Every Day by David Levithan; published 2012 by Alfred Knopf
As I tweeted yesterday, reading Every Day was like drinking a tall glass of water after the dry, cottonmouth experience of Anna Karenina. It was a delight in every way.
But don’t get the impression that Every Day is light and fluffy compared with Anna Karenina; on the contrary, Every Day is engrossing simply because of the depth and complexity of the characters. David Levithan seems to be in the habit of writing books that I devour in a single day, or a single sitting. It happened with The Lover’s Dictionary, and it happened again with Every Day. As an author, he is captivating, and his words find a way of drawing you in.
I had the privilege of hearing David Levithan read from Every Day when he visited Mrs. Nelson’s Book Store in La Verne, CA, a few weeks ago. I went without knowing much about him—I didn’t know that he and Rachel Cohn had also written Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist. I simply went because I love hearing about new books and hearing authors talk about their writing. But then he started reading the first chapter of Every Day, and I was hooked. And I had to take it home with me, with his signature.
The concept of the book is brilliant. The main character is A: a genderless, body-less being that inhabits a new sixteen-year-old body every day. For the sake of this post, I’ll use the pronoun “he.” He lives by borrowing people’s lives for a day, and he tries to leave them unaware of and untouched by his arrival. He is an expert at maintaining the relationships of his host without himself becoming attached to those people. But that all changes when he meets Rhiannon while he is in the body of her boyfriend. A falls in love with Rhiannon, and suddenly he knows that he doesn’t want to live an anonymous life. Although every day he has a new body—girl, guy, fat, thin, gay, straight—his love for Rhiannon is purely his, and he starts manipulating his hosts in order to spend more time with her.
A is usually good at covering his tracks, but things become complicated when he gets sloppy and one of his previous hosts catches on to A’s existence. Then A has to worry about being found out, and must consider the possibility that there are others like him.
The story has an excellent, fast-moving plot, but Levithan also takes time to explore the false dichotomy of body vs. spirit. On one hand, A is completely separate from the body he inhabits. And A says that the body “is as active as any mind, as any soul.” But A sees the bodies as the enemies; he must fight against their urges constantly. When he inhabits the body of a drug user, he must fight the withdrawals to not give in to the temptation to use drugs again. When he inhabits the body of a severely depressed girl who wants to kill herself, he knows that the thoughts he has of suicide, the pleasure in hurting himself, are not his own but belong to the body. He says, “I realized these inclinations, these compulsions, were as much a part of the body as its eye color or its voice. Yes, the feelings themselves were intangible, amorphous, but the cause of the feelings was a matter of chemistry, biology.”
On the other hand, it is impossible for A to exist without a body. Although A fights with each body, ironically, he also needs that body. And although A is always the same on the inside, his changing appearance is ultimately the source of his problems with Rhiannon. She realizes this when he inhabits the body of a guy who is over three hundred pounds. They go on a date, but she cannot reciprocate his advances. She understands that a person’s outside does matter—it is just as much a part of them as the inside.
This is what makes the story heartbreaking. Levithan puts it perfectly: “I wanted love to conquer all. But love can’t conquer anything. It can’t do anything on its own. It relies on us to do the conquering on its behalf.”
I appreciate this realistic view of love—it is something that has to be worked on and fought for. Anyways…I digress.
This theme of body and spirit is explored in another way. When A inhabits the body of George and his mother catches him kissing Rhiannon, he is given a lecture on “sins of the flesh.” He says, “’sins of the flesh’ is just a control mechanism—if you demonize a person’s pleasure, then you can control his or her life…. But I see no sin in a kiss. I only see sin in the condemnation.” The body is still important in that the pleasures it enjoys are good things, and A as a spirit seems to enjoy them just as much as anyone else.
Of course, I think the point here is actually a reaction against many people’s limited and condemning view of pleasure, especially sexual pleasure. And the people most at fault in the book are evangelical Christians. The boy who catches on to A—who realizes that someone else took over his life for a while—claims that he was possessed by the devil, or by a demon. When A sees a blog in which people are encouraged to report other instances of demonic possession, A notes: “Word is spreading. Mostly from evangelical Christian sites, which have bought Nathan’s devil claims wholesale. He is, for them, just another example of the world going to H-E-double-hockey-sticks.” Christians are portrayed here as gullible nut cases, obsessed with seeing the devil in everything. Again, he reflects later, this time in response to a sign that says “HOMOSEXUALITY IS THE DEVIL’S WORK”: “And once again I think about how people use the devil as an alias for the things they fear. The cause and effect is backward. The devil doesn’t make anyone do anything. People just do things and blame the devil after.”
It is sad to me that evangelical Christians are the “bad guys” in this book—the main antagonist is a twisted, body-less being like A, who inhabits the body of a Reverend. I do consider myself an evangelical Christian; however, I am not at all offended by Levithan’s commentary. The things that obviously make him angry have also hurt and angered me. And I do hear many people blame demons when they are actually at fault and have simply chosen themselves over others. I have heard them demonize sex, or worse, ignore the subject altogether. I have heard them ridicule and attack homosexuals. Many people who claim to be evangelical Christians do act in this way, and I am absolutely disgusted that they distort my sacred theology and Scripture in such a way. Without going on too much about it, suffice it to say that I am deeply sorry that so many Christians have not shown people the Gospel, which is about the love of Christ, and have instead only shown condemnation. Unfortunately, Christ’s message of grace often gets muddled by the imperfect humans who try to live it out. I know I’m not perfect, either. Levithan’s criticism is a fair reflection of what many Christians have exhibited, although it does not by any means portray all evangelical Christians.
Beyond anything else, Every Day is a touching story of love: self-sacrificial, heartrending love. I highly recommend it.