Sometimes, the most compelling books to read are also a fascinating mess, in equal parts frustrating and subversive. Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On is such a book, and even having finished it, I’m still not sure which I want more: to fling it against the wall or recommend it.
Much like Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, Carry On began life as a metastory, one the author invented and referenced within an earlier novel: Palimpsest in Valente’s case, and Fangirl in Rowell’s. What makes this even more fourth-wall in Rowell’s case is that, in Fangirl, the stars of Carry On – Simon Snow and Basilton ‘Baz’ Grimm-Pitch – are the hero and antagonist, respectively, of a Potteresque series of YA novels about whom Fangirl’s protagonist writes queer romantic fanfic.
And when I say Potteresque, I do mean that quite literally: Simon and Baz are students at a magical boarding school in England (Watford), to which Simon (a magical orphan in the Normal world) was brought at age eleven by its powerful headmaster (the Mage) because his power was prophecied. The parallels are many, obvious and intentional. Even if you haven’t read Fangirl – in which, rather than being a wholesale Potter surrogate, the Simon Snow books are inserted as an equally popular peer series – the native similarities hang a lampshade on the comparison all by themselves. (Almost recursively so, at times: it’s lampshades all the way down!)
While this is understandable, it’s also slightly awkward. No matter how immersed I was, I never quite lost my background awareness that the only reason any of it existed was because Rowell couldn’t slip Harry x Draco into Fangirl without finding herself on the business end of a lawyer. Which is, simultaneously, both Carry On’s strength and weakness: strength, because the story is intended as a subversive take on the Chosen One trope, with specific reference to Harry Potter; weakness, because it never quite develops into anything more original, despite the central queer relationship.
So when I say that Carry On reads like fanfic, I mean that as neither censure nor compliment, but rather as an objective description of narrative style. I happen to love fanfiction – have spent a not inconsiderable portion of the last eighteen months immersed in both writing and reading it, in fact – which is why I feel qualified to make the comparison. By virtue of referencing characters, settings and concepts the readership already knows, in whose central relationship they already feel invested, fanfics have a natural tendency to skip over setting and worldbuilding – not because they’re badly written, but because, more often than not, such information is contextually extraneous. It’s what lends the genre such an addictive, compelling immediacy, like picking up a favourite book at the most exciting chapter – the purest distillation of that much-vaunted piece of Writing Advice, to start the story when something is really happening. Easy to do, when your readership already knows the backstory of even minor characters by heart, but trickier far to execute if you’re simultaneously building a world from scratch.
That Rowell manages to achieve this feeling with original characters is due in part to how heavily she leans on her audience’s peripheral Potter-knowledge, but that’s hardly a bad thing; is rather, I’d argue, a sign of her willingness to treat her audience as intelligent. Given the cultural dominion of Harry Potter, surely only a snobbish or oblivious fantasy writer would assume their readers ignorant of the narrative, and as commentary on said story is half the point of Carry On, it makes sense to assume a trope-literate audience and work from there. Even so, it’s skill that makes it work: Rowell’s writing is clean and comic, buoying the story along at pace, and while the story is flawed – as I’ll soon discuss – it’s certainly never boring.
As you might expect, Carry On’s strongest aspect is the romantic relationship between Baz and Simon, which is executed with humour, warmth and nuance. Forced together as roommates via a magical selection process in their first year at Watford, both boys have spent the majority of that time purporting to despise each other, caught on opposite sides of a magical divide: Baz, the talented scion of an old, prestigious family at odds with the new regime, and Simon, the poor upstart ward of the Mage, apparently destined for greatness but unable to marshal his power. In a literary tradition where, for ostensibly non-homoerotic and visibly sexist reasons, male heroes are often depicted as having more nuanced, complicated relationships with their antagonists than with their apparent female love interests, it’s deeply satisfying – and wholly enjoyable – to see the trope so thoroughly queered up. It calls to mind Kate Beaton’s excellent comic about a pirate and his nemesis: true to the old dictum about love and hate being opposite sides of the same coin, there’s a point at which constantly obsessing about another person’s whereabouts and motives bleeds into caring about their wellbeing, and Rowell hits that junction right in the narrative sweet spot.
