A New Spin on an Old Trope Leads to a Bumpy Ride

In 2008, Random House published Lauren McLaughlin’s YA speculative sex comedy Cycler. On one level, it’s the story about Jill, an only child, and her quest (with the help of her friend Ramie) to get the New Boy at school to ask her to prom. Jill, however, has an unusual secret that complicates Plan Prom–four days out of the month, she morphs into Jack, a boy.

As a title, Cycler is much snappier than Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde go to Prom, which is basically what the story tries to be. Because the main character’s parents lock their only child in during Jack’s days and teach Jill to block any memory of Jackness, Jack has grown angry and rebellious. While Jill plans prom, Jack plans jailbreak. Hijinks ensue.

I think in 2008, the dichotomy here was fresh and interesting, but the plot and the writing don’t serve the premise well. The book adds a twist when the New Boy, Tommy, tells Jill he is bisexual, which could lead to some interesting tension among Tommy, Jill and Jack, but doesn’t. (The potentially more interesting thing about Tommy, at least for the Jill aspect, is that he is anti-prom.)

I alluded to Jekyll and Hyde–Jack has been suppressed and mistreated, so be has become oppositional-defiant. This means his actions begin to drive the plot, reducing Jill to a passive agency-free female voice, acted upon by elements around her. Jack is also a stereotype of a gross teenage boy. He refuses to bathe. He throws around locker room slang which, even though he has Jill’s memories, he has probably never heard, and his sensibilities seem to be gleamed from Beavis and Butthead. When he and Ramie have sex for the first time, he crows about it over and over, to himself (actually to the reader–“Did I tell you we had sex? We had sex!”) I mean, I’m glad for him, but this behavior is cliché “boy behavior,” not well executed.

(For instance, if Jack had run through the streets of town remembering what it felt like to have sex, or smelled like, whatever, I would have believed it. “Boys brag about sex,” while it may be true, is a cliché.)

In trying to create a person who is biologically gender fluid, McLaughlin sends each aspect of the Jill/Jack character to the farthest extremes of the continuum of “girlness” and “guyness.” It seems like the choices the parents made pushed this split, but the story never addresses or it resolves it.

Maybe, at least at the beginning of this premise, that has to happen? I don’t know. I could accept that Jill/Jack would go “to separate corners” in the beginning before they work out a détente (in this story, I should be clear, Jack and Jill are separate personalities). I’d like to see a more, pun intended, fluid relationship evolve though, as well as a few other things (like a confrontation with the parents) and none of that happens.

Oh, but wait! It might happen, in the sequel, Recycler! That’s right. Cycler ends abruptly, with Jack crashing the prom (inexplicably held on June 23, after school is out? Supposedly?), then relinquishing the ascendancy, Tommy and Ramie learning the truth about Jill, and the three of them sitting on the shore of a lake wondering what to do next.

It’s possible, even likely, that McLaughlin’s original manuscript comprised both stories and some enterprising agent or editor suggested splitting it. The story of Cycler wasn’t well served by that choice. The book didn’t do well. Because I am generally a critical reader, I was surprised to find nearly all of my issues with this book echoed on Goodreads.

Amid all my disappointment, a rich premise remains. Someday, somebody will write this well. And it won’t be Jekyll and Hyde Go to Prom.

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