Fiction about disability

Last week I had to review Kathy Lette‘s latest novel, The Boy who Fell to Earth. I would not have finished reading the book if I hadn’t agreed to review it. After the first three pages, I would have thrown it across the room, as is my wont with books that offend my sense of style or my sensibilities. This book certainly does the former, and comes close to doing the latter. Not that Lette would care; she is the author of 11 other best-selling novels, starting with Puberty Blues, published in 1979. Since then she has carved a celebrity career for herself and is one of those Australian expatriates who live in London, on friendly terms with many famous artists, writers  and celebrities.

Here, I confess that I haven’t read any of her other books, and after this one, I won’t make the effort. I know it’s bad form to start off a review with a negative judgement, but here is where I’m saying what I couldn’t say so bluntly in my review for the newspaper. The blog is my “sounding-off”, my unofficial opinion.

The opening sentence is “The car hits my sixteen-year-old son at 35 miles an hour.” We’re told that his flight from the house, ending in this accident, was caused by his mother, Lucy, screaming: “You’ve ruined my life. I wish I’d never had you. Why can’t you be normal?” There follow three pages of overwritten, cliched prose: “Grief shakes me between its jaws like a lion shakes a half-dead gazelle.” We learn, as Lucy keeps vigil over her son, in a coma in intensive care, that his name is Merlin, and that his father deserted them after Merlin’s diagnosis, which, it emerges in the following chapters, is that of autism — Asperger’s Syndrome.

Then we get the whole back story, from the father’s leaving, through Lucy’s tempestuous years of single parenthood to Merlin, and her lengthy and disastrous experiments with online dating. All are told with gags and hyperbole laid on in trowel-fulls (is that a word?). Wisecracking runs in the family: Lucy’s mother and sister excel at it too. In the conversation that precedes Lucy’s sexual adventures:

I shuddered. ‘Do you know the best contraception for a woman my age? Nudity.’

‘Do you know the best way to avoid wrinkles? Take your glasses off,’ my mother touched.’

[Imagine an accent over the e in touched: I don’t know how to do it in this format!]

The voice that works best in this comedy of errors is Merlin’s. He is always honest, has a phenomenal memory, and never tries to be funny, like the adults in his life, but often is, when he comments on the mysteries and absurdities of their behaviour. When one of his mother’s lovers is the first man in her life who wants Merlin to share their time together, she begins to fall in love with him, until Merlin’s honesty spoils things, when the lover says:

‘Your mum has just told me I’m the only man in her life. Besides you, that is.’

Merlin, who was roasting marshmallows, looked puzzled. ..

He begins to recite the list of former loves and why they didn’t last, concluding his bravura performance with:

‘The rest of 2010 and the beginning of the year 2011 proved a mixed romantic bag of one-night stands and broken hearts, including an ex-priest, a policeman, a shrink, a poet, a plumber, and acupuncturist … concluding with you, 6th march 2011 till now, 28th April 2011. But you have definitely been my mother’s favourite partner in her career so far.’

Things go from bad to worse when Lucy takes a lodger, an Australian has-been rocker with bad domestic habits. There follow many pages of a comic, hyperbolic version of the battle of the sexes,with the inevitable climax when the shrew succumbs to the rough charisma of this guy, who improbably becomes the hottest and most tender lover she’s had yet. His redeeming grace, which melts her defences, is his liking and empathy for Merlin, defending his right to find himself as an independent person, not a mollycoddled disabled son, and whom he rescues from a couple of risky situations.

There are more twists to the plot, which I won’t reveal, in case, despite my prejudice, you want to read this book yourself. Suffice it to say that the ending is an improbably happy one, for all concerned.

Now to the more serious question that this book raises for me: the depiction of autism using the metaphor of an alien being trapped in a human body. Hence the title, borrowed from the novel adapted to become the iconic film of the 70s, The Man who Fell to Earth, memorably acted by David Bowie. The traits that are commonly associated with high-range autism — unworldly beauty, high intelligence, difficulty recognising and responding to the nuances of social communication, and more — are there in spades in Merlin, and the source of much drama, at times melodrama, and dark comedy, as well as hair-tearing, heartbreak and resignation in the mother. I have an uneasy feeling about this fictionalised portrait. Inevitably, given Lette’s signature style, there is exaggeration, and the turning of what is awkward, embarrassing or tragic into (at best) dark comedy and (at worst) burlesque.

My friend, Rachel Robertson, whose wonderful memoir of her relationship with her autistic son was recently published, and reviewed by me in this blogsite, told me of an article by Polly Morrice, ‘Autism as Metaphor’ in the  New York Times: It’s a short and thoughtful article, worth a read, and puts this way of writing disability in perspective.

I’m very interested to hear from you, my readers; if you’ve read Lette’s novel, or Rachel’s memoir, or if you have personal experience of autism in a family. What do you think about fictionalising this condition, which affects so many children and their families?



Filed under fictionalised stories of autism

2 responses to “Fiction about disability

  1. Christina,
    This must have been very hard to read after Rachel Robertson’s gentle, beautifully written ‘Reaching One Thousand’.
    I won’t bother with Kathy Lette, thanks.

  2. Christina Houen

    You’re right, Maureen, it was a hard read; but Rachel’s memoir gave me a standard by which to measure my responses to this messy melodrama.

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