This is the second instalment of a three-part series on representations of autism in contemporary literature. In last week’s post I reviewed Naoki Higashida’s The Reason I Jump. While welcoming the testimony of a ‘non-verbal’ child I drew comparison between Higashida’s account of his life and my son’s different lived experience. There is a danger, I noted, in generalising from a single story to a wider population. Fictional representations of autism also tend to be singular accounts. In this post, therefore, I focus on the challenge of incorporating multiple representations of autism within literary fiction.
The Magic 30
Recently I attended an event which aimed to ‘recognise and value female talent’ in the city where I live. The event brought together women from a range of sectors including business and finance, the cultural industries and education. In the course of our discussions somebody mentioned the ‘Magic 30’. This, apparently, is the proportion of women that organisations need to have on their Boards (i.e. leading and managing) before the interests of women are represented throughout the organisation.
Working in a female-dominated sector I am aware of the issue of over-representation of men in management and interested in any claim to solutions through magic numbers. I’m also interested in the extent to which magic numbers might be applied to other contexts where there is a lack of representation of certain groups in society. In literature, for example, I’ve witnessed an improvement in the representation of women and girls in fiction within my own lifetime, and have watched with interest as the focus has shifted to the representation of people of colour in literature.
Although such agendas can feel like a numbers game, or even tokenistic, many people acknowledge that the arts can play a role in promoting a more inclusive society and, through the inclusion of positive role models, increase the engagement and self-esteem of young people. I was reminded of this very powerfully, recently, at a talk by the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in which she described the impact on her early childhood of reading all-white classics.
Given the proportion of the population affected by autism – either directly or indirectly – there is surely an under-representation of autism in contemporary literature. Based on the principle underpinning the ‘Magic 30’ you could argue that until autism is reflected in fiction those affected by it will not be fully included in society. While there have been some stand-out examples of autism in fiction in recent years, for example Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, such books tend to feature autism rather than include it in the regular way that the ‘Magic 30’ implies. The book I review this week is a noteworthy exception, adopting a radical approach to the representation of autism in fiction.
Bacchus Wynd by Catherine Edmunds (Circaidy Gregory Press, 2013)
Bacchus Wynd , Edmunds’ third novel, is narrated from the perspective of seven characters whose lives and relationships converge through their encounters in a cafe located on the street which gives the novel its title. Although Edmunds thus directs our attention to place as significant (‘Bacchus Wynd’ is based on Darlington in England) location is not something which particularly impressed itself on me. For me, it was the characters rather than the setting which I found anchoring.
A number of the players in Edmunds’ novel are affected by autism. One of the main characters, Toby, has Asperger’s Syndrome and we also hear a good deal about – though don’t meet – his twin brother Sam who is autistic. Evan, a psychologist involved in the diagnosis of Sam and Toby who has since become a family friend, takes a key supporting role in the novel and there is at least one other character who could have a diagnosis. In addition there is Sylvie, the mother of Toby and Sam, who for me is particularly satisfying. Sylvie and I share a social role (mothering and caring for autistic sons) which shapes our lives in specific ways; while such women are not uncommon they are hard to find in fiction and I took delight in discovering a reflection of my social reality through Sylvie.
