A Kaleidoscope All Around Us: Bacchus Wynd by Catherine Edmunds
Reviewed by Rebecca Foust
Named for the cafe that sets the stage for many scenes in the novel, Bacchus Wynd. bases its narrative structure on a plot device popularized by the1950 Japanese film, Rashomon, in which four characters give contradictory accounts of the same event. Depending upon who is telling the story in that film, a Samurai's death is attributed variously to murder, death by duel and suicide, and his wife is either raped or willingly seduced by a bandit they encounter. The device can also portray characters who, rather than telling outright lies, simply perceive or remember the facts differently. In stories using this device, all narrators are by definition unreliable.
Instead of the traditional four, this book presents seven points of view, one for each member of a group of friends who meet regularly for coffee at a café on Bacchus Wynd. Street, located somewhere in the UK. In each of its three parts, the book returns to the café, in 45 chapters each named after a character and related strictly from that character's (limited third person) point of view. The main players Emma, John, Renée, Toby, and Evan are allotted from 7 to 9 chapters apiece while lesser characters Sylvie and Felicity narrate 3 and 4 chapters. Even though Emma and John open and close the book and receive the most page real estate, I finished reading with the feeling that I knew Toby best.
A young man in his early twenties, Toby has Asperger's Syndrome. His twin brother, Sam (who never appears except in other character's descriptions ) has more profound Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), being nonverbal and subject to rages and self-harming behaviors. Their sympathetically if not deeply drawn single mother, Sylvie struggles to do her best by both sons. Evan, formerly the boys' psychologist and now a family friend, is a decent sort—kind, a bit bumbling, and pretty much willing to love anyone who loves him back—and his affection for Toby feels genuine. A manther in his forties, John is an intellectual snob disdainful of and obsessed with controlling others, especially his very young girlfriend, Emma. Renée embodies wit, sophistication, mature sensuality, and the proverbial whore's heart of gold. She and John are on a par intellectually and once enjoyed a brief, sizzling one-night stand, but John lacks the humor, heart and tolerance that make Renée the more likable character. Emma is a stock ingénue, ruled by her heart (dreaming of being "woken by a kiss from a handsome prince") and hormones ("what would it be like to feel those lips on hers") like a love-loopy teenager (31, 6). Felicity is a gold-digger who adds spice and humor to a subplot enlisting her scheming efforts to get her hands on John's antique furniture business.
Bacchus Wynd. opens with a conversation at a café, told first from Emma's point of view then reported in subsequent chapters by John, Renée, Toby and Evan. This device repeats in other settings—an art museum, a trip to the beach, a walk in a park—before the book comes to its conclusion, back at the café.
Each character's constant preoccupation is romantic or sexual pursuit of another character; everyone has a crush on someone else and endures frustration in failed attempts to get together. Emma and John are already in a long term relationship, but Emma has a crush on Toby, who wants only Renée, who at first seems interested only in John. John loves Emma but has residual feelings for Renée. Evan carries half-lit torch for Emma, oblivious to him except as a sympathetic ear to her mooning over Toby. Toby has no feelings for Emma beyond an appreciation for how the light looks on her hair. Felicity pursues men for their money. She and Renée were boarding school chums, a history that resolves the subplot when Renée exposes Felicity as a grifter trying to scam John.
The characters yearn for one another, come together in various combinations, and in the end get sorted: John with Emma, Renée with Toby, Evan with Sylvie, and Felicity with a flimflammer who trumps her sleaziness to deliver her just desserts. At once complicated and shallow, the plot presents modern version of a comedy of manners, reminiscent of some of Shakespeare's more convoluted romantic comedies. But in its preoccupation less with the story than with how it gets told, Bacchus Wynd. also falls into the category of postmodern meta-fiction.
In a departure from the classic Rashomon plot, the "truth" about what actually happened—which version of a series of events is correct—is not at stake here. Instead, the author focuses on telling the same story from several different points of view, one from a character with ASD. And that is what makes the book interesting to disability literature. Most books about autism are memoirs written by caretakers of people with ASD and, more recently (with the Temple Grandin's groundbreaking Emergence) by authors themselves on the spectrum. The past two decades have seen increasing numbers of fictional ASD characters in film (Rain Man) and TV (Big Bang Theory, Modern Family). Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time is perhaps the most well-known modern novel to feature an autistic protagonist.
In general, fictional characters with ASD (and other disabilities for that matter) tend to function in one of two extremes: either the story is focused on them, or else they are marginal. Bacchus Wynd is noteworthy because its Toby is neither central nor sidelined. He is just "one of the gang," with equal status among the major characters, each with issues and problems that entangle the others. As such, Toby offers a perspective that is alternative to, but given as much weight as, the "neurotypical" one. As his chapters accrete, Toby develops into a unique, rich and sensitive character who simultaneously embodies and debunks ASD stereotypes. Yes, he is socially awkward, but not for lack of very serious efforts to fit in. Yes, his eyes sometimes look "vacant" but they are also long-lashed and beautiful. Yes, he is baffled by the nuances of sexual innuendo, but he is no automaton categorically uninterested in sex. He recoils from some kinds of physical contact, but not all human contact. He has trouble reading facial expressions and body language, but is manifestly not indifferent to the feelings of others.
