Thursday, February 24, 2011

Not Even Wrong:

Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism
Paul Collins (2004, Bloomsbury)

In Paul Collins's latest book, Paul and Jennifer move back to Oregon (from Wales, where they were living in his Sixpence House) and take two-year-old Morgan for a check-up. He's a normal, healthy, toddler, they think, with a few unusual abilities--he can start up a computer and make it play games, and he can read books, the fatter and more abstruse the better. But, as the doctor notes, he never says, "Mommy" or "Can I have some popcorn?"; he doesn't make eye contact. To Collins, it's a bafflement: "How can it be that we left our house an hour ago with a healthy toddler, and returned with a disabled one?"

By trade a historian, Collins has a parallel story to tell. He has been nursing a fascination with Peter the Wild Boy, brought to England from the forests of Hanover by order of George I. Peter was smart enough to survive on wild foods, but had little use for language, or the ways of men. He was famous in his time, attracting the attention of Swift, Defoe, and Linnaeus; he was a prism for emerging ideas of what it was to be human.

If, as seems likely, Peter was what we would now term autistic, he represents a case study in how the disabilities of autism are, at the same time, hyperabilities. Collins investigates other strange but creative characters, including Alan Turing and the nerds of Microsoft. "Other animals are social, but only humans are capable of abstract logic. The autistic outhuman the humans, and we can scarcely recognize the result." Which still leaves the problem of communicating, of getting along in the social world. Imagine your whole life as a sort of Turing test, in which you have to use reason to process social information that most people can grasp without a second thought.

Paul and Jennifer, with some expert help, make overtures to Morgan using written language. There's a lovely Helen Keller moment when Morgan first answers a binary question from Paul, as he'd been doing with his computer games. It's a huge step in the right direction, as is the class Morgan is finally old enough for, at three and a half, with other kids like him. "There is no awkwardness among them: they are equals. It's as if we have brought a seal to the ocean and watched him shuffle awkwardly off the land to glide effortlessly through the waves, finally within the world he was made for all along."

Morgan's parents still have their work cut out figuring out what he needs, and how to keep him safe; they have to plan to have him living with them for the rest of their lives; but they know what they need to know about not pounding their square peg into a round hole, and it's going to be all right. Thanks be to God.


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Shakespeare Wrote for Money; A Visit from the Goon Squad; Juliet, Naked

Shakespeare Wrote for Money
Nick Hornby (2008, Believer Books)

A Visit from the Goon Squad
Jennifer Egan (2010, Alfred A. Knopf)

Juliet, Naked
Nick Hornby (2009, Riverhead Books)

I’m just catching up with Nick Hornby’s third collection of the book reviews he wrote for the Believer magazine. I was sad to learn that it would be the last for the time being, as he turned his attention to other projects, (including his own fiction, which is certainly some consolation.) Like the two earlier volumes, Shakespeare Wrote for Money is a pleasure on several levels.
One is his down-to-earth attitude, his transparency. As Sarah Vowell puts it in her introduction, “The fact that his Books Bought list is so often so different from his Books Read list makes his portrait of a real reader the most accurate I have ever seen. The hope! The guilt! The quest for shelving!” Sound like anybody you know?
By the same token, I like Hornby’s taste, and his stalwart rejection of boring books. He doesn’t care for pretension, literary or otherwise, and if he doesn’t want to read about people who drink wine and talk about Sartre, he reserves the right not to. “This is entirely unreasonable of me, I accept that. But prejudice has to be an important part of our decision-making process when it comes to reading; otherwise we would become overwhelmed.”

I have to wonder what Hornby would say about A Visit from the Goon Squad. My view of Jennifer Egan’s book is colored by my prejudice against books that don’t commit to being either novels or short stories. Sections (chapters?) of this book appeared in the New Yorker as short stories; they are reasonably successful as such. But the beauty of a short story is that if you don’t like the characters, you can put the book down and be finished with them, and here, they keep coming around again, with none of their flaws fixed. In fact, no, wait, here they are as teenagers, even more messed up than they will be a few pages ago.
All this cleverness is a risky undertaking. Should the reader really need to take notes and make charts to see if two characters have met yet? Am I meant to wonder if the chapter with the extended footnotes is an homage to Nicholson Baker or a ripoff of David Foster Wallace? Is the mother’s query – in the chapter consisting entirely of Powerpoint slides– “Why not try writing for a change?” meant to be self-referential?*

Nick Hornby’s novel Juliet, Naked is much more to my taste. Like Egan’s book, it concerns itself with popular music and modern electronic communications, but, because Hornby confines himself to a single story, I found it much easier to grasp and to enjoy.
It’s not hard to picture the characters: a singer-songwriter named Tucker Crowe whose disappearance from performing and writing has become a provocative mystery, to a devoted few, including his biggest fan, Duncan, and Duncan’s disaffected girlfriend, Annie. For a few bucks, Crowe permits the re-release of pre-production versions of his greatest album, rousing a debate among his internet fanbase. When Annie, in England, puts up a review that counters Duncan’s, and Crowe replies to her from his seclusion in Pennsylvania, they’re both offered a way to move on in their lives.
Crowe isn’t actually invisible, but the old Tucker Crowe, the one who drank too much, fell in love too easily, and wrote agonizing songs about it, tends to render him mute: “The fact is, some of these myths are so colorful that they have deterred me from re-entering the world; it seems to me that people were having more fun with me gone than they could ever have if I was around.”
That doesn’t include his ex-wives and his first four children, who might have liked to have him around, but they also would have liked him to find something to do with himself. He’s redeemed himself, to a degree, by being the primary parent of his youngest son, Jackson, but Jackson’s mother, Cat, reasonably concludes that that isn’t enough.
“A few months back, he’d called Cat on the eye-rolling, asked her for some suggestions. After some deliberation, she announced that she thought he should be a singer-songwriter, but one who actually sang and wrote songs.” Or words to that effect, but it’s going to be a little difficult, after a career hiatus that makes Tucker feel like he’s been sitting around in airport lounges for about twenty years, somehow never getting on a plane.
Annie has begun to feel the same way about her own life, washed up in Gooleness, one of England’s less exciting seaside towns, playing second fiddle to Duncan’s obsession with Tucker Crowe. She knows she can’t get the fifteen years back, but “...somehow Juliet, Naked – or her feelings about it, anyway – had woken her from a deep sleep: she wanted things.”
So Nick Hornby doesn’t have to tell Jennifer Egan that there’s a way to talk about what life in the internet age is like without disappearing completely down the rabbit hole: his book can show her.

Happy New Year, friends, in case I didn’t say so last month. I hope you’re taking good care of yourself amid the ice and snow. What with one thing and another, 2011 is shaping up to be Interesting Times.


* The slide show chapter appears here:

This version works much better (in color, and with a sound track) than the book’s 75-page black and white reproduction.
I’m told that the Kindle version of the book fails to reproduce it adequately--the irony gods are smiling.

Note, April 2011
A Visit from the Goon Squad won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Any Good Books -- February 2011