Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Ever So Much More So

In a children's book about Homer Price, there was a sort of "Emperor's new clothes" thing called "ever so much more so" that made things, well, you know. It's a phrase I think of when I or one of my kids gets wound up, or when anything is bigger and louder than I was expecting. I thought of the phrase when I read Toni Jordan's brand-new first novel entitled Addition, because it's about a woman who counts. Sometimes the counting is interesting, sometimes it seems harmless, and then sometimes it's absolutely incapacitating, like when she misses a date because of her compulsion to count each individual bristle in her toothbrush (the number is over a thousand).

This is an unlikely book for me to enjoy, on one level. I'm not a counter. But I am fascinated by counting--the first time I noticed someone's counting was the first time I went grocery shopping with Ron, in college, and he gave me a running total as I put each item into the cart. He counts cars on a train as it goes past. He used to say that when he got to heaven, he expected to know how many steps he'd taken in his entire life. And his son is cut from the same cloth. When Walker was about two, he would read me the numbers on advertisements (and since I read the letters and often ignored the numbers, we didn't always realize we were looking at the same sign). When he was four, he took one look at a carousel and told me how many horses it had on it. By the time he was seven, he no longer took my estimations as truth, saying in a voice dripping with scorn "Mom, you're ROUNDING!"

So I wasn't sure how to react to a novel titled Addition with the first line "It all counts." I started being amused by it when the protagonist, Grace, is thinking about her hero, Nikola Tesla, and thinks about how she would describe herself to him:
"My name is Grace Lisa Vandenburg....I am 35 years old. My mother, Marjorie Anne, is 70 and my sister, Jill Stella, is 33. Jill is married to Harry Venables; he's 40 on the second of May. They have 3 children: Harry Junior is 11, Hilary is 10 and Bethany is 6. My father's name was James Clay Vandenburg and he died. I am a teacher, although I'm not working now. I was in love when I was 21. He was funny and clever and wanted to be a filmmaker. His name was Chris and he looked a bit like Nick Cave. I lost my virginity in his car outside my mother's house. It took 4 months before I realized he was also sleeping with his flatmate. I don't like coriander. I don't understand interpretive dance. I don't like realist paintings. Lycra makes me look fat."
The random quality of the list reminds me of the Facebook meme "25 things."

But I didn't really start identifying with Grace until she meets a man named Seamus and starts thinking about going on a date with him:
"My last date was 2 years 6 months ago with that idiot Simon, some friend of Harry's. Jill organized it. I thought Jill said he was a Swiss baker. Interesting, I thought. Loaves with 17 different kinds of seeds. Intricate little pastries filled with chocolate. Secret recipes passed through generations of yodeling fathers and sons. All night I worried about how he would get to work by 3 A.M. to start the yeast fermenting if he kept drinking like that. By the time I realized he was a Swiss banker I was so bored I had almost lost the will to live."
Grace is funny and smart and quirky, a good conversationalist who can show someone into her apartment saying "This is it....My lair. It's here I hatch my plans for world domination. I'm saving for a white Persian and a monocle."

So it's painful to see Grace awaken on the morning of her niece's recital, one she really wants to attend with Seamus, even though it's always a bit of an effort for her to do something outside her usual routine, "panting and sweating," thinking "I've been counting things in my mind, but not with my hands. I don't really know how many books I have, or spoons or hairpins. I feel dizzy and there is a pain in my chest that radiates down my left arm. The 5 digits of my left hand are tingly. All this time I've never thought about it. What if the answers are different? What if the numbers that come from minds are different from the numbers that come from hands? It's our digits that dictate the numbers, not obscure processes in our minds that can't even be seen." And it's a relief to see Seamus come for her at the appointed time and make her a list with numbers, telling her "you've got 10 minutes to pack the kitchen. Then you need to get ready, but you must time yourself according to the numbers I've written down here." With that kind of help, Grace is able to get ready and go to the recital. But the experience convinces her that she needs to try therapy and drugs again. She works with the psychiatrist and the occupational therapist, even though she is put in a group with obsessive compulsives who worry about germs (Grace calls them the Germphobics) and the therapist is one of those cheery, well-meaning health-care workers who chirp vacuous phrases at you the entire time you do what has been assigned. The medication gives Grace "the weirdest sensation of having two brains--one in charge of abstract thoughts and concepts and the other in charge of my body."

