Antony Hegarty of the band Antony and the Johnsons once described some of his music as “a collision between joy and a sense of hopelessness.” Lyrics by the band provide the title for Kim Fu’s debut novel For Today I am a Boy. Like Hegarty’s songs, Fu’s novel offers fleeting glimmers of joy in an otherwise dim landscape devoid of hope.
Our narrator, Peter Huang, is truly lost—marginal, adrift, and excruciatingly at odds with his surroundings, including his own skin. His anatomy is what he can’t escape: “There was a deep-down, physical ache…that thing, that thing I loathed, was always there. I had to use it and look at it every day.”
Born to Chinese immigrant parents in Ontario, Peter is the third of four children and the only boy. Nicknamed “King” in Cantonese, Peter is told by his tyrannical father that he is the only one of the family’s children who really matters. Peter could easily have sailed through home life by taking his cue from dear old dictatorial dad and lording it over his benighted sisters. But he doesn’t want to dominate his sisters; he wants to be one of them.
With his sisters, Peter can find a measure of ease in just being, drawing angel’s wings on his eldest sister’s bikini-bared back, enjoying a sense that he is one of the girls: “She let me wear one of her old bikini tops, as long as I wore a boy T-shirt over the top.” These scenes are easily the most poignant and affecting of the book.
While the dangers Peter faces at home remain implied rather than explicit, those he meets outside the home are all too clear. The small town schoolyard is a bastion of young male brutality, where boys stone each other for fun and try to sexually violate girls, and quake under the intimidation of a classic oversized bully.
As the novel progresses, Peter makes it through high school, then escapes to Montreal, where he rents a tiny, cell-like apartment and works long hours in the kitchens of various restaurants, saving money for a future so vague he doesn’t even seem to fantasize about. Friendless, without pleasure or pastimes, his isolation is only broken for brief intervals by chance encounters with people almost as eccentric as he is.
When one sister, Bonnie, who has become a stripper and prostitute, moves to Montreal, Peter’s ties to her remain tenuous. But it’s at a party at Bonnie’s apartment that Peter meets Margie, a monstrous older woman who is said to collect young men of all ethnicities, and who recognizes in Peter a willing masochist for the kind of dominance she likes to indulge in. Distressed by his male body’s response to Margie, Peter refuses to consummate the relationship. But for a time he’ll let Margie brutalize him any way she likes in exchange for the pleasure of being allowed to lie behind her and touch her, pretending her body is his.
Peter drifts through his twenties and into his thirties. When he finds himself going bald at an age cruelly young for someone who pines for flowing tresses, it’s as if the female life he awaits (but does nothing to realize) recedes with his hairline, ever further from his grasp. Yet it isn’t the physical makeup of Peter’s body that torments him most. What hurts far more is his sense of never being seen. Women, in Peter’s mind, are looked at. Noticed. For Peter, to be male is to be invisible. It’s a striking admission from a character who has kept to the shadows, seemingly by choice. Secretly, this apparent hermit longs for the limelight.
Will he reach it? For much of Peter’s story there’s little encouragement to hold out hope that his life will ever change, and it’s impossible not to suffer for and with him. But while he longs to be seen, it turns out that what he actually needs is to see himself in others. In his extreme isolation, he doesn’t even realize that anyone has ever felt as he does – in other words, that he is not alone. That revelation is brought home to Peter in another chance encounter, and his reaction is nuanced and deeply conflicted. Finally, there’s hope for Peter. It’s interesting to imagine where he – and novelist Kim Fu – will go from here.