Friday, September 13, 2013

Diagnosis: Asparagus—reader (almost) gets lost in details One reader’s journey through Audrey Schulman’s Three Weeks in December

“Asparagus was one of the code words aspies used to discuss their syndrome in public, as in “Do you think Sam might have a bit of asparagus?”
Distracted by my own thoughts, I quibbled my way through the first half of Audrey Schulman’s Three Weeks in December before getting hooked in up to its dual climaxes  -- and then returned to quibbling at book’s end.

At once, I found this book compelling and contrived, ambitious and over-structured, too neat and a mess.
In spite of myself, I engaged.
Knowing too much and too little about Autism/Asperger’s syndrome, the lives of gay men in the 1890s and what life is like in Maine got in my way.
Three Weeks in December has intertwining strands, a double helix of stories about marginalized characters from Maine. The first is a gay man and engineer from Bangor who travels to Rwanda at the turn of the 20th century to build a railroad. The second is a mixed-race female ethnobotanist with Asperger’s syndrome from Bangor who travels to Rwanda at the turn of the 21st century to locate a medicinal plant for a pharmaceutical company. The stories alternate chapters as the December days parallel and proceed in their respective countdowns to new centuries.
In Jeremy’s tale the railroad building is slowed by death and fear. While more of the men he supervises die from malaria, it’s the fatal attacks by two lions that create the superstition and fear that threaten to undermine the project.  Jeremy as white leader, becomes the must-be lion slayer. In doing so he discovers his manhood and authority and falls in love  --whatever that may mean for him.
Max’s tale, the more complex and interesting of the two, involves locating a plant that holds significant beta-blockers that could be used in the treatment of heart disease.  The plant, discovered by gorillas that display its benefits is sent by a French woman studying the gorillas to a chemist at the pharmaceutical company that hires Max.
In a devil’s bargain, the French primatologist agrees to host Max in return for guards hired by the pharmaceutical company to protect the gorilla’s territory.   She does not, however, agree to help Max in her quest, nor does she believe Max will achieve her goal.
Complicating the situation at the research station is that the area is threatened by the Kutu, a band of drug-crazed young boys who kill for a warlord – and cannibalize those they kill. The Kutu are in the Congo, only tens of miles from the station. And getting nearer.
 Early on I start: Where’s the Maine connection? It’s just a place the protagonists come from  --- and could be Anywhere, Small town/city USA. Schulman could have blindly opened an atlas, stuck her finger to land in any state where there ‘s woods, farms and a high school. Because Maine is among my favorite places in the universe, I’m disappointed. No way to treat this great state.
            But if as a reader I get nothing about Maine, I get a full lesson in Asperger’s syndrome something I also know a few things about. (Disclosure: I lived in Maine for 40 or so years and worked in special education there from 2000 to 2008).
            When Max is first introduced to new colleagues at the station, one asks if she has a disease. No, Max replies, she has Asperger’s and another explains that it is not a disease but a “mild version of autism.”
 Max, like everybody else we are told, falls on what is called the Autism spectrum. Because Max is intelligent and employed, she would fall on the high end of the spectrum. However, my best guess is she would likely have been diagnosed as having High Functioning Autism rather than Asperger’s. (The difference, according to autism expert Temple Grandin is that those with High functioning Autism have language delays while those with Asperger’s do not. Max does.
No matter. Ours is not to diagnose.  Max is fictional. Whatever we call her condition, it is hardly “mild.”
Max flaps, sensory overloads, counts, avoids eye contact. She bangs her head against the wall, has narrow interests, and relates better to plants than people.
Many of the detailed sensory descriptions are both edifying and absorbing. Schulman’s language can be beautiful.  But….. the teachy quality of the writing also obtrudes. Max sometimes seems to be a walking-talking hanger draped with autistic traits  -- with a dash of Tourette’s.  She presents as case study turned character.
While those in the field likely would have been encouraged in special education jargon to use “person first” language -- that is Max is a person with Asperger’s as opposed to Max is an Aspie, -- Max self-identifies as an “Aspie,” that is with her symptoms rather than her humanity.
 “Aspie,”  however, is anachronistic. Schulman hedges on this issue:
“Two decades ago, when Max was growing up, not much was known about Asperger’s. Confused with psychosis, it had yet to be officially classified as a condition in the United States, much less have a standard treatment.”

Some history she leaves out: First described in the 1940s by the German Hans Asperger, a paper describing the syndrome that bears his name was not translated into English until 1991; the diagnosis subsequently entered the DSMIV in 1994 – just six years – and it took a while to be applied-- before this story takes place when the fictional Max was 20 or 21.  (I estimate Max’s age as 27 or 28 in 2000 given that she has completed postdoctoral studies.   So it’s likely Max would originally been diagnosed as autistic or something other than Asperger’s. Further, the more casual word “Aspie,” first appeared in print in 1999 and has become common only within the last decade.
Tiny points. (That’s what quibble means). Why care when the distinction is about to change again when the DSM is revised next with the diagnosis for Asperger’s eliminated altogether?
Why care when it seems Schulman gets so many of the autistic traits so right? I completely buy into Max’s high school sexual encounters, for example, even as I find her talking to a cucumber that she has covered in a condom a bit too cute.
I care less about the inconsistency than the probable reason for it – maintaining the book’s structure at the expense of accuracy. Because so much seems right, minor oddities stand out.  It’s as if a hostess with a sparklingly clean house has hidden dirty dishes hidden in the oven. Both what’s right and what’s not compromise Max’s authenticity.
  By contrast, I have no personal knowledge to get in the way of Jeremy’s story. I can’t even imagine what it might have been like to be a gay man in Bangor, Maine, let alone Rwanda, in 1899. And while I suspect Schulman can’t either, I let it go.
          Then there’s the niggling question of structure. In novels, I prefer structure that supports narrative, rather than narrative that supports structure. (Unless we're talking fables). Schulman has so neatly tied these stories to days and years to make an overarching thematic point comparing the centuries that she’s forced to stick with the years even when they don’t quite work.
            Nevertheless, the two hunts capture me.
I read on. Three quarters of the way through, I’m hooked. And surprised that I’m hooked. Max’s humanity both ironically and fittingly takes over once she’s among the gorillas.  She mimics them. She understands them. She cares about them – and so do I. Both the humans and the gorillas are threatened as the Kutu close in.  All my quibbling ends, tension builds, and I can’t wait to return to Max’s story each time I have to put it down.
I am still only mildly interested in Jeremy’s plight. And then in the final pages, the two stories find a way to connect, and I begin quibbling again. Too neat. 
            One way of thinking about those with Asperger’s is that they lack theory of mind; that is they don’t see that others think differently. Here, I know mine is a unique reading of Schulman’s book. I know others will not read it this way. Another way of thinking about those with autism is that they get so fixated on details, they can't see the big picture.  While I tend to be a big picture type, in this reading I (almost) got stuck  on details;  So, I’ve touch of Asparagus. That’s okay.
Asparagus is a vegetable I very much like.

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