Autistic character well-illuminated

Do you think this is strange?

By Aaron Cully Drake

Brindle & Glass Publishing Ltd.

272pp; $17.95

Reviewed by Chris Ho

Told from the perspective of Freddy, a 17-year-old boy who struggles with autism, Aaron Cully Drake’s debut novel offers a unique narrative collage.

Vancouver-based writer/editor Drake has written for newspapers and magazines. He has a wife, a son, and an autistic daughter. Not surprisingly, the novel is dedicated to his daughter, with an inscription that reads: “For Natalie. How could it be any other way?”

Despite a certain degree of linearity, Cully doesn’t present his narrative in an orderly progression. Instead, just as Freddy’s thoughts and memories are scattered, each chapter is named after whatever thought or memory that Freddy is revisiting. In that sense, the overall collection creates a beautiful mosaic that gives the reader an overall impression of the main character, and his tendency to become stuck inside of his mind and disconnected from reality.

As Annie Dillard wrote in Living by fiction, “The use of narrative collage . . . enables a writer to recreate . . . a world shattered, and perhaps senseless, and certainly strange.” Do you think this is strange? is an illustration of the world in all its chaotic, imperfect glory: there isn’t always a reason for things, and tragedy is unavoidable.

Drake’s own sympathies and first-hand understanding of autism, I think, bring his already humorous prose and poignant dialogue to a new level. No matter how strange Freddy may be to the outside world – no matter how dissimilar his mind map may be from mine or yours – he is still one-hundred-percent believable and human. Freddy is not a stereotype or archetype of the autistic; he is a teenager who happens to be autistic. Freddy, is uniquely, just Freddy.

Drake’s approach allows the reader to think about or at least acknowledge some grey areas concerning the treatment of autism. For example, to what extent should autism be celebrated as a different, rather than stigmatized as a disability? And do public schools need to be more accommodating toward autism?

I also appreciate how Drake doesn’t attempt to answer these questions, or force-feed readers his own beliefs. He simply focuses on the story, and allows the deeper questions and themes to grow organically. Moreover, the main focus of the novel is at the heart of Freddy himself, and in the challenges he faces when trying to understand a world that seems foreign to him – a chaotic world that his overly analytical mind attempts to understand and rationalize.

Freddy’s unconventional friendship with his long-lost friend Saskia, who suffers from a different sort of autism, not only adds a unique romantic element to the story, but also illuminates Freddy’s narrative web and ignites a renewed understanding of his own life: There is a web between people. The strands are the bonds that they make with each other. The stronger the love for another, the stronger the bond and the stronger the thread.”

Do you think this is strange? is a worthwhile read. Its style is colloquial and, but it is also infused with just the right amount of poetic depth to give it authority as a truly heartwarming work of art.

Chris Ho is a Victoria-based musician and writer.