Tuesday, October 11, 2005

A Wild Ride Up the Cupboards

I recently read, and loved, this essay by Ann Bauer in which she recounts the story of a roadtrip to Fargo with her teenage son, who has autism. The essay prompted me to buy Bauer's first novel, A Wild Ride Up the Cupboards, which tells the story of a woman who (like Bauer) has three children, the oldest of whom begins developing the symptoms of autism when he is about four years old. In Finding Fargo, Bauer writes that the characters in the novels have similarities to her family, but are not her family. Therein, I believe, lies the problem.

I really wish that Bauer had written a memoir. In one short essay, she captures so many moments that I recognize instantly - despite the fact that my autism journey has just begun and she is the second decade of hers. The novel, however, did not have that same resonance for me. I enjoyed it and it held my attention, but I did not recognize it. There is one plot point in particular - one very critical plot point upon which the novel turns - that simply seems artificial. I believe that Bauer used it as a vehicle to demonstrate the level of desperation that her characters felt; I understand the desperation, but I just think it was the wrong vehicle. On the other hand, I have to consider the possibility that this very artifical-feeling plot point is one that is a direct lift from Bauer's life. I reflect on the times in my own life when I've thought, "if this all happened in a movie I'd think it was far-fetched and unrealistic." Life - and life with autism - can be like that.

Bauer also uses a sub-plot that explores her main character's family history and the potential autism connections that may have been floating in the gene pool. Though both very engaging, the sub-plot and the main plot never quite come together. They continue to float, in search of a connection that is never really made.

Perhaps that makes the novel itself a good metaphor for autism and parenting. We parents, driven by love and consumed with the mission to heal our children and create a safe haven for them in the world, search, seek, dig, divine, suppose, consider, react... and, in the process, travel a good many paths that lead to, as Bauer's character with autism dubs a stretch of road he's travelled, "the Nowhere Place." And - when we're lucky - along the way, there are moments of clarity, moments of insight, moments of magic.


Susan Senator said...

I like what you say here. You may be interested in my book, my son is nearly 16 but our wild ride continues. We had a wonderful day today, and then suddenly -- because I changed the plan too quickly -- he became aggressive. But we're okay now.

Ann Bauer said...

I ran across this posting today and wanted to say I appreciate everything you said--and the very thoughtful way in which you wrote about my work. I've wrestled myself with all the issues you raised and I continue to look at Wild Ride critically. In answer to your questions, I began by writing a memoir but was told the work was unsaleable for several reasons, primary among them the abundance of autism memoirs (some fine ones but many truly bad ones). Ultimately, I decided to write a novel because I wanted the experience of the narrator to be accessible to everyone. And in the end, this seems to have been a successful strategy: people write every day to say "I don't have an autistic person in my life, and yet I understood Rachel so well." The last was the mother of a drug-addicted teenage son.
I am sorry if the book does not touch parents of kids with autism as effectively as my nonfiction. And I continue to think about that. . . .
Thanks for your words.