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Boys Next Door

Geoffrey Mak’s reckoning with masculinity

Mean Boys: A Personal History by Geoffrey Mak. Bloomsbury Publishing, 288 pages. 2024.

On a warm night in early November of last year, a high schooler walked right up to me and put a hand to my waist. “You know what that is?” he asked, pushing me up against the glass enclosure of the bus stop. Cold metal or a bare hand, I didn’t feel like learning the hard way, and so my wallet and my phone went off into the night as I walked on, half-naked, to meet my friends at a near-empty club.

In a sense, it was a non-event: the bank returned the money, my insurance card was already useless, and my driver’s license was easily replaced. But my mental equilibrium had been shattered. Out on the street, I felt vertiginous, as if only half there. I began to question—even more than usual—how I presented in public: my persona, my demeanor, my (for lack of better word) masculinity. I grew increasingly agoraphobic; I made new friends online, friends who prompted me to slip even further into the already-fractured realm of images. One of them curated a show in Paris called “I took a screenshot of the whole world”; another posted a tweet that read “and to my great grandchildren I leave 62,566 screenshots.” At the time of the robbery, I had a mere six thousand screenshots inside my iPhone mini and yet losing them felt like losing some twisted archive of the present.

If I were a different writer, I might say something like: “What was left behind . . . was a heap of broken images that, if viewed in quick succession, might appear as a comprehensible zoetrope for the times,” as Geoffrey Mak puts it in “Edgelords,” the opening essay of his recently published debut collection, Mean Boys. Mean Boys is being marketed as a portrait of the now, even though it more accurately feels like an account of the near past. Over the course of eight essays, some of which were initially written for the internet, Mak cycles, “in quick succession,” through a range of topics, dealing the reader a poker hand of images, a stack of screenshots. His “comprehensible zoetrope” depicts the already distant culture of the 2010s; “as a writer, I thought I had to open myself up, like a compact mirror, to my generation,” is how he puts it. And what does the mirror reflect? In no particular order, Mak touches on Milo Yiannopoulos, Virgil Abloh, platform Crocs, Happyfun Hideaway, the Art Basel stabbing, Vetements, selvedge denim, House of Ladosha, Anne Imhof, and the Telfar NYFW after-party at White Castle. References to Berghain are as numerous as they are grating, and an entire essay is devoted to the “lifestyle media brand” Highsnobiety.

At its most frustrating, Mean Boys is a list of “glittery people” written on a napkin, a 288-page name drop.

Anyone who collects screenshots will be able to tell you that not all are created equal. This is the power of posting often: not every image needs to prick the viewer; you are free to post “for the vibe” or for context. Perhaps this is what Roland Barthes meant when he wrote about studium, or a “kind of general, enthusiastic commitment” to images, one which fuels a desire for a rarer punctum, which pierces the viewer like an arrow. The first seven essays in Mean Boys reflect a more generalized curiosity: they summarize the zeitgeist more than they unravel it. Though they offer moments of drama, nothing stings. “Everything was a circle of references, a sign,” Mak writes in the midst of a description of Herrensauna, a by-now-infamous Berlin rave frequented by “gay skinheads,” as a friend of Mak’s puts it. Seen through Mak’s eyes, Herrensauna is made up of a jumble of signifiers that have been emptied out and stripped of their context, made to mean nothing. Here he zeroes in on a key aspect of 2010s cool culture—that is, deploying a look for no reason. Filthy rich but like to wear Carhartt? Why not. Gay NGO worker dressed like a neo-Nazi? Sure thing.

But sometimes images actually lacerate us; sometimes they signify something. On page 159 of Mean Boys, we encounter the titular essay. “Mean Boys” the essay—which should and could have been its own volume if publishers weren’t so keen on confusing length for literary seriousness—is punctuated by a photographic epigraph of sorts, a headshot of a white man with blond, wind-combed hair. As Mak puts it, the man “isn’t handsome, but he’s attractive enough to pass as a catalog model for Target markdowns. . . . He knows to make eye contact with the viewer, lips parted in a casual smile. . . . He’s wearing a black Lacoste jumper, but underneath is a salmon-colored polo. The collar is popped.” And who is this mystery man? None other than Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian neo-Nazi who, in July of 2011, detonated a car bomb in central Oslo, killing eight, before fleeing to the island of Utøya, where he shot up a summer camp, leaving sixty-nine teenagers and instructors dead in just over an hour.

Finally, more than halfway through the collection, Mak’s “zoetrope” is set in motion. Instead of focusing on the empty flatness of the times (ravers dressing like neo-Nazis “for the shocks and the lulz”), we witness the flipside of this shallowness. Just like a gallery-goer in a camo hat or one of those guys in LA who dress like Elton John for no reason or even the high schooler who robbed me, Breivik was imitating someone or something. “I wear mostly the best pieces from my former life,” he wrote in a fifteen-hundred-page manifesto, which he emailed to 1,003 recipients about ninety minutes before the bombing. For him, the Lacoste alligator hovering over his heart was more than a symbol; it was a badge of honor, proof of his whiteness. “It was easy to see our times as a fulfillment of Breivik’s prediction outlined in his manifesto about alienated whites rising against the multicultural left,” Mak writes, referring to the numerous copycat killers who followed Breivik’s example. Such are “our times”: imitators imitating an imitator, grabbing at an identity, moving toward solipsistic self-destruction or, even worse, leaving blood in their wake.

