Review: Antisocial by Heidi Cullinan

35652776A single stroke can change your world.

Xander Fairchild can’t stand people in general and frat boys in particular, so when he’s forced to spend his summer working on his senior project with Skylar Stone, a silver-tongued Delta Sig with a trust fund who wants to make Xander over into a shiny new image, Xander is determined to resist. He came to idyllic, Japanese culture-soaked Benten College to hide and make manga, not to be transformed into a corporate clone in the eleventh hour.

Skylar’s life has been laid out for him since before he was born, but all it takes is one look at Xander’s artwork, and the veneer around him begins to crack. Xander himself does plenty of damage too. There’s something about the antisocial artist’s refusal to yield that forces Skylar to acknowledge how much his own orchestrated future is killing him slowly…as is the truth about his gray-spectrum sexuality, which he hasn’t dared to speak aloud, even to himself.

Through a summer of art and friendship, Xander and Skylar learn more about each other, themselves, and their feelings for one another. But as their senior year begins, they must decide if they will part ways and return to the dull futures they had planned, or if they will take a risk and leap into a brightly colored future—together.

ARC acquired through Netgalley.

This book, y’all. This book is absolutely awful.

When I first heard about Antisocial, I was excited. A m/m book with a gray-ace character that also had an aroace non-binary side character? It sounded wonderful. It’s almost impossible to find m/m romance (or just romance in general) with ace characters, let alone a m/m romance with more than an ace character, with one of them being aro. If ace characters are rare in romance, arospec characters are freaking unicorns, and so are non-binary characters (aroace non-binary characters then!)

So yeah, I was excited.

But it all melted away when I read Xan’s review of it. And Daniela’s. And Annie’s. The book I wanted so much to read was a mess when it came to Japanese culture and the ace rep and the nonbinary rep. At this point I had already got an ARC from Netgalley, so I threw my hopes out of the window and braced myself to read the book just so I could write an accurate review of it. I was expecting something bad.

I got something awful.

The way this book portrays and treats Japanese culture is absolutely disgusting. I’ve never read something so blatant fetishizing. Antisocial is set in a fictional university called Benten that was funded by American “admirers” of Japanese culture. Just that would be iffy, but there is no Japanese or Japanese-American character in this story and all of the important/major characters are white. And what is worse, they are all weaboos. For real. I understand admiring & enjoying Japanese culture because I grew up watching anime and reading manga and even tried to learn Japanese at some point (I still kinda want to, one day) but there is a line between admiring something and fetishzing it and this book is absolutely fetishizing Japanese culture.

Some examples:

Something inside Xandder snapped – he could almost see it, and it was a tiny, red-hot rubber hand. “Hai. Take off your clothes, all of them, Skylar-san, onegaishimasu.” When Skylar only stared at him, he clapped his hands twice. “Hayaku.”

“I think I’d appreciate your skivvies.” Skylar cleared his throat. “And…a sock for myself. Ku..Kud…
Kudasai.”
“A sock, kudasai.”

“Do you know what I wish?” Skylar held Xander’s hand tight as he looked up at the falling leaves. “I wish we could stand like this in Japan, under real chery trees. Ones in bloom.”
“We have real cherry trees in the United States, you know.”
“The ones in Japan feel more real, somehow.”
Xander smiled. “Then let’s make it a vow. Someday we’ll stand under cherry blossoms in Japan.”
Skylar smiled back, and there was only weariness, no more shadows in his face now. “It’s a promise.”

Skylar and Xander have absolutely no reason ever to speak Japanese. They only do it because they are both anime & manga fans that love the Japan of animes and mangas, so it’s somehow “meaningful” to them to say the most unnecessary shit in Japanese from time to time (at some point one calls the other “my sakura”, I kid you not). What’s worse, sometimes they speak Japanese to each other in kinda sensual and even sexual moments, again just because. Japanese language is an adornment for them, to use when they want to say something “special”.

Japanese language, culture and religion are used in this book just to further the main characters’ romance and development. Japan itself is portrayed as some kind of mystical land where both Xander and Skylar can find happiness (spoiler, but they actually finish the book by going to teach English in Japan) and where everything is cooler just because it’s Japanese. There is no substance to anything Japanese in this story. Everything is used in the most fetishzing, disgusting way possible.

And it’s not a small thing. Japanese culture & language are embedded in the premise of Antisocial. There is no way this book could exist without it and without exploiting it. In the first 20/30% or so I was like, “ok, this is bad, but I guess I can keep going” but it only got worse from there. The second half of the story mistreats Japanese culture so much it actually became painful to read. And like, the book tries to acknowledge how nonsensical the whole thing is. Keyword: tries.

[…] but mostly the college was a bunch of rich white people, a handful of people of color, and an explosion of Japanese culture that made no sense when you looked at it from the outside.

The excerpt seems like a poor attempt at recognizing how weeaboo the only thing is, but it’s right in the beginning and the way the white main characters (one of whom is filthy rich) engage with Japanese culture is never challenged or questioned. It feels a lot like trying to save face.

