Hello everyone and welcome to our monthly AAR blog column. The basic idea is we choose a book every month and have a discussion about it. We being Elisabeth Lane (of Cooking Up Romance), a long-time romance reader who now creates recipes inspired by books and then blogs about it, and Alexis Hall, author of, most recently, For Real.
This month we read Meatworks by Jordan Castillo Price, an m/m romance set in a dystopian near-future where robotics technology reigns. Desmond Poole has recently lost a hand in a robotics accident and he is… failing to cope. He gets sent to group therapy where he meets Corey Steiner, a hip, young thing who has much better control of his robotic limb than Desmond. They have instant chemistry, but it takes them awhile to navigate the treacherous waters of their new relationship.
AJH: This your first JCP isn’t it? How did you find it?
Elisabeth: Loved it. Loved the characters, loved the world-building, loved the dark humor. Loved it.
AJH: Oooh gosh. Yes. I find her a really … I don’t quite know the word is. Uncompromising writer? She’s never hesitates to take an idea and run with it. Or allow her characters to be deeply, deeply unsympathetic in often quite unglamorous ways (Desmond is definitely an example of this!). So her books always leave me sort of moved and thoughtful and impressed, all at the same time.
Elisabeth: Yes, Desmond is definitely not your typical romance hero. He’s an alcoholic. He’s depressed. He’s had this accident where he ended up losing his hand, but even that, well, it was sort of his fault? He was involved with not-great people and he wasn’t that ambitious or well-wrapped even before he got hurt. Personally, I couldn’t have anything but sympathy for the guy, but I understand why other readers might not particularly like him. He’s made some pretty epic mistakes.
AJH: He’s a difficult narrator to spend time with, that’s for sure. But I really like that he’s vulnerable and stupid and self-destructive in ways that romance heroes often just aren’t allowed tobe. And also I like that he’s allowed to get himself into a better place by the end of the book, just in this very low key way of coming to terms with who he is and the decisions he’s made, and making some new choices for his life. I mean, since we’re essentially dealing with a disabled hero here, it’s quite significant that he is not amazingly brave or saintly, but nor is he completely helpless and ruined. For me, he’s just very human. Robot hand included.
Elisabeth: Yes, and the whole plot is basically about his learning to manage his disability, both physically and mentally. It’s interesting to see the evolution he goes through between his ex-boyfriend/social worker, his new love interest Corey and the couple of counsellors he has to see in order to continue getting benefits. It’s this whole exploration of Desmond handling things his own way, even when that’s not necessarily what society’s script would have him do. Like, the therapy helps him, but not in any kind of direct way. It’s more like learning to cope with the mess the system makes that gets him back on track.
AJH: This is all really complex stuff and I really liked the way the book engaged with it. But I think what I struggled with occasionally was the way his disability was sometimes treated as, well, disability. And sometimes almost as metaphor for the various things that Desmond hasn’t quite come to terms with: the actual circumstances of the accident, his relationship with his ex, broader issues about himself and his place in society. Which sort of brings us back to the thing you mentioned earlier about the whole lost-arm thing being his (and to a lesser extent Corey’s) own responsibility almost. Lemme find a quote:
In some sense, hadn’t we all? [done it to ourselves] Hadn’t the kid who’d blown off his fingers been asking for it by playing with fireworks? Hadn’t Corey worn himself into a state of reckless ennui by giving up his dream and settling for a dead-end job? Hadn’t I put the cherry on top of the stupidity sundae by cramming my hand into a workbot while I was loaded?
Elisabeth: I don’t mean to say…well, an accident is an accident. And I never got the sense that we’re intended to think either of the characters deserved what they got or anything. Really, the narrative is very non-judgmental of their choices. It’s just like…here’s where these guys are right now. And by the end of the book they’ve arrived somewhere different. I think I’d argue that both of them are in a “better” place than when they started, but it has less to do with morality than it does to do with just plain growth.
AJH: Yes, that makes a lot of sense. I, er, definitely found the book non-judgemental. I wasn’t trying to be all “Meatworks claims the disabled bring it on themselves by not trying hard enough!” Although, actually, something I kind of love about the book is that it’s essentially a romance between two queer benefit scammers – the Daily Mail would have a field day. I think it’s more that the book is very rooted in Desmond’s perceptions, and part of that is the way his attitude to robotics and general self-loathing impact on how he presents his own disability. To the extent of feeling semi-responsible for it in the passage I just quoted. The thing about Desmond is that he’s a profoundly unreliable narrator: it’s not just that he’s self-loathing (and probably at the lowest point of his entire life), he’s evasive and deceptive. He holds things back from himself and the reader. Which is fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. Like you don’t realise how seriously messed up he is about his ex leaving him (pre-accident) until the book is practically over. Although part of that journey for him is being able to accept that he cared, that the loss hurt, and that is okay to move on. All of which happens almost when you aren’t looking.
Elisabeth: So, as a reader, I really, really love unreliable narrators and having to figure out how characters feel and why they behave the way they do via subtext and Meatworks had that in spades. I think I picked up on the “messed up about his ex” business a bit earlier on in the story because he has that locked collar from his ex that it seems like “too much effort” to take off. That’s, like, Desmond-code for “don’t wanna”.
