When a book has the guts to proclaim itself as "Heathers meets Mean Girls" for gays, it's got a mighty big pair of Alexander McQueens to fill. Both of those are beloved cult classics, and in the current political climate, creating the "right" kind of satire is difficult, especially for a group that has been so marginalized. My question going in was how on Earth would KENS approach LGBT issues in this manner without being trashy or cheap?
The plot is kind of weird to explain. The hero, Tommy, lives in a ritzy part of So-Cal where a group of boys called the "Kens" rule the school. Think the plastics, from Mean Girls. The leader, Ken Hilton, used to be Tommy's BFF, but they had a falling-out over a guy. But one day, KH decides to take Tommy back, give him an extreme makeover, and indoctrinate him back into the cult. Only Tommy fails, so once more he finds himself brutally humiliated.
At the same time, there's a new guy in school named Blaine who doesn't appear at all intimidated by the Kens. He's curiously eager to help Tommy get revenge on this group of guys who seem untouchable. But what he promises are harmless pranks end up being, well, psychotic. (This must be the Heathers influence of the story, although I've never actually seen Heathers.)
I think this is one of the most offensive books I've ever read. I think it's supposed to be satirical, but it's done so badly that it comes off as grossly insensitive. One of the characters in here has a drag act, in which his persona is named "Sandy Hooker" (you know, like Sandy Hook). The one black character is the story is gunned down by a policeman, after another character smashes his tail light and then calls the cops on him for reckless driving (casually dropping the fact that he's black). The book then cheekily tells us that the sound of sirens immediately fills the air, like, oh, of course. Classy. Then there's another character who brings a selfie-stick shaped like a gun to school and pretends to "shoot" some people who then say something like, "Whoa, I didn't know you were a Muslim." Because Muslim = terrorism, I guess.
In case those two things weren't enough, there's a reliance on gay stereotypes (drug-popping, promiscuity, shallowness); transphobic remarks; an abundance of racial stereotypes and coded language used to denigrate and demean; fat-shaming, weight-shaming, and body dysmorphia; suicide ideation; making light of those with eating disorders, suicidal thoughts, and the desire to self-harm; and of course, bullying. I don't necessarily believe that the author is a bigot or that it was his intention to indicate that he supports this sort of thinking. However, I do feel that he went out of his way to purposefully write an insensitive and shocking book. That's always a risk, and here, it was a failed risk in my opinion. It was dark and upsetting and not a very good book. I'm not sure what the message here was, or why it necessitated so much mean spirited humor. But it was awful to read.
I always feel bad when I see a book that has ratings below 3.0 on Goodreads. I usually go out of my way to read such books because sometimes I feel that such books either have a niche audience, an unusual and frustrating story, or a bad blurb that set them up as something they were not. In this case, however, I can understand the low ratings for KENS. It reads like someone who was trying to channel Cecily von Ziegesar and Bret Easton Ellis, while utterly missing the point.
Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!
1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars