09 October, 2010

Translucent characters

Recently I was reading a story I'd been assigned for class. The story was about a man who had recently experienced trauma and had begun thinking and behaving differently as a result. In one scene, the man badly cuts himself while making dinner for himself and his wife, and starts kind of stimming out on the visual experience of it (I'm trying to describe this in a way that's not triggering). The wife comes home and the man tells her not to worry because dinner isn't ruined; it will just be late. The fact that he got cut won't mess up their evening. His wife is very upset, apparently by his overly calm and spaced-out reaction to his injury. The story is in close third person, so the narration is echoing the man's thoughts and feelings about his injury.

I liked this story; I liked the man, and I enjoyed the tension between his cheerful feelings and what I understood (that his wife was upset by his behavior). However, I realized that this kind of dramatic irony could almost be seen as belonging to a particular way of writing about characters with disabilities and illnesses that affect their reactions and perception.

I admit that my super intense dislike of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is a little bit unfair. My biggest problem with it is the way people react to it and think that they've become educated about autism by reading it, and I know that Mark Haddon didn't intend for that to happen and even resents it when the book is framed that way. However, it occurred to me that I have another complaint: part of what makes the book respected is this use of disability for dramatic irony. The blurb of the book says, "[H]erein lies the key to the brilliance of Mark Haddon’s choice of narrator: The most wrenching of emotional moments are chronicled by a boy who cannot fathom emotion."

I don't really think that ASD people can't fathom emotion, and despite my problems with the book I think that Christopher actually does have emotions and has some awareness of other people's emotions. So first off the person who wrote the blurb is just describing what they think autism is, not what the character of Christopher is actually like. But never mind.

The point is that this is the whole dramatic irony thing where the author and the reader are sort of treating Christopher like a wall that they can pass secret messages through. Christopher doesn't understand why his dad is so emotionally unstable, but we (the reader) are supposed to. There's also the scene where Christopher throws up because he's upset but he doesn't actually say he's upset (if I remember correctly). And so on. Lots of emotions happen, and Christopher either doesn't get what is going on, or chooses not to state what is being felt. From what I recall of his character, I think it's arguable that Christopher is aware of at least his own emotions, but chooses not to describe them because he doesn't want to. However, this isn't how the person who wrote the blurb takes it, and the same is true for many many people who write reviews of the book.

The idea is that it's clever/poignant to see emotions through the eyes of a character who doesn't seem to notice them. This is one type of Translucent Disabled Character Irony. Another type is humor; as one review says, "Though Christopher insists, 'This will not be a funny book. I cannot tell jokes because I do not understand them,' the novel brims with touching, ironic humor." There are passages in the book that Haddon sets up to contain information that is supposed to be unintentionally funny. For example, Christopher might write that he said something baldly offensive, and then write that his school aide or his father told him to be careful who he says that to.

The third type of Translucent Disabled Character Irony is about disability itself. An example is the story I read about the traumatized man. The man thought that he was behaving normally, but the reader could tell that he wasn't. Through the act of reading the story, the reader learns about the point-of-view character's disability, even though the character either thinks they are not disabled, or does not realize they are giving away their disability through their narration or their thoughts. This is the kind of TDCI that bothers me the most, although it's also the kind that readers seem to think is the most clever.

I guess that the first two kinds of TDCI--emotion and humor--are also about disability at the same time, since the fact that the TDC doesn't understand the emotion or humor also allows the reader to pick up on the TDC's disability.

Now, I'm obviously not trying to say that I think Translucent Disabled Character Irony is inherently wrong. Translucent Character Irony is a very striking and effective device (Translucent Child Character Irony is very common, and although it can be really troped and annoying, it can also be fun). There are probably at least a few touches of Translucent Character Irony in any work of fiction worth reading that is in first person or close third person--if there aren't, then the main character should probably be diagnosed as a Mary Sue for being so ridiculously clever and aware of everything. Everyone has a different point of view; everyone is so locked into their own experience that they sometimes don't notice how other people are feeling, how they differ from other people, the fact that a situation they're experiencing as serious is actually kind of funny. Having a reader pick up on things the point-of-view character doesn't is probably a sign of good writing.

