Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Anti-Romantic Child by Priscilla Gilman

Full disclosure: Priscilla's my agent so obviously if I hadn't liked this book I would have pretended--for my whole life--to have not gotten around to reading it. Fortunately I have the good sense to surround myself only with the talented and the wise, so I'm never put in such awkward situations.

This memoir will rightfully be praised as a sensitive portrait of what it's like to parent a child on the autism spectrum, and I'm sure it will be advertised as a great book for parents of autistic children to read, but I found myself admiring it for a number of different reasons. It seems to me too often memoirs are about only one thing--they are very on the nose in terms of focus and subject and meaning. Novels are assumed to need layers and complications and multiple ideas, but some memoirs seem to narrow life down to just one thing (usually something marketable). To some extent this makes sense--focus is where you get a hook--and it allows, just as in fiction, for a book to run "narrow and deep" (copyright Toni Morrison). But there is such a thing as narrow and shallow ... so one of the things I admired most about this memoir is that while it centers on parenting an autistic child, it has a number of other layers, and one in particular that resonated with me. And that's how reading has been co-opted by academia in a way that isn't so good for reading. Students are often encouraged to separate the texts they read from the lives they lead, and as a result, reading feels unimportant; it feels...academic. Now, I'll be honest, I'm the first person to steer students away from talking about their personal lives in the classroom, but that doesn't mean English professors can't find other ways to connect literature to human experience. In the writing classrooms, we talk all the time about creating literature out of human experience, so how come in the literature classrooms it sometimes comes back out so differently? One of my big frustrations is that so many people see reading as a way to escape from life as opposed to a means to understand and confront and live life. And in her memoir, Gilman points out the ways that reading has shaped her--both for the better and the worse. Literature is one of the lenses through which she sees life, and throughout the book she shows how specific poems sometimes gave her unrealistic expectations for the future, but also how the very same poems helped her see her child as the unique being that he is. So, beautifully threaded throughout this parenting memoir is an argument for reading and a critique of academia (Gilman leaves the kind of tenure-track gig that most PhD's (think they) would sacrifice multiple limbs for) that I found just as compelling as the (very moving) kid stuff.

From a craft perspective I also want to point out one thing I noticed about how Gilman does characterization. At the heart of the memoir is Gilman's dilemma between seeing her child, Benj, as a unique, free-thinking individual, but also accepting that there is a diagnosis--hyperlexia--that explains a lot of what he says and does. And one of the keys to the book is that readers must see Benj the person and not just Benj the diagnosis. If readers didn't come to the same understanding that Gilman herself did, the book would, to put it bluntly, fail. And Gilman is very good at showing through example and quoted dialogue and cinematic descriptions how charming and joyous and also emotional and challenging Benj is. This is a good use of traditional technique--show show show. (my favorite example of anecdotal showing is when Benj who has complained vehemently about his mother changing the lyrics of James Taylor's "Sweet Baby James" to "Sweet Baby Benj" expresses delight at the lyrics being sung correctly to his new baby brother...James). But Gilman also characterizes Benj through a technique that hadn't really occurred to me before, and which would also work well in fiction. Gilman juxtaposes Benj with other characters, and as a reader, I started to see bits of Benj everywhere. His father, his grandfather, his grandmother, and even his mother all share some of his traits. Especially charming is the relationship between Benj and his grandmother, who is delighted to finally have someone so entirely rational (like her) in what has up until then been a family of wishers and dreamers. So what I'm saying is, instead of seeing Benj as a composite of symptoms (hyper-literal, anxious, obsessed with routine) you see him as a composite of those who surround him--just with their traits taken to the extreme. Most of the time, writers do characterization through dialogue and through point of view (either getting into the character's head or hearing the narrator's thoughts on the character), but this third way seems almost like sleight of hand. You aren't even looking at Benj, you are looking at his joyful but extremely sensitive grandfather, when you think, hey that reminds me of Benj. But because you know the grandfather isn't hyperlexic, you think, well that's just a personality trait not a symptom. And so you re-envision what first seemed like one of Benj's symptoms as one of his personality traits. This is the kind of echoing that is often done with theme (we call those things that get repeated motifs) but I confess I never really thought of echoes or motifs between characters before (I know about foils, but we're not talking opposites here, we're talking variations on a theme). Sometimes it takes nonfiction--which is, of course, reflecting reality, in which people in close proximity often share character traits--to show me what can be done in fiction. This trick of characterization has the added affect of reminding readers that these things really are on a spectrum, and many of us who would be diagnosed "normal" because we find it easy to follow the rules of school aren't so far off from those who sometimes are too conveniently labelled "abnormal." Gilman expresses directly how important it is not to see Benj--or any kid--in terms of normal and abnormal but instead just see them as they are. A useful lesson for life of course, but an equally useful one for writing.