Sunday, September 21, 2014

asperger's in literature

JG mentioned reading this Australian novel, The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (not a typo). I put in a reserve for it at my library, and two months later finally got it a week ago. Popular book, even over here.

This is the second novel I've read from the viewpoint of a protagonist clearly on the autism spectrum, the other being The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. That book's character is generally said to have Asperger's, but I think he's genuinely autistic. This one's is an aspie but doesn't seem to realize it, though he's diagnosed the symptoms in himself pretty clearly. He actually gives a lecture on Asperger's - he's a genetics professor, and the lecture is the author's way of handling the infodump - without seeming to realize he's describing himself.

The plot concerns attempts by Don, the protagonist, to find a potential wife, which he calls The Wife Project. His method is to compile a questionnaire that all prospects must answer, to weed out all the deal-breaker characteristics that he otherwise wouldn't find out about until after investing a lot of time in them. (Apparently his dates habitually don't tell him that they're vegetarian until after arriving at his house for dinner, for instance.) His friends futilely try to explain that this is not how you go about it.

In the process, he meets this woman, Rosie, who - despite having several deal-breakers (she smokes, which would be a deal-breaker for me) - intrigues him, mostly for the way she catches him off-guard. He meets her as a barmaid, and only much later learns that she's actually a psych grad student with a part-time job. A romantic relationship seems doubtful, especially after she gets fed up with his aspie behavior on a date, but they bond in friendship over his offer to use his lab's gene-sequencing equipment to identify her unknown father. Naturally, he calls this The Father Project. (That it's both unethical and against regulations to appropriate the equipment for private use doesn't occur to him until it's too late.)

The story wraps up far too neatly for me to be comfortable with it as a slice of realism, but view it as a light comedy and it's fun to read. I found most of the comic set-pieces either a little too painful or a little too real to be laughed at, but the writing is bright and witty, and the unavoidable tendency to picture Don as being played by Jim Parsons was not too distracting.

What most caught my eye was the behavioral descriptions. For instance, this observation when Don realizes that a friend of his had lied about a motive to the person Don is speaking to: "It seems hardly possible to analyze such a complex situation involving deceit and supposition of another person's emotional response, and then prepare your own plausible lie, all while someone is waiting for you to reply to a question. Yet that is exactly what people expect you to be able to do." I could really identify with that one.

Yet I found Don a little hard to parse at times. His complete inability to detect irony weighs a little heavily over on the imperceptive side. Yet on the other hand, when an old woman he's befriended complains that, with her husband in a nursing home with dementia, he'll no longer be able to buy her her favorite flowers for her birthday as he'd always done, Don thinks, "The solution was obvious," and buys them for her himself. This shows high emotional intelligence. The typical aspie ranking low on that scale doesn't find performing such kind deeds natural, and while not ignorant of or opposed to the concept, has trouble recognizing when an unexpected situation is an opportunity to do it. Yet Don is bewildered when the woman cries over the flowers, and thinks he's done the wrong thing. He's always thinking he's done the wrong thing when it's the right thing, and the right thing when it's the wrong thing, and that's epically believable.

It was a good and quick read. I took it along on my trip, and was glad I found a used book store early, so that I'd have more stuff to read for the rest of the trip. There's a sequel coming out, but the library doesn't have it yet. I hope it doesn't spoil the happy ending of the first book.

No comments:

Post a Comment