Spectrum Order

Clip of Andreas Kieser’s forest map (1682) click to enlarge

What can an autistic perspective in novels show us about contemporary subjectivity?

Christopher Boone loves prime numbers and hates being touched. Oskar Schell has a hyperactive imagination. He won’t swear, but he will say, “Succotash my Balzac, dipshiitake.” The behavioral problems of Christopher and Oskar, the respective narrators and protagonists of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, are never explicitly labeled as autistic spectrum disorders,

In a brief statement, worth reading, Mark Haddon has written that “Curious Incident is not a novel about Asperger’s… If anything, it’s a novel about difference, about being an outsider.”
but it has been easy for readers to identify them in these terms. As much as both novels have relied on an existing public understanding of autism, they have each — supported by stage and screen adaptations — also helped to construct it. More than any other two books, these have encoded the autistic perspective into a literary trope with its own set of mechanisms and effects.

While both the novels have male protagonists, and males are about four times more likely to have autistic spectrum disorders than females, the most prominent autobiographies of autism have been by women: See Temple Grandin’s Emergence and Donna Williams’ Nobody Nowhere.
What distinguishes the autistic person is a difficulty gaining access to other people’s minds. He lacks the ability to reconstruct and predict thoughts, feelings, desires, and reactions. The neurologist Simon Baron-Cohen has called this “mindblindness.” Those who don’t suffer from this problem, on the other hand, unconsciously translate myriad physical and symbolic cues — subtext, allusion, tone, and all the elements of body language. In Baron-Cohen’s terms, we can read minds.

In order to perform this translation correctly, we rely on a background of knowledge and connections built up through experience. I won’t get your Simpsons reference if I don’t know The Simpsons, no matter how closely I watch your eye movements. On the other hand, I might know enough about The Simpsons to get your reference without actually having seen it, provided I had somewhere to get that knowledge and some capacity to store and access it. Reading minds isn’t something that happens between two people alone; it takes a society. In that respect, it’s more accurate to think of autism less as blindness to other individuals’ minds than as alienation from the vast fabric of rules and codes that blankets the social world.

The kind of knowledge Christopher and Oskar lack isn’t information — they both have plenty of that. It’s technique. And imagining that lack means we imagine its negative image as well: the subject-supposed-to-know, the person without autism, who can read minds through his or her far more complete grasp of the social world. In other words, we readers see things the narrator can’t, even though he is the one doing the description. It’s precisely this dramatic irony that drives the affect of the novels. The disparity in knowledge doesn’t just create distance between reader and narrator, it creates a kind of closeness, too.

Such relationships with characters makes us feel a little bit like parents. That is, they makes us feel the kind of care that comes with knowledge and power. We know what kind of chaos and hurt will ensue when Christopher turns up unexpectedly to live with his estranged mother and her lover, and just because he doesn’t, we hope it’ll turn out all right anyway. And at the same time that we root for Christopher and Oskar not to get hurt, we excuse the pain they cause to other people. They don’t know what they’re doing, so it’s not their fault.

In this way, novels of autistic perspective come to focus on the very social world that their narrators cannot see. We feel the awkward dynamics that swirl around Christopher and Oskar’s lives all the more intensely because they cannot be narrated directly. Reading a novel, of course, we always have to perform acts of decoding and mindreading. Normally the effort is as unconsciously second nature as it is in real life. But when we’re faced with a narrator who can’t share the task, we have to face our own power  — and its limits. What if we’re not so good at mindreading after all?

Both Curious Incident and Extremely Loud exploit this reversal of dramatic irony in a particular way, by asking us to wonder if Christopher and Oskar might actually be more socially capable than we are. Without being embedded in social rules and ways of thinking, Oskar has no reason not to talk to strangers and befriend them, no matter how marginalised they are. Christopher has no reason not to care as deeply about animal as about human suffering. They can speak more freely, see more clearly, and love more truly than we can. They lack the part of us that holds us back.

