Five Flavors of Dumb is a contemporary YA, which as I said below is not a category to which I usually give a second look. In Five Flavors, the protagonist, Piper, makes herself into the manager for a wannabe band (Dumb). Adding an ironic twist to this aspect of the plot, Piper is deaf.
I haven’t read this book yet, but it’s on my To Be Read pile (now down to only 50 books! It’s rare I whittle the pile down that far.).
It’s Ana’s review (linked below) which caught me, and the one line of the Kirkus review Ana quoted: It’s not that Piper is a Great Deaf Character, but that Piper is a great character who is deaf. I’m instantly hooked: What can Piper and her family show me about the world of the deaf? I don’t want to be preached at by a Great Deaf Character, but I’m interested in Piper and her world.
It’s rare for a genre author to hand a protagonist a real handicap, a disability in the sense we usually mean the term today. There’s Piper, and another who springs to mind is Miles Vorkosigan, who isn’t merely short (not quite five feet, I think), but also has brittle bones that break at the least little thing — as I’m sure you know. (You haven’t read Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan books? Well, run, don’t walk, to your nearest computer or bookstore and buy them all, this minute.)
Even rarer is a protagonist whose disability is mental rather than physical, and here I can think of a couple, but the one I’m thinking of *particularly* is Lou Arrendale, in Elizabeth Moon’s incomparable The Speed of Dark.
If you’re thinking of Elizabeth Moon as the author of the Paksenarrion books plus quite a lot of space opera, well, yes. Also no.
It’s not that The Speed of Dark defines Moon as a writer — it’s quite a departure. But this one is just a masterpiece. It won the Nebula, which it richly deserved because it is truly one of the great books of the decade.
Lou Arrendale is an autistic person, see, inhabiting a very near-future world, and there’s an incredible feeling of authenticity to his first-person narrative. Moon does such an awesome job capturing his point of view — sort of sideways to the rest of us. Here’s a sample passage:
“The floor in the hall is tile, each tile treaked with two shades of green on beige. The tiles are twelve-inch squares; the hall is five squares wide and forty-five and a half squares long. The person who laid the tiles laid them so that the streaks are crosswise to each other — each tile is laid so that the streaks are facing ninety degrees to the tile next to it. Most of the tiles are laid in one of two ways, but eight of them are laid upside down to the other tiles in the same orientation.
I like to look at this hall and think about having those eight tiles. What pattern could be completed by having those eight tiles laid in reverse? So far I have come up with three possible patterns. I tried to tell Tom about it once, but he was not able to see the pattern in his head the way I can . . .
I look for the places where the line between the tiles can go up the wall and over the ceiling and back around without stopping. There is one place in this hall where the line almost makes it, but not quite. I used to think if the hall were twice as long there would be two places, but that’s not how it works. When I really look at it, I can tell that the hall would have to be five and a third times as long for all the lines to match exactly twice.”
There’s also this delightful bit:
“The next page [of the book] has the title, the authors’ names — Betsy R Cego and Malcolm R Clinton. I wonder if the R stands for the same middle name in both and if that is why they wrote the book together.”
I laughed out loud! What a perfect tidbit to show how differently Lou interprets normal trivial details he encounters.
Now, that kind of thing is like reading an alien’s point of view, and actually it’s also like reading Gillian Bradshaw’s The Sand Reckoner, where Archimedes is the main character and keep drifting off on mathematical tangents (it’s a great book!). Writing really good aliens is certainly a challenge and so is writing geniuses. I certainly did tons of research on materials science when writing my genius-protagonist, Tehre Amnachudran (The Griffin Mage, Book II). And actually, Lou is kind of a genius with some kinds of math, so Moon is doing several hard things at the same time.
But what she does is more than that. Both harder and more meaningful. Moon really brings the reader into the emotional and philosophical world of her autistic protagonist.
For example, though an important secondary character has a grudge against Lou, Lou has enormous trouble first perceiving and then acknowledging that the man is not is friend:
“When I think of the people who know my car by sight and then the people who know where I go on Wednesday nights, the possibilities contract. The evidence sucks in to a point, dragging along a name. It is an impossible name. It is a friend’s name. Friends do not break the windshields of friends. And he has no reason to be angry with me, even if he is angry with Tom and Lucia.”
Every stylistic choice Moon makes as a writer — choices of sentence length and structure, of Lou’s diction and for that matter the diction of all the autistic character, of using first person for Lou’s point of view and third for occasional dips into other character’s points of view — are so perfect for the story. Check out the style here, for example:
“I want to go home now,” Eric says. Dr. Fornum would want me to ask if he is upset. I know he is not upset. If he goes home now he will see his favorite TV program. We say goodbye because we are in public and we all know you are supposed to say goodbye in public.”
And behind all those stylistic details, Moon also addresses all these big questions — about what ‘normal’ is and about the difference between what we conventionally pretend normal people do and feel vs. what normal people *really* do and feel; about what we consider appropriate behavior for ourselves vs. what we think is appropriate behavior from others — the whole idea of the double standard re-interpreted through the lens of autism. The Speed of Dark is really about identity and about the degree to which we choose who we are.
As Kirkus said about Piper in Five Flavors of Dumb, it’s not that Lou Arrendale is a Great Autistic Character. He’s a great character who is autistic.
The Speed of Dark is a beautiful book. Honestly, when I took it off the shelf, I meant to just look up one or two passages, but I re-read the whole thing instead. I loved it the first time and now I love it even more. Plus, having written a good handful of books of my own, I can now really appreciate the skill as well as the passion that went into a novel that should, if the fates are just, be a classic for the ages.