If you’re not a natural fit for the societal mainstream, it can hard coming to grips with precisely who you are, especially in those pivotal teenage years when defining yourself is pretty much the first order of business.
The reason why it’s so hard is that while those cosily occupying the heteronormative mainstream have plenty of messaging and examples supporting who they are, those of us in the queer community have few to no reference points – thought thankfully that is changing quite markedly and quickly with the current generation better placed than those preceding – and have sort out true selves against a cacophonous background of people telling us we are broken or wrong.
Someone who knows all about that is the titular protagonist of The Complicated Calculus (and Cows) of Carl Paulsen by Gary Eloon Peter, a Young Adult-targeted novel that appreciates all too well that understanding who you are, and who you want to be with, is a thousand times harder when you’re battling against all kinds of adverse opinion before you even begin.
Not that Carl has a lot coming against him, at least not in the way many protagonists in these types of coming of age novels do.
While he isn’t out yet, except to the unimaginative bullies at school led by Kent Neustad, you get the feeling that his loving if sometimes emotionally awkward dad and the family’s caretaker, Ellen – only a few years older than fifteen-year-old Carl, she’s there to look after three-year-old Anna following the death of Carl’s mum a couple of years earlier – would totally be there for him should he decide to acknowledge his true sexual identity.
I know I’m making light of a very serious thing. And sooner or later, yes, I’ll have to tell him, or he’ll figure it out if he hasn’t already. And if something happens with Andy Olnan, probably sooner.
But for now, he’s a secret I want to keep all to myself, even though I know that makes me a secret too.
But Carl is in the closet which, for all the derision people sometimes place upon it, can be a safe place to figure just where you belong in a world which doesn’t always accept those who are different to the norm.
In fact, it rarely does sadly, and so Carl, those he’s nearing the point where he knows he’ll need to come clean, is happy to stay where he is while he figures what it means for him to be gay in a small farming community – he and his dad running a loss-making dairy farm that they may or may not have to sell – and whether he and newly-arrived-in-town Andy Olnan are destined to be a couple or not.
His first great crush, Andy is the sort of guy who may be gay and who might not be – certainly his hyper-religious mother is adamant he is straight and Andy is seemingly desperate to tow that line, though in moments of weakness and honesty indicates that’s not the truth of who he is – which makes Carl’s job even harder than it would otherwise be.
You really feel for Carl because every teenager should have the right to fall helplessly and hopelessly in love without having to psychoanalyse every last thing the object of their effervescently insistent affection in order to determine if there’s a future there.
The gloriously good thing about The Complicated Calculus (and Cows) of Carl Paulsen is that while the will-he-won’t-he tug of wat inside Carl about Andy occupies an understandably sizeable slab of the narrative, it doesn’t define what the novel is ultimately all about.
That centrality of purpose revolves around who Carl is and who he wants to be, and more pertinently in the face of the family’s financial difficulties, who circumstances will allow him to be.
Carl has to deal with a LOT.
The loss of his mum at a time when no teenager should lose anyone that means so much to them, the impending potential loss of the farm and the cows who are more than livestock to him but living, tangible links to his lost mother and what it might mean if he confirms all those rumours swirling around school or leading questions or imputations his dad and Ellen who clearly suspect something but respect Carl’s right to live his life openly on his terms.
And yet for all the existential weight upon his shoulders, which would test and try just about everyone to a point of brittle breakability, Carl is actually a level-headed, emotionally sound kid who gets, possibly because of catastrophic grief borne far too early, that life often piles up more on us than we can actually deal with.
That doesn’t mean to say he can handle it all well – he is just a teenager after all and Peter beautifully and authentically portrays him as such – but he gets it, even if his understanding is still limited and lacking, in a way that kids untouched by grief like his new BFF and patient lab partner Cathy Martin may not.
More change. It’s not like my mother hadn’t warned me. If I wasn’t ready before, I’m ready now.
At its very core, The Complicated Calculus (and Cows) of Carl Paulsen is focused with warmth, inclusivity and nuanced insight on what it is to be different and how you come to terms with that in a world that may not always welcome you with uncritically open arms.
It celebrates both the reward of marching to the beat of a wholly different drum and how that will be embraced by those who truly get you and who love for who you are, unconditionally and come what may.
It also understands how being outside the pack makes coming to grips with the essential essence of who you are way more complicated and belaboured than it is for those who slot easily into the mainstream flow, and while it doesn’t pretend it can be magically easy, it also promises that there are ways through the impenetrability of emotional and cognitive understanding and that it will, to use the phraseology of a well-known LGBTQI+ movement, get better.
You can’t help but love Carl for his earnest longing, his frustrations and his need to be who he is and to truly get who that person is and what matters to him, and its his empathetic rendering by Peter that fills the The Complicated Calculus (and Cows) of Carl Paulsen with warmth and honesty so vibrantly thoughtful and sweetly affecting that it’s the sort of novel that stays with you long after the cows, the chores and supper with his family.