Sunday, April 19, 2015

Questioning Clay's Perspective (#Autism #Book Club Questions)

The Autism Book Club, run by TAG, selected Nothing is Right to be its April book club reading. The club, which is based out of Malaprop's Bookstore in Asheville, NC, is a neurodiversity-positive group that tries to read and critique from a neurodiversity-positive perspective.

As part of their discussion, the Autism Book Club sent me a list of questions to answer about the book. Since I was unable to travel down to meet with them at their gathering, I agreed to answer these questions on the blog, in the same way that I would answer them at a Q & A after a reading or during a class visit to discuss my books.

Today, I'm going to answer two questions, because they are very related to each other, and I just can't leave one alone if I start talking about the other one. You can read their first question, and my response, here. I have one more round of questions to answer from them after this one, and then Imaginary Friends will resume.

Q2: Some of us were interested in your comment in the afterward that Clay was an "unreliable narrator" – why did you call Clay an unreliable narrator? Do you want us to question Clay’s perspective? If so, in what way?

Q3: Are we meant to interpret the narration of Clay as a child as he was at that time, or through the lens of an adult narrator? (We all really loved the portrayal of Clay’s inner workings...but some readers admitted that they had difficulty with the idea that a child of that age had the depth of perceptions and insights Clay did, and we had a real split of opinion about whether or not we were supposed to think Clay had this amount of insight as a child, or if it were perhaps Clay as older narrator writing his earlier story.)

There are a few ways that Clay's story is delivered unreliably to the reader. The first, and most important because it answers both questions, is that it is disrupted by the third-person style I have chosen to write in. We are given a protracted look into the ways that Clay narrates his experience to himself, and I hold you at arm's-length the entire time, framing that experience from a location outside of his mind, even if it is a location that can view the inside. This omniscient vantage point creates an implied author scenario, where as a reader you can not ignore that you are deliberately engaging with a piece of art created by an artist.

This dissociation is very deliberate, because I wanted readers to understand that the vocabulary of the prose is not the vocabulary of the child in the prose. Similarly, the impressions and subtleties of feeling that Clay experiences should not be taken as being fully realized and assimilated into his mind in a verbal way. If you asked him how he felt, he would probably shrug, say "fine", start talking about LEGO, or do anything else that children do when they are not sure what answer will really please an adult onlooker. If he trusted you, which he wouldn't because he has learned not to trust the adults around him for reliable information, then he might answer "I really don't know" and become frustrated, because he would be trying to put them to words and not able to.

At the same time, though, his level of understanding of his own wants, needs, and obstacles to attaining them is every bit as sophisticated as the language in the prose shows. It's just that it is arrived at through a combination of these overpowering sensory/emotional disruptions, which are caused by the fact that Clay is thinking in symbols and patterns that are meaningful, but he does not have a language to translate them for other people, and other people are unaware that his thinking is done in these impressions and visualizations. They do not realize that hitting his head repeatedly into a mirror or a door is organizing the information, or that he is doing it so forcefully because the unorganized information causes him physical and auditory pain.

By creating a point-of-view for the book that forces the reader to be cognizant of its authorship, I hope to be able to call attention to that, and to the fact that no matter how artistically I render the prose, this is still a shadow puppet--the perceptions they are reading about can be represented verbally, but they can not be reproduced verbally. So this communication gap makes Clay naturally unreliable to readers, both allistic and autistic, because it introduces the doubt that they are actually properly re-translating these impressions from the verbal to their own native cognitive processing, whether that is auditory or visual or whatever else you use to think for yourself. And I wanted that doubt there.

Clay is not the narrator/implied author character, though. He is narrating things to himself, and we can see that, but the author/storyteller character is a version of me, and the way that cultural items gain significance and the way that Clay interprets them and uses them, the understandings he gains or does not gain when he has to rely on other children to educate him, all of that--that's the beginning of a deliberate argument I'm making throughout the books of the series, one that really begins to pick up steam in Imaginary Friends and the supporting discourse poetry I've written about what I'm doing. The implied author in my books should be understood as a stand-in for me as an artist. Like the personas that you see rock stars, rappers, and other performance artists create for their professional presentations, the rhetorical postures taken by my prose are nonliteral, performative, and meant to be persuasive in a nonlinear and demonstrative way.

The subversion of the text's narrative direction by this performed academic discourse creates more uncertainty for the reader, as their growing awareness of the oratorical nature of the story and the sub- and super-verbal processes of the social and cultural ideas that lie beneath the choices made (and their consequences, both real and value-laden) makes them question whether they are reading this for the point-of-view of an Autistic or for the argument about autism and what causes it to carry the combination of stigma and invisibility that it traditionally has. The reader must choose, in each moment they occupy the prose, whether they are observing the forward narrative and phenomenology or the patterns that are somehow nonverbal while still being made of text.

For most readers, this should create just enough cognitive dissonance that they find themselves unsure what kind of response they are expected to give the text. For myself, I read the texts in a way that is based on physical impressions, so I feel the space and the objects around me, or else I create abstracted tactile and emotional textures that interact with my language rhythmically, through both poetry and patterns of references to other ideas that share the same emotional texture. That is the reproduction of my own sensory reality that makes Clay semi-autobiographical, and in the narrative, I wanted to use the ability to render the third person omniscient to give the reader a glimpse of the phenomenology of thinking multiple kinds of thoughts in multiple sensory systems at once, and how the conversations between the patterns synaesthetically serves as both both a systemic conversation between multiple points-of-view and also a singular personality. And that will need to divide readers and confuse them a little, I think, because a lot of them (not all, but a lot) are bound to lack a theory for how they would navigate the world with that kind of mind. But at the same time, this demonstration is that theory. It's just shown instead of theorized in rambling academic jargon. So it is instructive, in its confusion.

