look me in the eye (Review #20!)

Look me in the Eye
By John Elder Robison

When I first stared learning to write fiction, I was totally enamored with the topic of “voice.” The subject never came up in any of my high school classes nor did I come across in any of my reading. But, in my freshman workshop class all you had to do was comment on the author’s voice, and every one would perk up in their seats. This was going to be a discussion for “real” writers. Things like plot and character were left by the wayside. We wanted to be a part of the crowd; we wanted our own voices. After a few to many workshops started with helpful critiques of plot and pace dissolved in to wishy-washy voice conversations, I moved on to other things. And even now I like to avoid any mention of an author’s voice.
I’m still a believer. I still think that all readers connect with the written word in ways that can be illusive and frustrating in their indescribability. So – here we go, voice. I’ve got to say that the voice in this book…well, it’s kinda strange (I don’t have a better adjective for you, sorry). It’s removed from the text and the memoir reads more like a textbook, even though the subject is incredibly personal. That’s not to say it isn’t well written. John Elder Robison has a great feel for a story, and his imagination has created a few memorable metaphors. But to read the memoir of a great prankster (and there are some seriously genius pranks in there) and not be laughing out loud…is well….odd. I could understand how he’s funny, but he’s not funny. Even in tender moments in the story, the author isn’t there.
However off-putting the voice, the book is a fascinating look into the world of someone with Asperger’s syndrome. He’s given awesome descriptions of how his mind works, and how he developed coping skills from going through life undiagnosed. (He wasn’t diagnosed until the age of 40 when he had a kid+wife). His description of naming things, and how he learned to relate to others in casual conversation opened my eyes to a skill that I thought everyone possessed to some degree. John…he’s got zip. No clue how to start and glide through everyday conversation. Here’s an excerpt (a bit on the long side):

I’m a very logical guy. Psychologists say that’s an Aspergian trait. This can lead to trouble in common social situations, because ordinary conversation doesn’t always proceed logically. In an effort to improve my own interpersonal skills, I have studied computer programs that engage in conversation with people. The best programs follow logical pathways to arrive at suitable responses. The results, however, don’t always sound natural, and I am not sure that I do much better than the machines. ….
I don’t ask about “the wife” because when my friend walks up to me I’m interested in talking to him, and the condition or status of his wife does not enter my mind. More specifically, his appearance does not give me reason to wonder about his wife’s well being. If he’s a good friend, I assume (probably correctly) that any major change in his wife or son’s status would precipitate some kind of notification to me and his other friends. So why ask?
As to the weight…if he looks bigger I’d say, “You seem fatter than the last time I saw you.” I’ve learned by life experience that people get fatter for any number of reason, most of which are benign. I am aware that people may not like having their deficiencies – increased bulk, for instance – pointed out. But my mouth may spit out, “You look fatter!” before my brain concludes, It would be rude to say he looks fatter!

This book is well-organized, straight forward, fascinating, and deserves all the attention it can get. Just don’t be thrown by the strangeness. His work can be just as moving, if you step away from the page.


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