As the medication and therapy begin to work, Grace becomes less like herself, less picky about food, less interesting and intelligent, virtually humorless, glued to the television all day, and with a nonexistent sex drive. It takes throwing Seamus out of her apartment, vigorously resisting the suggestion that her mother be moved to a nursing home, and trying to re-establish a connection with her niece to wake Grace from her medicated state. For the reader, this is a considerable relief. Like the niece, we've missed Grace. Her personality, her humor, everything that makes her unique has been siphoned off so she can feel more "normal." But when she calls to cancel her therapy, she says that she's learned that "life is like a bunch of flowers....A mixed bunch....When the rose is full and red, the carnation is beginning to open. When the petals of the lily are shriveling and dropping that annoying orange dust all over the hall table, the gerbera is still perfect. Often because it has a wire stuck up its stem."

The novel's resolution is set up when, during a conversation with her niece, Grace says that the story of Nikola Tesla is the "story of the power and the burden of someone who thinks differently from the rest of us" and says that he wasn't "average," a word that her sister once used to describe Seamus. Her niece points out that "average doesn't mean normal. The average means you divide the total of something by the number of things in it. So the average can actually be unique." Grace decides to forgive Seamus, and when she sees him again, he explains that he wanted to make her happy, not "normal". He says he did come around and call after she threw him out and she responds "Only 23 times....Quitter."

With Seamus, Grace discovers she likes football (since the story is set in Melbourne, this means soccer) because "It's all about numbers: touches, handballs, kicks, marks, percentage. And each player has a number on his back!" At the end of the novel, with the help of Seamus and her niece, Grace has become "ever so much more so" herself, able to vary her routine even when it makes her anxious. Grace can go to the food court at the mall, and says that when her niece notices "my eyes shut or my breathing become shallow, she speaks soft words in my ear about courage and triumph and how proud she is of her aunt." The resolution of this novel reminds me of another Australian story, the part in Crocodile Dundee where the New Yorker tells him her friends are "in therapy" and he responds "haven't they got any mates?" Addition is not telling anyone with OCD to go off the medication. It is showing how, with mates, such a thing is possible for a person who wants to spend any time in public.

This is another in the recent lineup of novels about people who don't think the way others do, and my favorite so far, mostly for the portrayal of Francine, the chirpy occupational therapist. Anyone who has any acquaintance with a person who has had to get help from mental health professionals will recognize the quandry Grace is in, trying to cooperate with and be nice to a woman who means well but is not anywhere near as intelligent as the person she's trying to help.

I also enjoyed reading this novel in the wake of reading about a recent diagnosis of autism. Like Grace, this blogger has an enviable sense of perspective:

Kids with autism have an incredibly wide range of symptoms. Here’s where we’re lucky: Hen has the speech delay, obviously, but not the digestive issues, the seizures, the bad tantrums, or the obsessive stim behaviours. In general, he’s a quiet kid with a knack for puzzles and perfect toilet skills – extremely thinky, and not too emotional, but more like a little Spock than, say, Rain Man. There’s every reason to hope that he’ll be able to outgrown the autism label, if not the condition itself, and go on to have a regular life. Regular like a Vulcan, anyway.

As readers continue to reassess what "regular" or "normal" means with regard to human personality, I think more novels in which we can identify with someone "other" will help broaden the way we're able to see. And the more we can see, the more we can know. Like Rikki-Tikki-Tavi (and my new kitten), we should all "run and find out" more.


greeneyedsiren said...

Thanks for letting us know about this book--sounds like it's worthwhile. I love stories that take us into minds that are wired so differently.

Mark said...

Sounds like you'd enjoy Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain which was written in 2007. As the title clues, it is about how people process (and express) music differently. And there are some extraordinary stories in this book.

Jeanne said...

Mark, I read several by Oliver Sacks in the 80s, but nothing since then; this new one does sound interesting.