Neither novel really follows through on this gesture, though. While Oskar may talk to strangers,  we find out that all along his adventure had been scouted and sanitised, Emile-like, by his mum; and while Christopher does manage to go on an unsupervised journey, his own set of rules — formed of promises made to his father — keeps him from interacting with the world on the way. Both Haddon and Foer thus turn away from the radical critique of socialisation that their texts suggest. After all, the writers aren’t autistic themselves. They are responsible adults. In fact, they’re dads.

It’s no surprise that if any figure occupies the role of subject-supposed-to-know in these novels, it’s the father. In Curious Incident, Christopher’s father not only knows the truth about Wellington the dog, he also has a secret that will upturn his son’s sense of place in the world. For all the levels of his betrayal, though, it is he Christopher must return to and rely on in the end. In this way, the book enacts a plot cribbed straight from 18th century romance: the loss of innocence. Autism, it turns out, was a metaphor for our own emotional detachment from our fathers, and from all the power and authority that fatherhood synechdocally entails.

Extremely Loud sets up autism as metaphor in a slightly different and perhaps a deeper way. It too is centered on a mystery, but unlike the curious incident of the dog in the night time, this one is presented as inherently incomprehensible and therefore truly mysterious: the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. For Foer, 9/11 confronts us with the limits of our understanding of the forces at work in the world, our inability to construct or imagine a system that fits. His novel offers Oskar’s autism as a metaphor for the trauma, not so much of the event itself, but of the experience of ignorance and helplessness it was taken to engender.

This is just one instance of the trauma of modern consciousness: the curious incident of the death of God.

“Oskar Schell… collector of: rare coins, butterflies that died natural deaths, miniature cacti, Beatles memorabilia, semiprecious stones, and other things.” — Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Clues related to God’s prior existence are scattered abundantly through our world, but without him, we’re left at a loss. Like people with autism, we may have extremely well-developed skills of observation, but we lack a framework through which to interpret these clues. We’re trying to understand a system, just as Christopher understands prime numbers, but there might not even be one out there for us. The mystery-solving plots of both Curious Incident and Extremely Loud point to the way their metaphorical structures seek to engage with exactly this problem.

In Foer’s version, Oskar learns not only the truth about his family, but that his quest was never really what he thought it was. His agency was never as independent as he thought, his freedom was always already regulated and curtailed. More than that, he realizes — or rather, we do — that this very regulation is the signifier of his mother’s love, and by extension, of society’s capacity to care for and look after its constituents. Foer’s ironic gambit was to write a book about 9/11 that offers love, not hate, as the world’s structuring mystery, the modern substitute for God.

“Christopher look… Things can’t go on like this… You have to learn to trust me… And I don’t care how long it takes… If it’s a minute one day and two minutes the next and three minutes the next and it takes years I don’t care. Because this is important. This is more important than anything else.” — The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time
 For both Foer and Haddon, the vagaries of love are the best answers to the question, “Why is the world like it is?” This is also a way of saying that although the world is very sad, it is, in the end, good. To identify the role of love as the replacement for God is to identify it as the ideology that most powerfully justifies existing states of affairs. It can justify the lies that Christopher and Oskar’s parents tell them. In the same way, the established structures of power figure themselves as a loving and all-knowing parent; the individual — the reader — as the subject in need of care.

The loss-of-innocence plot, like the Bildungsroman, is a technology of socialization. Its effect is a coming-to-terms with life as it actually exists, however tragic — the absorption of the resistant individual into society. Oskar and Christopher, at the end of their respective novels, must continue their own lives under the same conditions and impairments as before. But it’s not really these protagonists who are the objects of socialization. The question of psychological development, within the neurological possibilities of autism, remains an open one for them. If the novel has succeeded, it’s the reader who’s changed, who has come to terms.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Camus’ The Outsider began, like Extremely Loud, with the death of a parent; but from there it went somewhere quite different. The protagonist Meursault’s abnormal emotional responses, leading him eventually to murder and imminent execution, were puzzling and disconcerting to readers. “’He’s a poor fool, an idiot,’ some people said; others, with greater insight, said, ‘He’s innocent.’ The meaning of this innocence,” Sartre wrote a few years later, “still remained to be understood.”

