Wednesday, October 20

abandoned: Mockingbird

by Katherine Erskine
Philomel / Penguin  2010

Everyone's been raving about this book.  It just got nominated from a National Book Award.  It's been on the periphery of my radar so I figured it was time to pick it up.  Twenty-five pages later it was time to put it down.

There is no worse feeling than to not like a popular book and feel, somehow, like you're defective for thinking it.  Worse if you like to think of yourself as a writer, because when you go against the grain (and then do so publicly in a place like a blog) you're almost certain to alter people's opinions of you.  Not necessarily for the better. 

Is it wrong to feel like the first-person child narrator with Aspergers is a tired trend? Is it wrong to even think of it as a trend?  Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  The London Eye mystery.  Emma Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree. Three or four other titles I've read in the last year or so whose titles I cannot remember. 

So what's my problem anyway?  Do I not want kids to read about characters who are different then themselves, to better learn and understand about differently-abled kids and to show some respect and tolerance?  Isn't calling these stories "tired" akin to saying the same thing about vampires?

Here's the deal: when I'm reading, and there is something about the narrative that continually pulls me away from the story being told, I no longer enjoy the reading experience.  Erskine's narrator is ten year old Caitlin.  As a child with Aspergers I am willing to accept that she finds a certain disconnect with the world, with an inability to read facial expression or to know how to respond to people without taking the world literally.  What I have a hard time with is a ten year old with Aspergers being all these things and yet more articulate than any ten year old I've ever met, including highly gifted ones.  I realize this conceit is necessary to give the reader a sense of what is going on while at the same time trying to put them inside the head of main character, but on every page I kept finding myself unable to suspend the disbelief.

I'd also like to see more stories told from the perspective of the friend of a child with Aspergers (or ADHD for that matter) who don't doesn't really understand what makes their friend behave the way they do but is fine with them anyway.  Sort of like the idea of having a gay character in a story where the story isn't about the character being gay, it's just who they are.  In the long run isn't that what we want from the readers, from children, to be able to recognize these differences and not have them matter in a way that causes them to be viewed as "other" than themselves?

I am not closed to the idea of revisiting this book down the road if someone can truly convince me that I can't just read the last thirty pages of this book and feel like I missed something in the middle that I haven't seen before.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

That's so true about when everyone but you thinks a book is amazing. Last year I just didn't get into The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. I feel like the only person who didn't think it was the cat's meow. It really can make you feel like there's something wrong with you as a reader.

Susan T. said...

"...when I'm reading, and there is something about the narrative that continually pulls me away from the story being told, I no longer enjoy the reading experience." Yes, I know what you mean. I had a similar experience with Sid Fleischman's new biography of Charlie Chaplin. The writing called so much attention to itself that I was distracted again and again.

Colleen said...

I have noticed a trend here as well - both with narrators with Asperger's, etc and with overly smart child narrators. I'm not fond of either that much (with some exceptions) and a combination of the two is certainly problematic for me.

As to your note about friends of kids who have problems - have you read INTO THE RAVINE by Richard Scrimger? Three boys on a raft going down a river through their town, all sorts of adventures ensue and one of the boys most certainly has ADD or Aspergers. (As I recall it is not pointed out in the text but I'm not sure.) Anyway, the narrator makes a point of saying that they other two have been friends with him forever and that's just how it is and the three of them work together to make the trip a success. It's a great book - for boys in particular - I really enjoyed it. (Scrimger is a fav of mine.)

Carol B. said...

Could it have something to do with the first-person narration--the author's attempt at capturing how a child with Asperger's thinks? That the novelty of this sort of reading experience is played out? We've already been in an Asperger's child's head, so to speak.

david elzey said...

that's tricky territory, carol, to blame it on the first person narration, because it borders on the gender-based problem on the author being inside the head of a character they clear are not. men writing girl characters, caucasians writing minorities, etc.

to that end i have to say that there are some people who cannot or should not write "outside their lines" because they simply do not have the facility for it. i like to think it being similar to comedians who draw on racial tensions for their humor. done well, a skillful comedian can mimic the stereotypes of race and get people to laugh at themselves and society; when done poorly they come off as shock jockeys and racists who are exploiting the situation for a laugh.

since abandoning this book i have heard from those who have found fault with other technical aspects of the book (specifically the eagle scout project) which would have caused me to question the author's authenticity in portraying a narrator who has aspergers: after all, if they got this one element wrong, how can i trust a portrait drawn from other, perhaps equally faulty, research?

Ms. McNeilly/Mrs. Salazar said...