AJH: Yes. Exactly. Feeling like you really know Desmond by the end of book, despite all his narrative shiftiness, is so satisfying. I did feel it left Corey slightly under-served though. How did you find the, err, romancey part of the romance?
Elisabeth: Well, one of the issues that I sometimes have with difficult characters is that they’re frequently paired with these enormously lovely people. So I was incredibly relieved to find that Corey really does have his own significant issues. They might not be as pronounced as Desmond’s, but in general I think Corey has more support structures in his life than Desmond does. In any case, I was quite glad that there was an element of figuring things out together. It was almost like a real relationship (ha!). What I mean to say is that there didn’t seem to me to be any artificial obstacles between the two of them. They had genuine differences to reconcile. So the, uh, romancey part of the romance worked for me.
AJH: It worked less well for me, I think. Not that I don’t see all your points. But because of the limitations and challenges of Desmond’s narration, he sort of won’t admit he has any real interest in Corey right until the end. And this is obviously *unreliable* (just like his attitude to the padlock and the way he talks about his ex) but because I couldn’t quite find my way through it, it was hard for me to see Corey. And understand why he was so interested in the first place. Why he kept coming back. And what made them go from casually fucking to talking about being boyfriends. Maybe I’m a less effective Desmond-Reader
Elisabeth: Well, to start with, I think Corey never really thought they were casually fucking. I think Corey would have been perfectly happy to move in that first night. Which…ISSUES…but Corey seems to have seen a lot in Desmond right away. And I think it’s born out eventually. I guess I looked at the interactions between Desmond and his ex as a kind of foil for the relationship between Desmond and Corey. Where Jim and Desmond didn’t work was where Corey and Desmond did. Jim was always pushing Desmond to be better whereas Corey seemed to think he already was. I think they gave each other room to grow into themselves. At its core, that’s all a romance novel ever really is: one person seeing the potential in another person.
AJH: I love that. Thank you. Heh, you’ve made me want to re-read the book. Something I found really intriguing about the Jim/Desmond relationship was the fact we never really found out why they broke up – only it was before the accident, maybe connected to Desmond’s choice of friends, and Desmond admits very explicitly towards the end of the book, he’s the one who sort of forces Jim in the nursemaid role. Again, I found that quite unusual for a romance in that Desmond’s relationship with his ex is very present and Jim isn’t a monster (though, uh, apparently he used to be a white supremacist?), as his sort of .. unfulfilled romance with the guy who sort of semi-led to Desmond’s accident.
Elisabeth: Yes and that leads to a pretty distressing scene in the book. I didn’t get the sense that Desmond was particularly distressed–it’s just what he has come to expect from the society he lives in. But as a reader, the whole group dynamic of his old friends was very uncomfortable to see. I just felt so bad for Desmond. For what he had to deal with growing up and then how it continued into adulthood.
AJH: Right? I … had a self-pitying little cry actually. Something I really love about the way JCP is that she writes queer characters very naturalistically. It’s always a fully-integrated part of a complex and real identity, and I tend to feel seen and recognised and reflected by them. Similarly, when she engages directly with themes of marginalisation and alienation they tend to be presented as part of a broader social tapestry. It’s not like anyone wakes up in the morning and decides to hate the gays today (well, maybe Westboro Baptists, I don’t know). And I don’t want to generalise, but I don’t know anyone who’s grown up queer and not been Desmond at some point. So in love with the hope of acceptance and willing to do pretty much anything to get it. Including sacrifice a hand.
Elisabeth: This was my first JCP as you say, but I also appreciated that…how do I say this? Sometimes I think scenes like the one between Desmond and his ex-friend get included in m/m in order to establish some kind of queer credibility, but it’s often random violence, which this wasn’t. I hate to say that it felt very organic, but it did. Authentic.
AJH: Yes – I definitely agree that “homophobic violence” is … often de rigeur in m/m. Sigh. I think this worked for me, when scenes of Abuse The Gay usually don’t, is because it was primarily emotional violence? The violence of just not giving a fuck.
Elisabeth: That makes sense to me. So, any closing thoughts on Meatworks?
AJH: I think you got it exactly right when you said it was a story about growth. And everything that entails, including leave things behind. Err, I mean, not just body parts. But hopes and dreams and expectations. Positive and negative. I loved it. But I love JCP in general. Her atypical romances set in intriguing worlds. I can see how this might not work for some readers–Desmond being, well, Desmond–but I think it’s a wonderful damn book.
Elisabeth: I agree with all of that. Plus, it might just have been my mood, but I found the whole thing darkly hilarious. I’ve said before that often if an author’s sense of humor works for me, I’ll enjoy their voice and that’s at least some of what happened here with Meatworks. I just found Desmond’s wry, self-deprecating humor very charming. And you’re right that he probably wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste, but I loved him. And the book.
Next month we’ll be reading My Lord and Spymaster by Joanna Bourne if you want to read along with us. We’ll be joined by AAR’s own Dabney Grinnan, which we always enjoy.