Meursault’s innocence is at least a metaphorical autism, a condition defined by its lack of a certain kind of knowledge, a technique of dealing with the social world. The difference is that while our 21st century novels dramatized its loss, Camus refused. The book left Meursault permanently innocent, which is to say, permanently alienated, a constant stranger to an indifferent world.


Tao Lin’s narrators are stuck somewhere similar if not quite the same, characterized as they are by lack of facility with the normal tools of social interpretation and interaction. Yet Lin’s novels don’t lack psychology. If anything, it’s the opposite. What his narrators do is what Christopher and Oskar do too: They observe, often in minute detail, and then systematically, laboriously, they translate. In fact, Paul — the protagonist of Taipei — is very good at reading body language at the micro-level:

Laura ordered a margarita, then sometimes turned her head 90 degrees, to her right, to stare outside — at the sidewalk, or the quiet street — with a self-consciously worried expression, seeming disoriented and shy in a distinct, uncommon manner indicating to Paul an underlying sensation of ‘total yet failing’ (as opposed to most people’s ‘partial and successful’) effort, in terms of the social interaction but, it would often affectingly seem, also generally, in terms of existing.

What Paul can’t or doesn’t do is instinctively fit these observations into the larger patterns that would act as working models of the minds of others. The difference is something like that between a quick, stylised sketch and a painstakingly accurate drawing. Paul is capable of forgetting, and then “realizing, with only a little sheepishness, that Maggie had her own desires, separate from those of anyone else, which she expressed through her actions.” This makes him both more and less attentive than the norm, as if he had forgotten to breathe and therefore emphatically re-learned that breathing is the most vital thing we do.

A lot of Paul’s behaviour corresponds with the tropes of autistic characters in fiction and in diagnostic literature: His aversion to eye contact and tendency to withdraw from social situations, or to remain isolated for long periods of time; his obsessive cataloguing (for example, of drugs he ingests); his pleasure in repetition. Mark Osteen has written that people on the autistic spectrum “resort to strategies of bricolage — echolalia, imitation, fixations — that enable them to build an identity from ramshackle assemblages of spare parts.” But don’t we all, to some degree? Lin’s project has worked to incorporate the mechanisms of the literary autistic perspective into a generic contemporary subjectivity.

If in Curious Incident and Extremely Loud the alienation of the autistic perspective was continually being countered by structures of loving protection, radiating out from family to society and the state, Taipei strips away this safety net. When a policeman lets Paul and an over-full car of his friends go without searching them for the drugs he’ll inevitably find, it’s not because the state is watching over them — just the opposite. They get off on random luck, on unpredictable individual whimsy. So too, the lives of Paul and his friends seem both undirected and uninhibited, uncontrolled from either within or without.

From the perspective of the subject, a world without system is no different from a world ruled by an incomprehensible one. The anxiety of autism — perhaps this was also Kafka’s anxiety — is to be continually maintaining both possibilities at the same time, the idea of an unknown that may be either knowable or unknowable. After a reading, Paul imagines the mind of a bookstore owner:

He remembered, or thought he remembered, seeing disappointment inside the owner’s eye — a faint off-coloring, like a woundless scar, a millimeter behind the cornea — which had seemed sad in a manner like his life… was a pure, omnipresent, concrete reminder… that he was the only entity building and embellishing and imperialistically expanding his own unhappiness.

This vision is the truth of the system-less world, which is also, of course, the liberal fantasy of complete and self-contained individual responsibility. But Paul has other kinds of visions too:

Maybe she would roll towards him, resting her arm across his back — they’d both be stomach-down, as if skydiving — in an unconscious or dream-integrated manner she wouldn’t remember, in the morning, when they’d wake in a kind of embrace and begin kissing, neither knowing who initiated, therefore brought together naturally, like plants that join at their roots.

Here is the world of unknown system, of mysterious force; and for Lin, in this case, it’s the opposite of a Kafkan nightmare. The impulse that animates Taipei, and I think all Lin’s writing, and perhaps a lot of writing, is a kind of forlorn hope for system, however much it may be unknown or even unknowable. This hope is the problem dramatized by the autistic perspective. It is also, of course, the impulse of a reader who wants to find something at work in a book, in all books — something perhaps mysterious, but something that might help them feel not further away from everything, but closer.