Baz and Simon’s relationship is the solid heart of the story; everything else, however, feels either sparse, rushed or both. Where Harry Potter’s story is told in seven novels, Simon Snow’s is crammed into one, as though our familiarity with the layered details of Rowling’s story means we don’t need the other six books of Rowell’s. As such, it works exceedingly well as commentary, but falls somewhat flat on its own account. This is particularly disappointing when it comes to the political complexities of Rowell’s world. Given more scope, the Mage’s actions, motives and betrayal could have cored a devastating punch; instead, the other characters are never given the poisoned catharsis of knowing the whole picture, while the wider consequences of Simon’s existence are conveniently elided at the finale.
Structurally, then, Carry On succeeds or fails depending on how you grade it. By the standards of most comparable original works, it’s undernourished, but still good comic, romantic fantasy fun; by the standards of fanfic, it’s T-rated excellence. As I enjoy both types of writing, that leaves me somewhat stumped for judgement – or would do, if not for the existence of Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona. Released some five months prior to Carry On, Nimona portrays the same sort of complex, antagonistic, morally grey and (ultimately) queer relationship between male nemeses that Carry On does, to poignant effect. Likewise, thanks to the graphic format, it conveys an original setting in brief, but without feeling thin as a consequence – and as it isn’t directly riffing on a specific prominent work, but rather subverts a general knowledge of fairytales, it stands more strongly on its own merits.
And Nimona, unlike Carry On, doesn’t base a central subversive premise – that of queer male romance – on a slew of sexist tropes.
At its most basic level, Carry On has a Women In Refrigerators problem. Both Simon and Baz have conspicuously dead mothers – Lucy and Natasha, respectively – and while both speak from the grave in the course of the story, this is hardly great representation. Natasha barely appears except as motivation for Baz, and though Lucy gets some POV sections, when she actually tries to speak to Simon, who doesn’t know who she is, her visitation comes so hard on the heels of Natasha’s that he naturally confuses her with the other dead ghost mother, a mistake that’s never corrected. The fact that Lucy’s silent narrative is key to the whole story doesn’t quite mitigate the fact that none of the characters hear it, nor does it make her history any less tragic.
And then there’s Agatha, Simon’s ex-girlfriend: blonde and beautiful, longing for Normalcy, and woefully underdeveloped. The problem isn’t that Agatha, with her dreams of escape and travel and her mediocre magic, is an unrealistic character; it’s just that, as she spends the whole book wanting to be somewhere else, her participation in the actual plot is minimal. Which is deeply frustrating, not only on its own account, but because she’s the character who comes closest to figuring out who Lucy is and why she matters, yet never shares her findings with anyone. Given that Agatha is both afraid of dying because of Simon and of being the one to watch him die, the fact that she believes the lie of Lucy’s escape to America – that she identifies with it to the point of going there herself, when Lucy is really dead in a way that would horrify Agatha – is a symmetry I found more ugly than not, yet all over representative of her wasted potential. Yes, there’s something positive in Agatha living when Lucy died, but as Agatha’s escape at the finale is enabled by the death of yet another innocent woman – and one who, for some reason, appears to accept her own murder as justified at the last second, which, what? – any positive parallels are rather grossly ruined.
By contrast, Penelope Bunce, Simon’s best friend, comes across more vividly, if only because she gets so much more stage time; otherwise, she’s decidedly Hermione, but without the activism. That she’s a non-stereotyped person of colour – as is Baz, for that matter – is a significant point in the book’s favour, but at the same time, her POV sections are often so immediate as to deny her vital introspection. She has a boyfriend in America, but though she mentions him, we never really see her think about him, even though he’s clearly significant, and while we’re given a reason why her life is so Simon-centric, I couldn’t help wishing that we got to see more of her own her own terms. It doesn’t help that her relationship with Agatha is largely defined by jealousy over Simon: the only chapter in which the two interact away from the boys is literally described, in text, as a Bechdel pass – “It’s good to have a life that passes the Bechdel test,” her mother says of them, prompting Penelope to respond with a grumbled quip about her mother’s lack of female friends – and in a novel full of gratuitously hung lampshades, this one is arguably the most glaring.