The way other characters react to Toby equally reflects—and challenges—cultural stereotypes about ASD. In the most expected reaction, John sees Toby as a "borderline cretin" with possible Tourette's syndrome, at best a social clown. But he also feels jealous of Toby, exactly the way he would feel about any attractive younger man who has caught his girlfriend's eye. In the conventionally attractive and neurotypical Emma, Toby inspires—romantic love. He incites lust in the sexy Renée and fatherly concern in the kind-hearted Evan. In these respects, Toby is like any other character, not treated differently because he is autistic.
At times Toby does fall into stereotype, and I found myself making notes in the margins when details felt almost as if they were drawn from the (now discontinued) DSM IV diagnostic criteria for Asperger's Syndrome. Obsession with numbers, check. Mention of fractals, check. Robot-like speech, check. Synesthesia, check. But other traits were quite credibly drawn: Toby's instinctive lack of guile, his social anxiety and learned and rehearsed coping mechanisms, his enthusiasm and eloquence (sometimes coming as non sequitur) for arcane subjects, and his acute sensitivity to sensory stimuli. Perhaps one reason these traits resonated with me in Toby is that they are dominant in the personality of my own adult son with Asperger's.
Like my son, Toby's senses are unusually finely tuned, making him acutely aware of when the town clock "creak[s]," "clank[s]" and strikes the hour (19); he flinches when Renée touches him too lightly. An extraordinary spatial awareness makes it imperative that he line up the legs of his café chair with the patio stones before he can listen to the conversation around him. A passionate, focused attention to things not of much interest to most people is a classic Aspergian trait, and Toby's fascination is with the effects of light, shown in this passage about the town library.
It had become a favourite place as it was always quiet and he wasn't expected to talk. Best of all, there was a window with stained glass that caught the sunlight. On clear days he could sit at his favourite table and watch the coloured lights move across the bookshelves. If he followed the path of one colour and went back a few days later he could watch it again, but it would have shifted fractionally and different books would be lit … (20)
When Toby sees another person, it is often in terms of how the light plays on their skin, lips, or hair, and Evan complains at one point that Toby reduces Emma to an "optical effect." Toby always notices the light, and not just in ecstatic terms:
November sun was best in the library, but midsummer sun worked well on Emma's hair, which was shining more than ever. Renée's was shining too, but the colour was odd. It looked brown in the shade, but turned orange in the sun. This must have been due to the chemical properties of the hair dye… Toby thought she wore too much make-up but Evan had warned him not to say so. Toby didn't see why not. Surely she would have liked to know? (21)
I also found authentic and poignant the portrayal of Toby's social anxiety, the myriad tiny misunderstandings and interpersonal missteps that knit stress into every minute of every day. Like most people with (or without) Aspergers, Toby does not want to put people off or intend to hurt their feelings. Nevertheless, he finds himself again and again in situations that baffle him: people crying when they are not sad, laughing when they are not happy, or guffawing at a joke Toby does not realize he made. Or more painfully, something he says leaves his companion wearing an expression Toby has been taught to recognize as displeasure. Sometimes his reaction time to an emotional shift is delayed, and he gives a response that seems inappropriate, even callous: "He smiled at the space where her smile had been …" (84).
People with Aspergers often have difficulty extrapolating a general rule of behavior from an isolated social instance, so that even with all the social post mortems he has done with Evan—his lists of facial expressions and vast stock of memorized small talk—Toby is bound, as he knows, to make mistakes. Human communication is too complex, too varied and unpredictable to be mastered one social interaction at a time.
So much so that even people without ASD frequently make gaffes—but they don't get called out for it the way people on the spectrum do. Emma consistently misinterprets Toby's benign indifference as an attraction that, for Toby, just isn't there. In fact, she and other characters in this book regularly do what people on the spectrum are tagged with, misreading Toby's expressions and body language. Emma's feelings are hurt when she mentions how much fun it would be to go riding, and Toby, genuinely trying to be helpful, smilingly responds with the name and address of a local stable for her to contact. (164) The miscommunication here goes—as it so often does between any two people—both ways. In real life, neurotypicals often misread people with ASD—so why are they not called to task for it? Why not forced into therapies to help "improve" their accuracy of perception? These are the questions Renée will ask near the end of the book when she emerges as a fictional proponent of today's autism advocacy movement.
By including the autistic perspective among a group of fairly self- and relationship-absorbed but otherwise "typical" perspectives, the author legitimates and demystifies it, allowing readers to see Toby's thinking as diverse rather than perverse, even as something of value. Toby may be rigidly pragmatic and literal but I for one prefer his view of the world to the neurotypical Emma's, seen always through a pink cloud of sentimentality:
As they crossed the highest dune, a peacock butterfly fluttered in front of them for a few seconds, and Emma said something about it being romantic for a butterfly to be leading the way. She said it as if the insect had made a deliberate choice to be romantic. (154)
In Emma's view, the sea shells she takes from the beach are "fragile mementos of what might have been (157)" while to literal-minded Toby, they are contraband, being "illegal to take any naturally occurring object from the beach" (164). A romantic might prefer Emma's formulation, but an ardent environmentalist might prefer Toby's.