The photograph of Breivik is like a rat king: a twisted and hideous knot that, if untied, reveals societal secrets that few seem eager to confront. Like Breivik, who lacked status but was able to lunge at (white) identity, Mak is pathologically obsessed with social rank. At its most frustrating, Mean Boys is a list of “glittery people” written on a napkin, a 288-page name drop. “I stopped introducing him to people I was talking to,” Mak writes of an art critic he has befriended. “I wanted to see whom he would introduce himself to and whom he didn’t.”

Sometimes, when I’m at the club, I think about “the scene” as a great big high school cafeteria, an enclosed ecosystem full of people, trends, and dynamics that I can clock, comb through, and brutally make fun of. This final impulse is missing from the majority of the collection, which offers analysis of, but mostly open-armed adulation for, the art and fashion and dance music scenes that Mak inhabits. The reader is left to wonder if he can smell everything rotting beneath the shiny, glittering surfaces.

But “Mean Boys,” the essay, actually does something with all of these reflective surfaces, all of these floating images, all of this image-consciousness. It is an infinity mirror set up inside of a mall dressing room, a cascading reflection in which both author and reader can try on different selves. After the opening passage about Breivik, Mak cuts to Diamond Bar, California, where he and his older brother, ensconced in their suburban high school existence, trawl eBay for “fake Lacoste badges sourced from China, which you could sew onto Izod polos from Kmart.” “Not unlike Breivik, I also spent most of my life trying to distinguish myself from the people I came from,” Mak continues, noting that Diamond Bar, with its majority Asian population, spared him, the son of Chinese immigrants, “a degree of discrimination” while also making him feel invisible, like a replacement for someone else.

This is what a high schooler’s life is like: all around him, all he can see is mimicry. Mak describes “boys who slicked their hair back with tubs of gel, boys who wore chains and black tank tops and sagged their baggy jeans,” boys who listened to Tupac and Eminem and peppered their speech with “Black slang” and “loitered around boba stores and karaoke joints after school.” Boys! There they go, peeling out of the parking lot, hair in the wind, those all-American boys. Mak excels at capturing the particularities of “Chinese male angst,” detailing all the ways that his peers latched onto cultures that weren’t quite theirs. “Outwardly, I knew I had to strive to be white,” he writes, recalling how his brother “was more successful” at aping “the affectations of white teenagers, white silliness that signaled maturity.” Too shy to adopt the “casual flirtiness” that comes naturally to his brother, a young Mak sits on the sidelines, on the edge of the cafeteria, awaiting an adequate mirror or model.

They say that revenge is a dish best served cold, but sometimes this waiting game just yields incoherence: the bullied bullying others at random, simply because they were once bullied. In Mak’s portrayal, the fashion and art and nightlife scenes in Berlin appear to be almost as hostile as his life in high school, when he was still the closeted gay son of a homophobic Baptist minister. In Berlin, Mak feels like an undesirable outsider, “a gawker,” “a misfit.” He writes about spending “hours watching porn, which I paid for online,” and about “finishing off my grams” alone while wondering “about all the others who paired off after the party.” At one point, he travels to Fire Island: “After a certain hour in the night, I was sure the boys all slept with each other or fooled around . . . while I was upstairs, reading.”

With the FOMO turned up to eleven, and the specter of violence looming, Mak pans around Merkel-era Berlin, noting that “even in the back tables at bars, I began hearing more and more educated people in casual conversation refer to what they called ‘the race war,’ just as Anders Behring Breivik predicted in his manifesto.” Then, in a sidelong move, a cinematic quick cut, Mak’s thoughts shift back to his home state of California: “During these years, there was a single American personality who caught my attention as emblematic of the times, its anxieties . . . its psychopathologies: Elliot Rodger.” Rodger, of course, was a murderer just as infamous as Breivik, a poster child for the modern American incel, a virulent racist, a misogynist, a loner, and a college dropout who killed six people in May 2014 in Isla Vista, California, before killing himself.

Born to a white British father and a Malaysian Chinese mother, Elliot Rodger—like Breivik before him—was the author of a longwinded manifesto, My Twisted World, in which he detailed his life story, his xenophobic mentality, and his resentment of women. Obsessed with white women, and the status that he believed they could confer to him, he felt that they “thought less of me because I was half-Asian.” Rodger frequented 4chan-adjacent internet forums like PUAhate (PUA being an acronym for “pick up artist”), on which he told other users things like, “Full Asian men are disgustingly ugly and white girls would never go for you.” Though two of Rodger’s victims were white women, three were Asian men.