Partly, the problem is one of length: if Rowell had fleshed out Agatha and Penelope, instead of leaning on their underlying archetypes, then we might have a better sense of who they are in relation to themselves and each other, instead of just seeing them next to Baz and Simon. Yet even so, the novel’s comparative shortness didn’t need to be an issue. The problem isn’t that a story about a queer male relationship dared to put a lesser emphasis on its women, but that it opted to do so in ways that reinforce sexism – which is to say, dead mothers, female sacrifice, and girls more rivals than friends because of boys. Penelope’s mother Mitali, Baz’s aunt Fiona and the goatherd Ebb were all good, meaty characters, but their perspectives and roles were limited, rendered less significant in the long run than their seven years of history with the characters could merit. Which, on a practical level, I understand: given the obvious Potter comparisons and the nature of the project, I can’t imagine Rowell would’ve wanted to write a full Simon Snow series instead of just the effective final volume. But as narrative tradeoffs go, it’s hard not to note the downside.
And then there’s the bi erasure.
Look: I am a bisexual person. I exist! There is a word for me! But Carry On, despite being a story wherein words are literal magic, is apparently unwilling to consider this as a concept. Baz, we’re told, is gay: has never been with anyone but Simon, and is unattracted to women. But Simon, who’s dating Agatha at the start of the book – is contemplating being with her forever, in fact – is never allowed to use the word bisexual to describe himself, nor is it applied to him by anyone else, even in passing. Which… look. Being closeted is a thing. Not understanding your own sexuality is a thing. The world is full of people who thought they were straight, or were thought to be straight, who later came out as gay, even after they dated or kissed or slept with or married or had kids with someone – or ones! – of the opposite sex. This is absolutely a valid narrative! What feels decidedly less valid, however, is the fact that bisexuality is never once considered as a possible explanation for Simon being attracted to both Agatha and Baz, even though Simon himself is demonstrably unclear on the subject. Instead, we get this:
“And I don’t think I’m gay,” I say. “I mean, maybe I am, at least partly, the part that seems to be demanding the most attention right now…”
“No one cares whether you’re gay,” Baz says coldly.
And I just… partly gay? As in, attracted to more than one gender? As in fucking bisexual, or pansexual, or literally anything other than the “I don’t like labels/nobody cares/let’s not call it anything” school of weasel-wording bullshit consistently used to enforce the idea that gay and straight are the only options? In the Potteresque language of Carry On, it seems, bisexual has the same impact as Voldemort: the preferred term in both instances is that which shall not be named, the better to render it palatable. Throw in Simon’s bizarre pejorative at the end about dancing being “well gay… even when it isn’t two blokes” – which, why the fuck is there any need to include that line in a supposedly queer-positive novel at all, let alone voiced by a character who hasn’t expressed any homophobia, internalised or otherwise, in 522 pages? – and the death of an underutilised queer woman at the finale – to say nothing of the fact that the only queer female relationship is one that happens off screen, only referenced when one or other of the characters is complaining about it – and I am moved to look askance at Carry On in its entirety.
Because, here’s the thing: as much as I enjoyed Fangirl – and as refreshing as it was, to see both fanfic and fan culture rendered in such a positive light – it shied away from acknowledging the problematic aspects of the community. Such as, for instance, the fetishising of queer male relationships and the elision of female characters, and while I won’t go so far as to say that Rowell is guilty of this – and as much as I enjoyed the dynamic between Simon and Baz – Carry On reads to me like an outsider take on queerness rather than a heartfelt exploration of it, the subversion born of novelty, not need, and so made superficial.