But I do think there's a point where it is happening too much. Rather than being something that happens occasionally, Translucent Character Irony can become almost the defining feature of the work (as in The Curious Incident)--and this isn't a bad writing decision per se, but I think it's a very common way of writing about people with developmental disabilities and certain mental illnesses. If you keep writing about a minority group in the same way, it becomes offensive. Especially because it's kind of patronizing and othering.

It promotes a tendency to think "oh, how interesting" when encountering a disabled person; to observe someone instead of listening to their words; or even to see the content of what they are saying as being important only because of the insight it provides into their disability. I think there's lots of interesting fiction to be written about people with DDs and mental illnesses, and ASD in particular, but I think that it doesn't have to be fiction where the reader is so detached from the disabled/ill character and is observing their strangeness. A story about such a character can be interesting, and even be disability-centric if you want, without being ironic at the character's expense.

(This is one reason I love The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo--there are very few times when Stieg Larsson is conversing with the reader over Lisbeth's head. Sometimes Lisbeth has thoughts and reactions that most readers probably wouldn't share, but it doesn't come off as TDCI for some reason, maybe because Lisbeth picks up on so many things.)


  1. Man, that comment you linked to was painful to read. It's like she thinks Norah is an animal or something.

  2. Yeah, she (Penelope Trunk) later realized she had ASD and wrote a bunch of dumb things about it. But of course that doesn't really matter, it just matters that she thought she was the normal/correct person in that interaction. And it just really grosses me out--"read all of her comments carefully because they're very typical of a person with Asperger's," blargh.

  3. This is a good post; I like your idea of Translucent Character Dramatic Irony. That's a *great* name for what's going on in Curious Incident (which I actually really liked, and felt like I could relate to Christopher, but whatever; I can also understand other people's reasons for being annoyed with the book).

    There was also a book published just recently that's a good example of Translucent (Child) Character Dramatic Irony: Room by Emma Donoghue.

    Anyway, I'm totally with you on Translucent Character Dramatic Irony not being inherently bad, or inherently patronizing to people who resemble the translucent character --- but when people like you seem *only* to appear in fiction as translucent characters, then it's definitely time to wonder whether people see us as fully human.

    (And I also loved Lisbeth in Dragon Tattoo and sequels, for lots of reasons including the fact that she's a very nonstereotypical autistic character. Plus her autism is not the focus of the story at all --- it gets alluded to, but then ignored as irrelevant to the story. Which it is.)

  4. I like the term "translucent character" for that. I may start using it.

    ...Sometimes, though, I think I end up reading books really differently from most people because I don't understand (at least at first) that a character's behavior is supposed to be pathological or even just weird. Not because I'm Just That Dense about social norms or subtext, I don't think, but because the character's thought processes make so much sense to me that the thought doesn't occur that I should question them.

  5. Lindsay I actually feel like I need to read The Curious Incident again just because my relationship to it is so bogged down in people's dumb reactions. I mean, the more I think about it the more I wonder if some of the things people say about the character of Christopher are just not actually in the text. Like that he doesn't feel sad that the dog dies, etc. I'm not sure that's true.

    I have a really good impression from what I've heard of Mark Haddon's movie Coming Down the Mountain, which is about a teenage boy who resents his brother who has Down Syndrome. Apparently it starts out kind of standard but as the story develops we see the complexity of the brother with Down Syndrome, and the two of them become closer, etc. When I read about Coming Down the Mountain I thought that maybe my vendetta against Haddon wasn't very fair.

    (The Sound and the Fury by Faulkner is one of my favorite books, and it has one narrator who's nonverbal and severely/profoundly DD. And I think people talking about the book will always make these statements about the character's knowledge/abilities--"he doesn't understand the nature of time"--that I just don't think are borne out by the text.)