Mean Boys: A Personal History

  • By Geoffrey Mak
  • Bloomsbury Publishing
  • 288 pp.
  • Reviewed by Patricia Ann McNair
  • May 23, 2024

A queer Chinese American man wrestles with the disparate parts of himself.

Mean Boys: A Personal History

Surrounded by fashion and clubbing, like-minded friends and famous acquaintances, too many drugs, good sex and bad sex and nonconsensual sex, and party nights that turned into mornings, Geoffrey Mak was one of the cool kids. But what happens when a cool kid (or man; despite his youthful decadence, Mak was in his 20s and 30s at the time) doesn’t really believe he is one of the cool? What if parts of his identity — queer, Chinese, intellectual, middle class — add up to the suspicion that he’s invisible?

In Mean Boys: A Personal History, Mak’s self-awareness swings from confident to unassured, from sharply observant to dangerously paranoid. He is a young man who, to outsiders, has a richly lived life (homes and work in California, New York City, Berlin; close encounters with artists and influencers; a cutting-edge fashion sense and good dance moves), yet can lose himself to despair, to the pain of life during a global pandemic, and to psychosis.

“When I think about the Obama years, I think about a giant party,” he writes. “It always ends, never on a high note. At some bleary point in the morning, when the dance floor thins out, the lights fade on, and you look around to see that nobody’s in the same mood as they were when the party began.”

These lines are from “Edgelords,” the book’s opening essay. An edgelord is someone who intentionally presents provocative or extreme opinions, an internet contrarian (usually male) who calls attention to himself with his startling, out-of-societal-sync proclamations. Mak is intrigued by edgelords, and at times, he plays that role himself, most significantly and poignantly in the titular essay, “Mean Boys.”

In that compelling piece, Mak plumbs the narratives of mass murderers Anders Behring Breivik and Elliot Rodger and discovers (and admits to) things he has in common with them. Breivik, the Norwegian man who killed 69 people at a youth camp on the island of Utøya in 2011, distributed his disturbing manifesto with photographs of himself well-groomed and in Lacoste sweaters, perhaps in an attempt to show his white superiority over those he labeled “unrefined” and “uncultivated.”

Mak recounts how he (Mak) and his brother were also fans of Lacoste during high school, how they searched eBay for polo shirts with the iconic alligator insignia, or sewed fake Lacoste alligators on cheaper, non-designer shirts. From very early on, Mak was drawn to fashion and to image, and it is through this that he finds one parallel with the Norwegian killer:

“Not unlike Breivik, I also spent most of my life trying to distinguish myself from the people I came from. Outwardly, I had to strive to be white…I was embarrassed to be middle class, and I was embarrassed to be Chinese.”

On May 23, 2014, Rodger killed six people in Isla Vista, California, before turning the gun on himself. His victims were women and men, white and Asian. Rodger himself was half Asian. Before the attacks, he wrote an autobiographical manifesto, “My Twisted World: The Story of Elliott Rodger,” in which he told of his loneliness and rejection (he was a virgin when he died at 22) and of his disgust with white women who did not want him, and with Asian men whom he deemed ugly, exposing his own self-loathing.

As Mak read Rodger’s screed, he was struck by the familiarity of Rodger’s emotional response to his life and identity. Rodger, like Mak once did, believed in the power of expensive fashion as a means to elevate oneself. Rodger, like Mak had as a young person, strove for status. “The pivotal difference between Rodger and me,” he writes, “is that he was afraid of intimacy and wanted status, while I had status and wanted intimacy.”

Some of the essays in this complex assemblage are quite theoretical and driven by research and intellectual curiosity. The ones that lean toward the promise of the subtitle, A Personal History, are more inviting. “My Father, the Minister” is a moving piece in which Mak and his father reunite after years of estrangement stemming, in part, from Mak’s sexuality and his parents’ religious beliefs. Near the end of the visit, he recounts, “We had released each other from being moral paragons and became, at that moment, humans. And we were not extraordinary.”

Throughout the collection, Mak exhibits his yearning toward image, toward fame and the famous. In “Mean Boys,” his reading of the words of a mass murderer move him toward an understanding of empathy and what it might mean to be human:

“Empathizing with pain is one of the greatest human pleasures I know. Through my imagination, I had overcome that seemingly impenetrable but, in fact, profoundly porous membrane between subject and object, myself and the murderer…And when I returned to myself, the remnants of my journey would leave its marks on everything in the known world, which will never look the same.

“This is what the human is capable of, and I would not miss it for worlds.”

Mean Boys is an engaging and smart combination of personal history, psychological interrogation, and commentary on (and the questioning of) contemporary culture and image. This book is what happens when a cool kid grows up to become a curious, compassionate, and cool man.

Patricia Ann McNair is an associate professor in the English and Creative Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago. Her most recent story collection, Responsible Adults, was named a distinguished favorite by the Independent Press awards. The Temple of Air (stories) was named Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year, and And These Are the Good Times (essays) was a Montaigne Medal finalist. She lives in Tucson.

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