Private Thoughts in Public Language

The burgeoning autism narrative may reflect the pathology of our era.

Douglas Coupland clearly suffers from hyper artistic activity disorder, but he prefers to say, at least in interviews, that he is mildly autistic—not that the two diagnoses can’t dwell in the same body. His artwork is increasingly everywhere, for example in Toronto at the intersection of Bathurst and Lake Shore Boulevard. Today that is the site of frantic condo construction; it was once a hub of manufacture and transport, and before that a battleground, Fort York. Coupland’s Remembering the War of 1812 was installed there last November. It has one double–human-size bronze-coloured fallen tin soldier (16th United States Infantry Regiment), and one standing tin soldier (Royal Newfoundland Regiment). It was paid for by Malibu Investment, which is building “boutique condos” all over Toronto, including 187 at that address, and many in Vancouver, where Coupland lives. The company’s website still boasts that “often, Malibu Investment recognizes potential in what it calls ‘Turbo Trades’ where accounts can get turbocharged through an increased use of defined risk option plays.” Coupland, who seems to thrive on improbable juxtapositions, must delight in it all.

Although he is the guru of life on the web, he is fascinated by books. He has published eleven novels since 1991, starting with Generation X, which gave us not only its title but the word “McJobs,” and six non-fiction titles, including a life of Terry Fox. But I mean he loves books as objects. At a time when young professors are turning “The Book” into a field for promotion to tenure, Coupland chews up pages of his 1997 Girlfriend in a Coma and makes a hornet’s nest from the resultant pulp. It is a genuinely beautiful object (as are nests made by actual hornets). He loves books as objects, new, tattered or chewed. So he not only wrote JPod but also designed it.

The collage of emails, web browsings and picaresque incidents that comprise this book does not quite come off, but the opening set piece, in the grow-op of the central figure’s mother in British Properties, was to my taste absolutely hilarious, and not just because my own mother grew old in West Van where such things might happen. Alas, the style of humour does not wear well. By the end of the book it palls, and a grotesque repetition of the opening set piece is a bore. But there is a great deal of playing with fonts, including a reflection on the fact, illustrated by many examples, that Courier is 34 percent more boring than any other typeface. There are pages of numbers pumped out by a pseudo random number generator. Which takes me to the topic of this review, stories about autism.

Autism narrative is a booming genre. It is important because it is helping to create a public language with which to express and describe a condition that is intrinsically private. The best-known writer with autism is Temple Grandin, whose several autobiographies have been followed by those of many others. There is Daniel Tammet’s Born on a Blue Day. He has the proven ability to recite more successive digits in the decimal expansion of pi than anyone else (yet). He sees all the numbers in colours.

It is a pity that cost prevented colouring all those random numbers in JPod; a boutique edition is called for. Coupland’s book is so named because five young people whose names begin with “J” work in a pod within a rambling enterprise that designs video games, emailing each other and the universe about what is in the fridge next door, or rural China, where the plot moves via an operator from Vancouver’s glossy Chinatown.

Through the middle of the book there are meditations on how the boys in the pod have various autistic traits. The theme was enunciated in Microserfs, whose hero opines that all techies are mildly autistic. That book now seems like a trailer for JPod. One of the J-lads even gets a hugging machine, a device invented by Temple Grandin for calming herself (also used to calm cattle, for that is her profession: slaughterhouse technology). Although the autism theme does run through the middle of the book, it gets tired and fades out. I’m told that the hugging machines for autistics made it into the CBC’s made-for-tv version; the series was dropped in March 2008 after the first few episodes but is still available online.

Autism enters, plays for a couple of hundred pages and exits, but the book is deeply autistic. Autistic both in the current overuse of the word derived from the very serious developmental disorder that gets so much media emphasis nowadays, and also in the older sense of the word, meaning the complete self-absorption evinced in some kinds of schizophrenia. Like the statue of the 1812 war, there are almost no people in JPod, just larger-than-life tin soldiers, churning out words and other images on their screens.

It is not just that techies are autistic. Autism is a pathology made for the internet precisely because autistic people are very bad at face-to-face interactions. Once they can handle a keyboard, they enter a space where you never need to actually confront anyone. That is profoundly liberating for many people with autism. This is true even for the very severely affected, through the medium of what is called facilitated communication.

Incidentally, the “pod” of JPod is brilliantly evocative. Pods are many things. If you use movers nowadays, when you move from A to B, all your things are packed into an interchangeable pod, which is then picked up by the van and put down somewhere else. (There must be a novel waiting in the wings about misdirected pods: your life’s mementos arrive on my new doorstep, and mine on yours.) Coupland will have remembered that the aliens in the 1954 novel The Body Snatchers, and in the four movie versions from 1956 to 2007, all snatch human bodies and incubate them in pods. Body snatching—alien abduction—is one of the more despicable metaphors widely in use to say what it is like to have your great little baby gradually turn, around the age of two or three, into a severely autistic child.

