Anyway, in the last few years I have found a little sub-genre of fiction that I enjoy: novels written as if by people with neurological disorders. First was Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem (Doubleday, 1999). This is the story of Lionel Essrog, an orphan with Tourette’s syndrome who tries to solve the murder of Frank Minna, his employer, mentor, and friend. I liked the experience of seeing the Brooklyn I knew though Lionel’s eyes. The depiction of Tourette’s felt accurate, and didn’t seem as if it were just a gimmick or even just a metaphor. The writing was excellent, and the story was satisfying. (I still smile at the memory of the two old dons, Brickface and Stucco.) I discussed Motherless Brooklyn on my WFMU book club show on August 14 and 21, 2002—which seems incredible, since it was so long ago. One caller explained the name Essrog to me, and I’ve always wondered if that was Jonathan Lethem himself, but I’ve never found out. (Update 4/3: It wasn't Lethem, it was Listener Bruce! That's good to know, after all this time.)
Last summer I came across Remainder, by Tom McCarthy (Random House, 2007) on the “buy-2-get-1-free” table at Posman Books. The unnamed British narrator has suffered a traumatic brain injury in an accident in which something fell from the sky and landed on him. When he receives a large settlement, he has enough money to begin constructing and re-enacting visions he thinks are memories and incidents he witnesses on the street. At first this seems rather charming, but it becomes less so as the story progresses. I wondered whether the accident was supposed to have disabled some moral filter in his scrambled brain, or whether absolute power corrupts absolutely, or what. On the other hand, I wasn’t surprised that the narrator’s hired help went along with facilitating his plans for as long as he had the money to pay them. Remainder’s narrator, like the one in Sunset Boulevard, turns out not really to have been able to tell the story but, as in the movie, it doesn’t much matter. I liked that the book is kind of prickly and left me with things to think about, and I liked that it was first published by a small French house because nobody in England would touch it.
As of this morning I’m reading Lowboy, by John Wray (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009). It’s the story of a 16-year-old paranoid schizophrenic running away on the B train, and so far I like it even though it’s not a first-person narrative. One thing I like a lot is the way Wray introduces his characters. I like that he never tells you their race, which is pretty unusual in the recent American novels I’ve read. Okay, I haven’t read that many, but still. I just hope he doesn’t have one of those “I’m tired of writing now” endings. That’s another reason I stopped reading modern novels.(Update: The ending was no surprise, but at least there was an ending. If I saw Lowboy on the train, I'd still move to a different car.)
One reason I do read fiction, when I do read it, is to experience a different world or to experience the world in a different way, and all four of these books allow that. Some TV shows do, too. There’s Monk, of course, although I don’t think the writers worry a whole lot about the accurate depiction of obsessive-compulsive disorder. But it’s entertaining. There was also a medical series called 3 Lbs., which probably should have been called 3 Weeks because that’s how long it was on before the network yanked it. I really liked that show because it featured a continuing character with prosopagnosia. I thought the writers did a pretty good job of depicting face-blindness. I watched the last episode with some friends, and apparently there was a scene where the face-blind guy got into an elevator and everyone else in the elevator had the same face. My friends had to explain that to me, because I couldn’t tell.
I think probably only a neuro-typical (NT) person could ever write a book that tries to get inside the head of someone whose neurology is not normal. Temple Grandin writes fine books, and she’s autistic, but her books aren’t about the experience of being autistic and how it differs from not being autistic, because she’s never been not-autistic so she never could explain it. It takes an NT to imagine what it’s like to be different; we who are different can’t explain what the difference is. It’s like asking a blind person to describe blindness—how can they, if they’ve never known what vision is like? Luckily, sighted people can close their eyes and get some feeling for it. But if you want to know what it’s like to have Tourette’s syndrome, or autism, or a traumatic brain injury, you should read these books.
Thanks for reading my blog post this week, and may God bless.