"with Aspergers being all these things and yet more articulate than any ten year old I've ever met, including highly gifted ones. I realize this conceit is necessary to give the reader a sense of what is going on while at the same time trying to put them inside the head of main character, but on every page I kept finding myself unable to suspend the disbelief. "

That's the same problem I had with Marcelo and the Real World. I didn't finish that one. I just thought he was WAY too insightful about the people around him to have Asberger's. I'd like to see some of these books tried in third person. I think authors avoid it because it's too hard to keep a light touch, not turning the character into a caricature, while letting the reader into the experience of being different.

Ginger Johnson said...

I wouldn't say that Caitlin's being articulate is solely a construct of the author's to give the reader a sense of what is going on. One of the hallmarks of the Aspergers population IS their hyperlexia. They are gifted with language, and often speak in ways that are surprising, if not inconceivable to the rest of us. Yes, there is often an emotional and social disconnect, but language is often a strength. Additionally, these kids often have a heightened sensory awareness, so they notice things that the rest of us bypass. So I wouldn't fault the book for Caitlin's insightfulness or her articulateness.

While a story about a friend of a kid with Aspergers sounds enticing, it wouldn't ring true, because Aspergers kids often have a difficult time making friends--especially with typically-functioning children. A more likely scenario would be from the perspective of a sibling...which, of course, dances rather close to Cynthia Lord's RULES.

I think the difference in a book, say, that features a gay character or an epileptic character, is that such a character's ability to socially interact with other people is not inhibited. Consequently, there can be a book about a character where gayness or epilepsy is simply another character trait--it's part of who they are, but not the totality. It's a square in their personal patchwork quilt of what makes them who they are.

With Aspergers children, there is a huge wall that separates them from the rest of typically-functioning children. Aspergers is not simply a patch in a quilt; it's the stitching that binds it all together. Consequently, it's difficult to write a book (perhaps impossible?) in which the Aspergers is not front and center.

Even though Caitlin's Aspergers is pretty obvious in the book, there is a plotline and a narrative arc about processing grief that is universal. It might be interesting to read this alongside Jandy's THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE. Grief is grief, whether you're a teenage typical girl or a ten-year old Aspergers girl.

While I, too, feel like there's been a glut of Aspergers books, I would give this one another shot, David. You may never like this book, but I suggest suspending that disbelief for a while. However, I do understand that unless a reader has been around kids with Aspergers a lot, they might not Get It.

But don't worry. My opinion of you hasn't changed. :)

david elzey said...

well argued, ginger, though i have to say that while the narrative voice may be accurate (has there ever been a book written by a person with asperger's to compare against?) it still pulls me out of the narrative in a way that makes the experience distracting.

beyond the idea of soldiering on, reading what might be difficult because a layer of empathy can be gained from the process, the problem is that the voice (and the choices made by the author in building that voice) grates. i don't have the problem some have with nails on a chalkboard, and sometimes i think narrative voices can do the same thing to the ears in our head. as this one did for me.

i have abandoned the book, but that isn't a death sentence just yet.

and as far as an unchanged opinion, i hope it was good to begin with!

Gwenda said...

I haven't read this book yet, but am still looking forward to it. A side point to some of the discussion: I thought Tara Kelly's YA novel Harmonic Feedback did a phenomenal, realistic job depicting a main character with ADHD and Asperger's and how it affected her relationships both with family members and peers. For those interested in a take on the subject far different than the precocious hyper-verbal younger narrator (which, agreed, has been kicking around for awhile now.

Ginger Johnson said...

David,
You're not alone in your review of Mockingbird. Did you see Betsy Bird's review today?

As far as books written by people with Asperger's, I'm not entirely certain, but the work of Temple Grandin (an autistic) comes close, as well as BORN ON A BLUE DAY (also an autistic) by Daniel Tammet.

And yes, my opinion of you has always been good!

gail said...

I have disliked so many popular books, missing out on the thrill- ride of fandom so often, that I've pretty much accepted that that's a boat I'm never going to sail on. I haven't read Mockingbird, but I have read three other Asperger novels, and, yeah, it does seem like a trend to me, one that may not have much in the way of staying power. I agree with the commenter above regarding Marcelo. That was probably the end of the line for me as far as Asperger books go.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...

"well argued, ginger, though i have to say that while the narrative voice may be accurate (has there ever been a book written by a person with asperger's to compare against?"

I'm working on it, David, though the trend will probably be played out by the time mine is done. And while I did finish Mockingbird, I had some issues with it later on in the book as well. I didn't buy the "quarter-cut oak" scene at all. Caitlin would have to be cognitively impaired to have done what she did, and, as you point out with the 25 pages that you read, she doesn't show any signs of that earlier--quite the opposite.