhat unconventional college chums, Sanee (a south Asian boy dating an English girl) and Tinuviel (a pansexual redhead given to baroque philosophical statements). Hall forces us to consider, in this modern, global, digitally connected world, what friendship really means.
Finally, the hottest button for me is the “discovering sexuality” one. Drew is nineteen, has only dated girls, and finds himself in the dilemma of being drawn to a female character who turns out to be not only a boy, but a boy who is nearby IRL. I fumed a little over the idea of a modern nineteen-year-old being that detached from his sexual awareness, but Hall handles this with subtlety and compassion. My epiphany with regards to the book was the moment when I recognized Kit as myself (always knew I was gay, never did anything about it until I was at university, always wanted a lifelong mate). More importantly, I realized that Drew was oddly akin to my husband (of forty years now). He dated girls until he got to university, then surprised himself into a boyfriend, and a year later, at twenty-two, met… me. This was back in the 1970s, but once I could no longer deny the validity of Hall’s premise, I just let it in.
Plus, the book is damn funny, and I found myself not only loving these folks, but laughing rather a lot throughout, even at the in-jokes, and kvelling at the romantic bits. And that’s why I gave Looking for Group an A. This grade was hard fought and well won. Congrats, Alexis.