To an extent this is a fictionalized version of the spate of "Dealing with Asperger's Syndrome" articles that popped up in newspapers and magazines a couple of years back (a couple of which have since appeared on the SAT). But Asperger's Syndrome isn't just a disease-of-the-week — the remarkable thing about it is that it took a previous disease-of-the-week (Rain Man style profound autism) and placed it at the end of a continuum. It's not a binary thing that you either have or you don't; some have more autistic tendencies, some have fewer. I have more than the average allotment, I suppose, though (despite my hyperbolic quip a few weeks ago) not nearly enough to qualify as an Asperger's case. Many techie types have even more than I do, which is one explanation that's been floated for the explosion of autism in the US: it used to be that socially inept tech guys would either stay out of the gene pool altogether or be paired up with dissimilar women, but now that the gender gap in American society has narrowed somewhat, it's increasingly likely that a socially inept tech guy will hook up with the socially inept tech gal in the next office over and their mild autistic tendencies (that make math and engineering seem so easy and understanding human interaction so hard) combine in the next generation to produce full-blown autistic kids. Of course, environmental factors and increased ease of diagnosis play a part as well, but that's the pop theory, anyway.
There is a long tradition of stories narrated by a character who is limited in some way, relating events the import of which the narrator is oblivious to but which the reader can pick up just fine. One thing I've found interesting is that in looking at others' reactions to the book, I found a lot of autistic people chiming in to comment on the extent to which the book did a good job capturing their experience of the world. Most gave it high marks. One review praised the way the author showed "how overwhelming the man-made world is for us on a sensory level" and related "frustration with a society that expects us to learn how to recognize neurotypical facial expressions"... and especially how the narrator will "be talking to an adult one minute and they'll suddenly lose their temper at him." The thing is, if you're not autistic, it's not sudden. What the narrator Christopher misses — and apparently these readers miss as well — but Haddon makes perfectly clear, is that when people snap at the narrator, it's after a long period of almost superhuman patience with someone who is being persistently fucking annoying: repeatedly poking at subjects people have asked him to leave alone, getting himself into trouble time and time again, screaming when things don't go his way. One thing that's really interesting about this book is that it's structured in such a way as to suggest that Christopher is the hero of the story — it's largely about him displaying uncommon bravery — while simultaneously making it clear that he's actually not: he's basically ruined the lives of his torturously stressed-out working-class parents. It's not his fault — he didn't ask to be born — but nevertheless, there it is.
"Christopher's parents are rare in their acceptance of his needs," one approving autistic reviewer writes, without addressing the fact that Christopher never for a moment considers or accepts their needs. Of course, in his case we can ascribe his appalling egocentrism to his neurophysiology... but then why don't we do that for everyone? If it's all a smooth spectrum, where do we draw the line between autism and just being a self-centered jerk? If you dominate conversations for hours on end with your little hobbyhorses, are you autistic or just a bore? If you demand that every reference you don't get be explained (even when not directed at you), are you autistic or just intrusive? If you're totally unaware that you're annoying others or hurting their feelings, are you autistic or just insensitive? It's interesting how as behavior becomes more and more dysfunctional, it becomes more and more imperative that the person exhibiting that behavior do something about it — until an invisible threshold is crossed and suddenly it becomes something we must merely understand and accept. (Note: I am not in any way arguing that autistic people need to shape up an' fly right, or anything like that. I'm simply remarking on the very fuzzy boundary between character flaw and disease.)
One autistic reviewer somehow takes Haddon's book to be the story of someone who, thanks to his parents' understanding, "turns out to be a wonderfully well-adjusted, happy, secure boy." I, uh, kinda have to disagree there. Christopher is happy and secure so long as things go precisely his way; otherwise there is still the screaming and the groaning and whatnot. As for well-adjusted... it kind of says something that even at the end of the book Christopher's fondest fantasy is that everyone on earth capable of understanding facial expressions dies for this crime. There's little evidence that he is capable of returning his parents' love, nor that, even once he has accepted that people other than himself actually have minds, he has considered those minds to actually have worth. Which is sad. It's sad that he suffers so much from everyday stimuli, it's sad that those who care about him suffer so much because of that care... what makes the book fairly upbeat is that at least he and his family are swimming rather than drowning in this sea of sadness.
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