Initially "bored" by Toby, Renée finds herself increasingly drawn to him. At first it is by his good looks but eventually Renée comes to appreciate emotional qualities Toby has that John lacks—freshness and honesty of response, and comfort with and willingness to voice his own sexual attraction for her. The relationship that blooms between them is unusual, but not just because Toby has ASD. First, Renée is nearly twice Toby's age (she and Toby being the mirror image of the older man-younger woman convention represented by John and Emma). Second, the relationship is openly and mutually based on physical attraction. It is OK, this author implies, for an autistic person (or anyone) to have a relationship with an older or younger person and also OK for that relationship to be founded on sexual attraction.
Along the way, we are given the opportunity to reflect on some of the less-discussed issues involving people with autism. We are all acquainted with the stereotype Sam represents—the rocking, hand-flapping, head banger who vocalizes loudly and kicks and bites when cornered. But we don't always consider his perspective: "Sam didn't understand other people's behaviors any more than they understood his, and that frightened him" (45). And although support is being given now to children with ASD, resources for teens and adults—the Sams who grow up to become men—remain woefully inadequate. Sam "couldn't go to the clinic anymore, as that was for children and he and Sam had grown up" (21). Toby's experience with sex raises a whole host of delicate and under-discussed issues. How can he figure out whether a woman showing interest in him is also interested in phys ical contact? How much physical contact is the "right" amount? For a young man unable to read body language, these are perplexing matters with potentially serious, even legal consequences.
Renée's championing of Toby's differences is foreshadowed in the subheading for Toby's final chapter, "A kaleidoscope All Around Us." In her last chapter (subtitled "Damn Them All") Renée expresses the activist view of ASD: whether it is reasonable, fair, or even good for humanity to force people on the spectrum to act more like neurotypicals. "They'd been trying everything to mould him [Toby] into their idea of normality, but their idea wasn't remotely normal for him. Why shouldn't he be eccentric in his speech patterns? Why conform? Why fit their template?" (210)
In the Rashomon structure, all the narrators are, by definition unreliable, each seeing through a lens that shapes his or her vision of the object seen and so distorts the resultant report of it. In this book, the only character not given a voice is—poignantly—Sam, Toby's nonverbal and profoundly autistic twin. None of the characters is omniscient. Their chapters are told in "close" third person and as a consequence, each account of the same events is different. But here is an interesting thing. The only one who knows about and cops to his unreliability is Toby—the character with ASD. Life's hard lessons have taught him the fallibility of his perception and so everything he reports is qualified and hedged with doubt. Not only is he the only character who sees the limits of his own perception, he is also the only one who—with his memorization of stock phrases, studied attempts to learn to "read" facial expressions, and investment of time in things like time at the gym so as to fit in—tries to do anything about it. Of the seven, only Toby ends up with the person he has been attracted to from the start and in this way, at least, he is the only character who knows his own heart.
In a twist I found amusing, Toby is sometimes socially successful precisely because of his so-called social dysfunction. One trope used repeatedly in the book is the way Toby's memorized stock phrases can, in pseudo-intellectual café conversations, often "pass" as witty, deliberately posed non sequiturs. At times Toby sounds almost like a language poet, liking "the words for themselves, quite apart from their function as language. People who were obsessed with communication didn't always hear the music" (86).
I had a few reservations about the book. In general, the writing could have been more taut and compressed. And, even though plot was not the author's priority, I still wished for more interest and tension and characters motivated by more than sexual and romantic attraction for one another It may have been the author's intent to be mimetic in representing the characters conversations as light and pretentious, but not heeding the warnings of imitative fallacy can, as sometimes happened here, result in dialogue that feels shallow. In another quibble, if you are going to tell the same action from different points of view, care must be taken to make sure that the perspectives are distinct. For this reader, the characters sometimes sound tonally too much alike, with a flippant, ironic snarkiness making its way into all the characters' (except Toby's) voices. Perhaps this is simply an American reader reacting to British vernacular (e.g., pervasive use of adjectives like "blasted" and "wretched" and of stock phrases like "bloody useless"), but it is worth noting that when the points of view are not rendered with sufficient distinction, the Rashomon device runs the risk of sounding repetitive and tedious.
Still, I appreciated the ambition of this author's project, most particularly her decision to include an ASD point of view and to treat that character just like the others. And to readers who might challenge Edmunds' right or ability to present the point of view of someone who is on the spectrum, I say this. There is not presently enough representation of this viewpoint in literature, and this author does a better job than many in achieving an authentic, sympathetic character whose portrayal challenges negative stereotypes of people with ASD as emotion-less, asexual automatons, loners and misanthropes. By the end of the book, readers can join Renée in appreciating the qualities that make Toby unique. Some might find her idealistic, but it pleased me that Renée goes beyond mere tolerance to actually celebrate these qualities. The message that ASD characteristics are of intrinsic value, not just things to be managed and subdued, is a good message. As the mother of an adult son with ASD, I hope for many Renées in the world—people who will, as I do, love my son exactly as he is.