Autism novels are ones in which the autism of a character is important to the story. JPod is thus not an autism story per se. There are well-crafted novels in this genre. Aside from Mark Haddon’s well-known The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, on which there are a few words below, there is Karin Fossum’s Black Seconds, an excellent police procedural. A very odd and very important character is, late in the story, described as autistic. It is a sad but moving tale, but that is the present Scandinavian norm in detective fiction, at least what is translated of it.

Margot Livesey’s Banishing Verona is a simple love story in which, as announced in the first few pages, the young man has Asperger’s. He and an older pregnant woman fall in love; after the travails that befit romances, she cleaves to him and loves him for his autistic traits such as his inability to play, pretend or lie.

Both Fossum’s and Livesey’s books are well written, credible, unsentimental and good to loan or recommend to friends for enviable light reading. I cannot say the same for the three other novels under review here. I discuss them not for their merit, but because of the genre that now includes hundreds of narratives in print, including autobiographies, biographies, novels, plays and improving tales for children. And I speak not yet of movies and videos, let alone the internet. Some cynics, recalling Susan Sontag’s adage that every age has an illness in which it reflects its worst fears, say that autism is the pathology of our decade. It has certainly given us a genre.

The best of the three books is Clare Morrall’s The Language of Others. It is an honest tale of a middle-aged, middle-class Englishwoman muddling through on straitened means and limited emotional attachments. She has a pretty dreadful family—hardly her fault, methinks, that she cannot understand them, and not a classic Asperger’s trait. She has a layabout son who spends all his time on computers. But then the clichés click in. A decaying Eyresque mansion in which the heroine grew up ends up dust by the end of the book, not without a nutter jumping off the gables just before that. And the wayward son invents video games and makes a million and is … well, see Coupland. Her son’s diagnosis shows the heroine that she is genetically tarred with the same brush and comes to understand herself and her problems as the result of Asperger’s.

Marti Leimbach and Cammie McGovern are both mothers with severely autistic children. Both have done heroic jobs with those children, and McGovern’s methods have acquired disciples. Read as didactic works, these novels undoubtedly serve a purpose. It is said that many people who have to deal with autism are exhilarated by Leimbach’s story of how her American heroine—married to an increasingly awful English stuffed shirt and fighting bad practitioners in an inadequate National Health Service in a country whose customs are foreign to her—finds a guru and a method of treatment and thus brings her son into humanity. Good for self-help, perhaps, but not for a novel.

It is apparent that sympathy for book-writing parents of autistic children leads to a sentimental suspension of critical judgement about the books that are written. My copy of McGovern’s Eye Contact has 18 glowing puffs from reviewers and admirers. Were only half of them true, this would be the novel of the decade. It is a thriller centred on an autistic boy who may, or may not, have witnessed the abduction and murder of a slightly older girl. There is a subplot of the boy’s mother, when she was a girl, having a crush on a boy who was physically and cognitively disabled by a head injury. Plot and subplot weave around with many characters enmeshed in both. There are also numerous special needs children who shuffle through the plot, and who create a maze of false leads until the dénouement. This is bad writing and, in particular, bad suspense. Mystery writing is a skill that gifted amateurs cannot just pick up.

Mark Haddon made a charming pastiche of the genre in his rightly famous The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. It is now taught in the special education segment of teacher training and so, for better or worse, it is having more effect on how autism is conceptualized than most theoretical texts. That is a striking but by no means unusual example of how the genre of autism narrative is helping to shape the very way in which autism is understood. In an interview, Haddon said that one problem in writing the book was that the life of a person with autism is so boring. But then he realized that the lives of Jane Austen characters are just as boring—we could not live those lives today. So he took Austen as his model in writing Dog. Whether that is true or not, he has been overtaken by another twist in the genre, the retroactive autism novel, in which characters in a classic work are diagnosed as autistic. No one diagnoses imagined people with more panache than Phyllis Ferguson Bottomer.

She is what is now called a speech-language pathologist in the North Vancouver School District, almost Coupland country. (Mine too—let’s hear it for North Van High, Class of ’52!) So she is well acquainted with autism. She has noticed every trait ever mentioned in autism texts, and finds one or another in every one of Austen’s main characters. The trouble is that almost everyone has autistic traits. I tried the trick with a couple of Balzac novels, and the diagnoses came thick and fast. You may say this teaches us something about autism. I say it shows the power of metaphor. I found Haddon’s diagnosis more probable. Austen’s lives were so boring that the tics of character are sharply defined. Her genius was to turn them into a cosmos as filled with human beings and human foibles as the whole of today’s teeming Bombay.