Which is ultimately what bothers me about the novel’s resolution. As compelling as it is to make the Mage the ultimate villain – or ultimately responsible for what’s gone wrong, at least – his status as a supposedly progressive reformer who secretly broke everything is never really addressed. From the outset, it’s clear that, as in the world of Harry Potter, historical issues of magical privilege and exclusion have lead to Watford’s discrimination against various less powerful groups – biases that the Mage’s reforms, like Dumbledore’s egalitarian attitudes, are meant to try and rectify. Nimona, too, deals with similar themes: as the story progresses, it becomes clear that the institution supported by the apparent hero is an oppressive, abusive state, yet even knowing this, the morality is never rendered as binary. Similarly, and despite the presence of an evil Dark Lord, Rowling makes an effort to show the complexities of her world: Dolores Umbridge is often cited as being more terrifying than Voldemort for being more recognisable, the sort of sadistic bureaucrat we pray is never responsible for our future, while the Lovegoods, for all their faith in Harry, still give credence to any number of clearly false conspiracies.
But in Carry On, the political threads are left hanging, either handwaved at the finale or ignored completely. The fact that the Mage levies taxes on the powerful old families is cited as a negative behaviour equal to his coercive raids on their homes, for instance, yet we never quite see a distinction drawn between them, nor get any sense of how this works in a wider sense. If Rowell was trying to make a distinct point about the hypocritical evils of left-wing revolution – if the characters had actually discussed the politics of it in any depth, or if the consequences were rendered at more than a background level, like the familial crises caused by Penny’s brother serving in the Mage’s Men – then that would be one thing. I might disagree with such politics, but at least it would feel purposeful, consistent. As it stands, however, the novel feels blandly unconcerned with its own implications, and that doesn’t sit well with me.
In that sense, the English setting, as rendered by an American writer, feels like a metaphor for the novel’s failings: seeming ahead of substance. As an Australian who’s been living in the UK for almost five years now, and who was raised with many British cultural staples, there’s something quite jarring about Rowell’s inconsistent use of British idioms and references, like someone who’s so delighted by the novelty of usage that they haven’t stopped to think if it hangs together. Little things, like Simon using both ‘wicked’ and ‘cream-crackered’ while having no visible dialect – with accents never discussed, in fact, despite their clear significance – or Baz joking about Simon having ‘chavvy’ friends, as though ‘chav’ is synonymous with ‘poor white trash’ instead of referring to a specifically garish urban middle-class subset without an obvious American equivalent. Even the title, Carry On, gives me pause: within the novel, it’s rendered as callback to the lyrics of Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, and as such, I’m not sure if Rowell is even aware of the Carry On films and their place in British culture, let alone why her allusion to them, intentionally or otherwise, is somewhat incongruous.
Given the paucity of representation offered to various groups in mainstream narratives, it’s understandable that we sometimes tend to criticise the ones that do appear with disproportionate fervour: with so few comparable offerings, our emotional investment – and thus our corresponding potential to be personally disappointed – is far higher than when watching Hollywood’s latest straight white Chris explode things onscreen (for instance). But then, that’s the paradox of descriptive criticism: the fewer similar stories you have, the more there is to be said of them individually, while the more similar stories you have, the more there is to be said of them collectively. The only way to react to something in general terms, with general ambivalence, is if it’s abundant enough to be common: otherwise, your words and reactions are always going to be, of necessity, specialised, with just a touch of jargon. And while the clear solution is to make more things, that’s often easier said than done – especially if the burden of proof is set so high that none of us can bear to get it wrong, or to risk getting it wrong, and therefore never try at all.
Carry On, then, is something of a mixed bag. It’s messy in some respects and delightful in others – a product of the times, with all the praise and caveats that implies – but as a publicised queer fantasy romance from a bestselling author at a major press, it’s also a rare enough beast to be important. Parts of it annoyed me greatly, but on balance, I enjoyed it: to paraphrase the greatest ever review of Jupiter Ascending, it is my garbage. It is garbage for me, and given that I’m otherwise capable of squealing over garbage that manifestly isn’t for me, just because I’m halfway resigned to entire genres treating me like an alien thing, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Carry On, despite its flaws, is definitely worth reading.