In many ways, Mak’s obsession with the Isla Vista killings is personal, not only because of Rodger’s Asian-on-Asian hate crimes but also because he and Rodger were “born only three years apart.” But “Mean Boys” is also a collective reckoning, a contemporary ghost story. Mak devotes much of the essay to a close reading of My Twisted World, which forces readers to hover over Rodger’s shoulder alongside him, turning them into voyeurs whether they like it or not. Just like the scenes set in Diamond Bar during Mak’s high school years, everything is imitation for a young Elliot Rodger, who was also raised in suburban Southern California. “He treats status as if its magic were localized in certain totems, like blond hair or skateboards,” Mak writes. And yet, these signifiers never take for a young Rodger; they remain empty and meaningless. Everyone can tell that he is a counterfeit, a copycat, a “biter”—no amount of peroxide can save him.

If Mak’s model of empathy is a bit shocking in its ultimate application, a bit crude in its attempt at ventriloquism, it feels rooted in his willingness to stretch the limits of his own vulnerability.

It was difficult to read these passages without surrendering to self-reflexive mind games or outright paranoia; indeed, everything began slipping at a certain point, blurring together, taking on a nearly imperceptible fictional sheen. One night, I stayed up until three reading about Columbine; I spent a long time looking at the most famous image of the shooters, the surveillance still, the one in the cafeteria. The time stamp at the bottom of the frame read “04/20/99,” the two boys stood in silhouette, holding their guns—I was disturbed to realize that it almost looked staged, like B-roll from a skateboarding video that someone had uploaded to YouTube. The next day my best friend texted me a screenshot from Elliot Rodger’s infamous YouTube manifesto, “Retribution,” which he had uploaded a few hours after his first string of murders and a few minutes before he drove to the Alpha Phi sorority house near the University of California, Santa Barbara. He sat with the sun on his face, in the driver’s seat at golden hour, meticulously outlining his plans.

My prevailing “mood” at this time was one of chronic nausea, if that can even be deemed a mood. I began fixating on an especially enigmatic sentence of Mak’s, one that appears earlier in the collection, in an essay about the Korean American writer Wesley Yang (whose own essays about race and self-estrangement have incited controversy). “To identify as a man is to consent to be troubled by the collective afterimage left behind by every man who has ever lived,” Mak writes. But while this proposed directive does sound promising, even necessary, it feels more like a template than an assured reality. Though I hardly—at this point—identify as a man, I could feel the “collective afterimage” hovering inside my brain as I tried to finish this review, could feel it following me down the block, staring back at me as I looked into the mirror.

Toward the end of “Mean Boys,” Mak focuses on his own haunting, his own relationship with the violent “afterimage” of collective masculinity. He writes about seeing Elliot Rodger as “vermin that needed to be exterminated before it spawned.” But once Mak starts reading Rodger’s manifesto, something strange happens. “While I condemned Rodger, unambiguously, I also related to him,” he recounts. “I experienced his pain as if it belonged to me.” Mak begins to imagine Rodger walking down the hallways of his own high school in Diamond Bar, even going so far as to imagine himself inside Rodger’s body. “Only in literature . . . can empathy truly be this reckless, this promiscuous,” he proclaims. “Anyone’s experience is up for grabs; no subjectivity is off-limits. In literature, one opens oneself up to this absolute unconditionality, widespread arms welcoming the range and totality of experience, the good and the evil, with an ambivalence so extreme as to appear like moral anarchy.”

If Mak’s model of empathy is a bit shocking in its ultimate application, a bit crude in its attempt at ventriloquism, it feels rooted in his willingness to stretch the limits of his own vulnerability, which extends to an experience of assault and a near-total estrangement from sex. For Mak, imagining the “very limits of the human personality—insanity, violence, enmity—is to face the incommensurable abyss of the self,” a painful process that helps us envision and then embody the experiences of others. This empathic projection, this fusion with another, this obdurate venturing forth—none of it comes easily to us humans, and yet we are rendered inhuman without it, Mak argues. For young people, especially for young men, it seems especially difficult to master this balance between the inward and the outward glance, as looking in can lead to solipsism and looking out can easily become thoughtless mimicry. In “Mean Boys,” Mak maps the wide range of male insecurity, drawing a distinction between self-destruction and the destruction of others, while also letting these outcomes brush up against each other and even bleed together.

If one is to identify as a man, if one is to “consent to be troubled by the collective afterimage” of all men that lived before him, then he must execute a near-impossible psychological maneuver. No one mind can contain this entire “afterimage,” this long lineage of masculinity, and even if one could, it would be an oversimplification, a flattened mirror that feels far too similar to a high schooler’s wanting reflection of popular culture. Instead, this ideal man, this altogether fictional being, must create a many-sided mirror, a prism that can adequately reflect a vast array of models and influences and rejections and inversions. In so doing, the man in question may find himself—themselves, even—moving beyond masculinity, beyond all of the “Mean Boys” in their expensive, matching outfits.