So yes, Clay is deeply aware of all of these insights, including the insights about his failing to have the right insights. But no, he does not possess the language to talk about it. Instead he screams in his head and tries to bash out the horror of knowing all of this but not having any language to use to protect himself or correct the harm being caused him. So, the reader is left wondering if he really can understand, because they don't expect seven year olds to be that cognizant, and he doesn't ever say anything out loud to other characters to confirm he's actually that perceptive, and also he keeps hurting himself. And that, too, is why Clay's experience is semi-autobiogaphical for me.

There are other ways in which he serves as an unreliable narrator, too, though. He is still a seven-year-old. As advanced as his logic and his intuitive grasp of the world is, and as perceptive as he is, his brain is still mid-development. Some of the sensory confusion he experiences exacerbates this, too, because Clay's education about how people work has him thinking (like many people do) that thinking is like talking to yourself in your head. So, he only really regards himself as "thinking" when he is doing that. And when he starts to visualize his thoughts, and to render them in three-dimensional forms that he can imagine holding and working with, he does not realize that this is also thinking and that the environment he is creating is a way for him to process information and make decisions about it.

So, as a result, Clay's imagination and his experience of thinking in patterns that are in multiple senses at once becomes hallucinatory. And from one developmental angle, he appears to be profoundly lost inside something, because he is having trouble understanding that this is a tool, and that he needs to understand multiple kinds of languages that he uses with himself. Instead, when his emotions bend themselves into shapes to try to help him think analytically and his auditory channel attempts to understand that, he gets the scream. And later, the metal body.

These experiences are not inherently hallucinatory, though. Not any more than imagining yourself inside a giant empty LEGO fortress is necessarily hallucinatory. They become hallucinatory when you do not understand that you are the author of them, and when you can not intuit the purpose of them in your thoughts.

At that point, they become confused with other impressions from outside the body, and they interfere with both rational thinking and with control over the body. And this makes the decisions, however well-rationalized by the child, based on an unreliable interpretation of the world. The unreliability is not because Clay is autistic, though. The unreliability is because he has a child's brain development, and a child's progressively refined ability to understand the impressions, emotions, and language used to explain them. On top of that, though, he is being taught to use the wrong language and the wrong ideas about how people learn and navigate the world, because what guidance he receives is designed for people who do not need to filter the information and coordinate it in the way he does.

Computer programmers will recognize this as a Garbage In/Garbage Out scenario. Clay's narrative and choices are unreliable, or some might say "incompetent", because they do not align with the expectations of the people around him, but their expectations do not align with the reality of the way the world works for Clay either. Yet only one of them is being expected to change, so when the outside world becomes intractably difficult for Clay to manage and he starts to break down, the dissonance between his deep feelings and understanding of his situation and the reactions given him deepens. This makes him more unreliable, though, because his emotions are motivating him to draw conclusions about malice and intent as a warning about patterns of behavior he can not change in other people, but he does not realize that his emotions are contributing to a thinking process, and like a child, he reacts with fear and the tools he has available, and he protects himself. But this sets into motion choices and more behaviors which further deepen the communication divide.

Before anyone insists that this means I am blaming Clay for the difficulties he encounters, let me say this: Whether he is "reliable" or "unreliable", whether he is right about his parents being damaging (and he is), or whatever other things he does that bring trouble down on him, Clay is not responsible for his problems. Clay is a fucking child, and as such, his social environment, education, moral development, personal comfort, and awareness of boundaries are all totally dictated by the world around him. He is an agent who can not effect change for himself, as all very young children are, due to the shape of the society that defines his place and that places those expectations on him. So, while I might be describing a very complex theory for how Clay's reactions are motivated, I am not placing moral responsibility on him. Instead, I am saying that Clay might be more mature and have these skills and be better equipped to communicate and to advocate for himself if his development and his education actually matched up with each other.

Finally, Clay is an unreliable narrator in the same way that all children must be: Because his vantage point for the world is limited to the information he picks up when adults are not aware he can listen and when they think that he can not understand. As such, he might correctly intuit that they mean for something to happen or that they are making decisions for him, but he is deprived of the context and depth of the conversation by his role, so the information that he is having trouble processing productively is also fragmented and partial, and that also reduces his success at lining up his choices and expectations for the results of those choices with the expectations that other people have of him.

To sum it all up: Clay is unreliable because there is no such thing as a reliable narrator, not in any really objective sense. There are simply more-reliable and less-reliable narrators, ones whose perceptions line up with the expectations others have to a high enough degree that the discrepancies go unnoticed and those who don't. And Clay is an Autistic author's way of calling attention to why and how that happens, so the question of his reliability has to come up in the reader's mind constantly. So I made sure to mention it, to make sure it would.

Nothing is Right is available from and other online retailers. Defiant will release June 9 with Autonomous Press, and features a look at Clay Dillon as a recently diagnosed, married 30-year-old. You can read more on the publisher's site.