In his recently published novel entitled Roles, Carlos Malvar attempts to capture the present realities and sensibilities of Manila’s higher-class, young adult generation through deploying a set of familiar high school characters in the fictionalized yet familiar-sounding exclusive school named “The Montessori of Asia and the Pacific”. Knowing the setting and the title and reading the first chapter of the novel are enough to predict how this work is projected to pursue: every character amounts to and plays a specific role, and every role will be given detachable blocks of substories to give way for character and plot development.
It is interesting to point out though that the title Roles also explores the idea of the plot ironically resonating itself inside an inner plot. In this novel, the characters are united by the challenge to join the auditions of the reality show “You’re It,” but the reality show actually already starts at the very beginning of the novel, the omniscient lenses of the chameleon narrator catching every role that every character plays.
The Quest for Stardom
Strip off specific names and references to pop culture and the novel gives the readers character types that they themselves have encountered (or are presently encountering) in their own high school, acting out exactly (sometimes exaggeratingly) what the readers are expecting them to act out:
The Bitchy Girls (Astrud Quinton and Michelle Lim), characters who are always members of the cheerleading team, and very absorbed with their fashion style, make-up and attraction level to cute guys; The Intelligent Girls (Tina Donato and Vanilyn Apanay), who are so obsessed with their intellectual popularity and political authority over the student body; The Athletes (Jason Lastimosa), the tall, charming and handsome basketball star born and genetically chosen to be the campus’ center of attraction; The Boy Next Door (Nathan Manaloto), the smart, romantic, cute guy neighbor whose personality is serious enough to be the leader of the horde and boyishly naughty enough to ensnare many girls’ hearts; The Virgin Prostitute (Olivia Schaultz), the pretty girl caught by the dirty and sinful claws of poverty but who’s actually clean and righteous and kindhearted and all; and the Cunning Stage Mother (Sussana Schaultz), who climbs her family up the social ladder by taking advantage of the attractive (sexual) potentials of her children.
The novel seems to comment on how today’s young adult population, particularly those in the metropolitan chi-chi jungles, is becoming more and more exposed to casual sex, alcoholism, smoking, and drug addiction (stark realities that are not acknowledged in the recent Disney hype of the empire, High School Musical 1 and 2). Moreover, by setting the narrative on the upcoming auditions of a reality show, the novel points out how the consciousness of this generation, as expressed by the motives and ambitions of its characters, has been deeply instilled with the fetish for glitz and glamour, as brought by the countless and endless star-search reality programs bombarding the primetime slots of television networks.
Young Adult Gay Fiction
As enumerated above, the characters in Malvar’s novel are not new to literary readers. The bitch, the geek, the basketball star and other generic figures are already seen in hollywood teen flicks and teen fiction. What makes Roles remarkable, however, is the clever exploration of adolescent homoerotic desire, the narrative framing of which is carefully and thoroughly rendered in the character of Orestes Dizon and his object of affection, his childhood best friend Jason Lastimosa.
It is interesting to note how a novel flowing with stereotypes tries to de-stereotype the stereotypical sissy portrayal of a teenage gay guy, replacing it with a straight-acting, tough character who’s actually ‘one of the rowdy boys,’a project that, it should be admitted, is also not new, having done by oter Filipino gay writers in the past (see for instance, Groyon’s Boys who Like Boys, and other coming-of-age stories in the Ladlad trilogy).
At the end of the book, the writer extends his gratitude to Carla Pacis and Heidi Abad, established vanguards of children’s literature in the country. Contextualizing Roles in the frame of Philippine young adult literature and considering that the novel is meant to be read by adolescent readers radicalizes and makes Malvar’s work one of the first Filipino young adult novels in English illuminating the issues on homosexual identity, debunking the common gender misconceptions in the minds of its readers and encouraging people like Orestes “to be themselves”.