“But Ren, what about the ace rep?” you might be asking and well, that’s complicated. I expected it to be awful and it was, but not as much as I thought it would be (small miracles, I guess?), partly because I related to some of it. I’m grayace myself, though I usually just say I’m ace. Though Skylar’s grayasexuality is nothing like mine, I related to some of his reactions. Puking after you kinda come out to someone? Sadly, something I probably would have done as well. It kinda reminded me of when my uni’s seniors made us freshmen (is that how both are called in English? Well) tell, half joking (my course is relatively queer-friendly), what our orientation was. I was at the back of the class and panicked because if they asked me, I wasn’t sure of how I would react, if I would say I was straight or risk coming out as aroace to ~50 students, most if not all of which had never heard about asexuality and aromanticism before. I would just puke on their feet, probably. Just like Skylar. So I fled.

So yeah, I understand what’s like to be nervous about coming out as ace (and aro) and I didn’t find any fault in how Skylar’s reaction to his coming out or to how he dealt with internalized acemisia. Everything else, though… Well, it was shitty.

First, the split attraction model. Now, some aces and aros and, well, people in general, don’t use it and that’s fine. But Skylar doesn’t even seem to know it exists, which is kinda weird for an acespec person who dug enough info on asexuality to know it was a thing. He never questions his romantic orientation, never gives a hint that for him romantic and sexual attraction are the same thing/that he doesn’t need or want the split attraction model, never explores his identity. Even Zelda, the aroace non-binary character, is a poor attempt at giving Skylar a community. He doesn’t have one. He doesn’t look for one. He doesn’t even think or say that he doesn’t need one. It’s like the ace community doesn’t exist in this book. And no, I’m not saying that he should have gone to ace meetings or whatever, but honestly? Most aces look for a community when we figure out that we ace because we spent our whole lives wondering what the hell was wrong. Skylar wondered the same, but since he had Xander, all was well.

Which brings us to the second problem with the ace rep in this book: Xander is the allo savior of this story.

Now, I’m all for allo characters who respect the boundaries of their ace partners (in fact, I want more of that in all genres), but Xander goes beyond that in Antisocial. He has the instinct of not trying to kiss Skylar (really?) and while Skylar is chest deep in his internalized acemisia he gets out of it because Xander loves him. That’s it.

Trying to explore his identity? Connecting with members of the ace community? Trying to work through his internalized acemisia? Trying to understand why it exists in the first place and why he has so much of it? Nah. Why, when you have a hot guy who loves you?

And this is my problem with the ace rep in Antisocial. It’s for allo readers who want an ace character who hates himself but gets better through the love of his hot boyfriend. It’s not for ace readers in the end. In a way, it’s own different kind of fetishzing.

Also, it’s kinda… bad that Xander thinks this at some point:

Man looked. Whether they were dating or not, looking for a partner or not – they looked. It wasn’t cheating or offensive, or it wasn’t intended to be. It simply was. Xander would lie in hot coals for one kiss from Skylar, one brush of his fingertips on his naked chest, but if the right guy walked by post-workout without a shirt, it would take willpower not to steal a glance and file images away for the spank bank.

Because:

  • That’s the kind of thinking that makes ace men hate themselves. See: Skylar.
  • That’s freaking ridiculous to think when you KNOW some men are ace.
  • That’s freaking ridiculous to think because even some men who are not ace don’t look or only think about sex all the time.
  • Ace men are men. Why is the super accepting allo partner going on about how men just will look right before thinking that the MAN he has a crush on doesn’t?
  • I know generalizations can work in some cases. This is not one of them.

The idea the all men think about sex all the time or will look at someone they find hot because they can’t help themselves is one of the reasons ace boys and men are so mistreated by literally everyone. Being a man and being sexual are deeply linked, and when you are one but not the other society will come for your head. But that’s bullshit. Being or not being sexual doesn’t make anyone less of a man and it’d be nice if we stopped spreading this idea everywhere, especially in a book about an ace man. Seriously.

I had no strong feelings about how Zelda, the non-binary character, was portrayed. It got a bit tiring that their anger/social justiceness (so to speak) was mostly only tolerated by everyone else. They felt a bit like a caricature, to be honest.

Now on to my petty complaint: Xander is an artist who strongly dislikes digital art because it “just doesn’t feel the same”. Early in the book he mentions that it feels weird to draw on a tablet while looking at the PC/laptop and I was like, “well display tablets exist?” because honestly. And well, way after a character shows him a display tablet and he is just awed. It was such a ridiculous thing to read. I mean, does the author really wants me to believe an artist who has been drawing for years knows about graphic tablets but not about display tablets? Right. Because that is believable.

In conclusion, Antisocial could have been a strong story that I could have loved. It’s my kind of book, being low on the sexual content and having characters that actually have conflicts that interest me. But since it’s full of fetishzing bullshit and shitty ace rep, I’m not here for it or for any of Heidi Cullinan’s books from now on. 1.0 star.

PS: Acemisia = acephobia = anti-ace bigotry.

PSS: I’m looking for reviews of this book by Japanese readers, Japanese-Americans and all descendants of Japanese included, to link in this review. If you’ve written one, please let me know in the comments! I would love to boost your review!

PSSS: I would recommend Blank Spaces by Cass Lennox, Empty Net by Avon Gale and Concourse by Santino Hassell as good m/m romance books with acespec characters. A warning, though: I haven’t read Lennox’s other books, but I’ve heard Finding Your Feet is transmisic.

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2 thoughts on “Review: Antisocial by Heidi Cullinan

  1. Pingback: Linkspam: September 1st, 2017 | The Asexual Agenda

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