Bacchus Wynd has a complex structure whereby a different character takes the narrative for each of the 45 chapters. What this gives us is a variety of perspectives on the unfolding action with the reader experiencing the same incidents from the standpoints of the different characters involved. The characters’ overall responsibility for the narrative is not equal, however, with Sylvie taking the baton only three times compared to the nine chapters which are narrated by Emma. The technique is rich and for a writer who wants to explore the lived experience of a character with autism it is particularly useful. It’s possible, for example, to read through Toby’s seven chapters in order to build a picture of the autistic mind at work. Here he is reflecting on a walk in the park:
He felt as if he were wearing special glasses that refracted the light differently. The shadows had an unexpected precision; a strict definition he’d never noticed before. This would change again when the leaves dropped and the fractal qualities of the branches became more obvious. Toby loved autumn. The colours became so intense you could smell them. (Toby, Chapter 9, p.44)
It is also possible, through the narrative structure, to compare the perceptions of autistic and non-autistic characters to the same incidents. Toby is the object of the attentions of two women, Renée and Emma; as Emma is already living with a partner and Renée is old enough to be his mother, their interest in Toby calls for subtle signs and code. Reading the women’s accounts of their attempts to engage Toby alongside his account of these interactions partly reflects the different communication styles of men and women, but the impact of Toby’s Asperger’s Syndrome is also evident. So when Emma (who is unaware of Toby’s diagnosis) receives an invitation from Toby to stay with him and his mother at their holiday cottage, she discovers his intentions are not what she’d imagined:
The Toby she’d spent so long dreaming about wasn’t the real Toby. They looked the same, sounded the same, talked in the same idiosyncratic way, but the Toby of her dreams adored her. The real Toby was aloof and distant. She’d been reading far too much into his invitation to the cottage. That had been an off-the-cuff act of kindness on his part – nothing more. (Emma, Chapter 29, p. 161)
Edmunds’ narrative structure allows us to see just how wide the scope is for miscommunication, especially over the mundane. Here is Toby reflecting on a passing comment about pheasants:
Emma said they had bird brains. Pheasants are birds, so yes, they have bird brains. Toby didn’t understand why this was funny. They were in the road because British pheasants were not truly wild. They were descended from domesticated stock originally imported from China. This ancestry resulted in birds that were tamer than was safe for their survival. Toby explained this while Emma carried on making sandwiches. When he’d told them everything he knew about pheasants, she put her knife down and suggested they go for a walk on the beach. (Toby, Chapter 28, p.154)
And here is Emma reflecting on the same incident:
…everyone laughed except for Toby. He never got jokes. He had other quirks too, loads of them, but they were hard to pin down. He was lost when she went off on flights of fancy, for example. That had upset her at first as she’d so wanted to share her dreams with him, but he couldn’t follow, so that was that. Now he was talking about the natural history of pheasants, which was interesting enough, and maybe explained their idiocy, but it didn’t have anything to do with what Emma had said. Not really. She needed some sea air to clear her head and suggested a walk across the dunes to the beach. (Emma, Chapter 29, p.163)
The development of a network of characters in the novel provides Edmunds with plenty of opportunity for multiple perspectives and reflections on autism. Useful perspectives on the spectrum nature of autism are also developed through Edmunds’ gift to Sylvie of two children affected by autism; it is through Toby and his mother that we hear how autism can affect individuals differently. Here is Toby reflecting on his brother Sam:
He was glad Mother had stopped wearing make-up. She’d had to, because Sam couldn’t cope with the changing colours. Any difference in mother’s eye-shadow or lipstick made Sam scream and bang his head on things. It had taken Mother a long time to work out what was wrong, but she hadn’t worn anything on her face since. (Toby, Chapter 4, p. 21).
As the mother of an autistic adult herself, Edmunds is well-placed to capture some of the unique perspectives of the autistic mind. In creating both Sam and Toby she has attempted to represent something of the spectrum nature of autism, and the similar and different ways in which it can affect children and adults. It is left to Sylvie, the boys’ mother, to reflect on the implications of this:
Outsiders might have supposed Sam needed more intervention on her part, but that had never been the case. There were efficient and effective systems in place for someone with Sam’s obvious difficulties. Toby’s were more subtle. He would always be the victim of other people’s ignorance while Sam sailed through life, flapping and yodelling and eating garden soil, not knowing anyone did anything differently. Toby knew. (Sylvie, Chapter 41, p. 217)
Although this review focuses specifically on the representations of autism in Bacchus Wynd, I should note that you don’t need a background in autism in order to enjoy Edmunds’ novel; there is as much in the narrative (perhaps more) that has nothing to do with it. My purpose, here, has been to celebrate Edmunds’ achievement in incorporating multiple representations of autism in her novel rather than to critically review it. Were I to do so I might take issue with some extraneous narrative detail. I also think the title and cover slightly surprising choices (a reader could be forgiven for assuming the novel is set in the 19th century). However Edmunds is a gifted artist – as well as musician, poet and novelist – and her cover painting deserves its showcase.
We are, I would suggest, a long way from ‘magic numbers’ in terms of the inclusion of autistic children and adults in contemporary literature. Catherine Edmunds has made a fantastic contribution, however, to raising the profile of autism in fiction. She has done this not only through her creation of credible autistic characters, but in her depiction of characters who live and work with autism. Encountering Sylvie in Bacchus Wynd was almost as affirming for me as meeting Toby and Sam; in her I understood, again, the importance of encountering people in books who are like us, and who therefore remind us that we are human and not alone.