In popular author Kathy Lette’s latest novel, Best Laid Plans, her writing style is a torrent of words, which you eventually want to scan over or skip while searching for a development in the plot. She hardly writes a sentence without a metaphor or simile, heavily laying on the puns, spoonerisms, obscure words, and double entendres, seemingly without holding back. It gets painful after a while. In Best Laid Plans, about a single mother’s obsession with finding her Autistic (and very horny) son someone to have sex with, the frenetic use of language is motivated by the main character, “Lucy” and her sister, “Phoebe”, having their mother’s “gift of the gab”, and by Lucy’s son “Merlin” being Autistic.
Remember, dear prospective readers, that Lette is known for writing “dramedies”, and all the verbiage is supposed to be amusing.
Autism and language
But let’s get real – in the novel, “Merlin” is specifically called Autistic – and described as having high intelligence and advanced language skills:
Autism (or Autism Spectrum Disorder, ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by impaired social interaction, impaired verbal and non-verbal communication. Let me emphasize that: About a third to a half of individuals with Autism do not develop enough natural speech to meet their daily communication needs. On the other hand, in the DSM V, (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) Asperger syndrome (AS) is included in the Autism Spectrum (ASDs), and is known not to feature delays in cognitive development and language.
In fact, although the speech of individuals with Asperger syndrome typically lacks significant abnormalities, language acquisition and use is often atypical and include verbosity, abrupt transitions, literal interpretations and miscomprehension of nuance, use of metaphor meaningful only to the speaker, auditory perception deficits, unusually pedantic, formal or idiosyncratic speech, and oddities in loudness, pitch, intonation, prosody, and rhythm. Speech may convey a sense of incoherence; the conversational style often includes monologues about topics that bore the listener, fails to provide context for comments, or fails to suppress internal thoughts. Individuals with AS may fail to detect whether the listener is interested or engaged in the conversation. The speaker’s conclusion or point may never be made, and attempts by the listener to elaborate on the speech’s content or logic, or to shift to related topics, are often unsuccessful. (This is not my opinion – these are the medical facts.)
There you are, then. Lette has managed to capture Merlin’s speech patterns and language perfectly, for someone who suffers with AS, and it unfortunately matches the way Merlin’s mother and aunt – and most of the other characters – speak.
Lette first revealed her struggles to raise her real-life autistic son, Julius (Jules), in an article in Woman & Home magazine and The Australian Women’s Weekly, in 2012. Now, with the publication of this novel, she talks about the difficulties of the sex lives of Autism sufferers in another article in Woman & Home, published on Aug. 1, 2017.
In 2012, Lette published The Boy Who Fell to Earth, a fictional account of life with an autistic child – fictional, since she had kept Julius’s Autism a secret until he was 21 years old. Lette explains:
“I’m very candid, so hiding something was out of character for me. But I waited until Jules was 21 to talk about his Autism because I didn’t want to invade his privacy and I needed his permission. I did the right thing, but talking about it was such a relief! It taught me that it was better to shine a light into a dark corner. It made others feel they are not alone and it connected me with the whole autistic community. But it’s amazing how much stigma still shrouds the condition. So my aim by writing about Autism is to normalise it. And that includes writing about sex. You never read about Autism and sex, but it’s a big topic for us; in fact it’s centre stage.”
Julian himself prefers to say he has Asperger’s (Asperger Syndrome) and Lette calls him “my Wikipedia with a pulse” – but the condition is characterized by an inability to communicate effectively and to filter speech according to social context.
Once you have read the article there is really not much to left to explain in the novel. It is practically autobiographical. Large parts are about Lucy’s first attempt to get her son laid, by arranging a girlfriend for him named “Kayleigh”, obviously a very bad sort. The reader can smell disaster a mile away and frankly, I skipped these parts of the novel until Kayleigh gets her comeuppance and is replaced by her slag-with-a heart-of-gold mother, “June”.
The novel almost exactly reflects Lette’s life with her son, except, I hope, for the bits about getting arrested for solicitation, and breaking into her ex-husband’s house and pepper-spraying him.
“‘You know, June’s ex-boyfriend once called her a slag and she stuck his balls into the garlic press then made them into a hanging basket strung together with his femoral artery,’ I warned him, before standing on his left hand. I indicated for Phoebe to stand on his right hand and for June to sit astride his chest. ‘Tell us the code to that safe, or June here will stake your nuts out over an ants’ nest.’” (p.280)
As for the incident which explains the title, Lette read about it and used it in the novel. “But when I saw a story about a man who was arrested for looking for a prostitute for his son with special needs I thought, “Gosh, that could have been me!” And that’s what gave me the idea for the book, where a middle class mum gets arrested for kerb-crawling.”
Many of the complications in the plot are caused by the mother’s obsessive love for her child and her need to protect him. Lette says in the Woman & Home article “…when your child has Autism you have to be their everything: bouncer, medical expert, counsellor, psychiatrist, social guide – and, sometimes, their pimp!”
Eventually, Lucy has to let go and allow Merlin to sort out his own love-life, and get back to having a love-life of her own according to the essential life lessons issued by June:
“‘1) Life ain’t fair. 2) Don’t ever shag your best pal’s hubby. 3) Try everythin’ in life except crystal meth and Morris dancin’ – unless it’s both at the same time. And 4) Don’t live through yer kids.’” (p.298)
Final take and issue of moral responsibility
Does the humour work? I suppose so, considering the subject matter. It would take the considerable writing talent, deep personal insights and utter self-deprecation of someone like Jenny Lawson to make the humour darker and more appealing. Is it worth reading? Probably – for portraying a tricky subject.
The plot is moderately entertaining, though predictable. The characters are also unsurprising and stereotypical: the hard-drinking, hard partying flight attendant sister; the cold-fish, contemptible lawyer ex-husband; the clipboard-wielding, dowdy, beige-wearing social worker; the common, fake-blonde bimbo girlfriend and her rough diamond, bar-tending mother – and the son who is depicted as a beautiful angel, charming eccentric, or hunk of delicious handsomeness. And as I said, the language, though typical for someone with Asperger Syndrome (rather than Autism) is rather hard to wade through.
Lette wanted to highlight the problem of Autism and sex. Well, she did. There are parts where Merlin talks about sex that really made my toes curl they were so blatant. But someone needed to say it, I guess.
This raises the issue of the moral responsibility – or not – of the author when writing fiction. Authors realize soon enough that they cannot control the development of their characters – especially if they are writing serial novels – since readers often think of fictional characters as real, and belonging to them. Author Alexander McCall Smith has posed the questions: What duty does one have to the fictional characters one creates, and what duty does one have to one’s readers? (Michael Nitsch, How to Do Things with People who Aren’t: The Moral Responsibility of the Author, in Harvard University, Edmond J. Safra Centre for Ethics, April 16, 2009, rtrvd. 2017-11-14)
Regardless of how the author sees his own intentions, the act of writing fiction is one rich in moral implications. The main reason for this, McCall Smith argues, is that although fiction consists of made up stories, it invites the reader to respond as if it were real, to imagine himself as present, witnessing something, and to respond emotionally. For McCall Smith, given this power over readers, the novelist, no less than the non-fiction writer, is subject to a prima facie duty of care for the audience. In other words, to express morally acceptable and sound ideas through their fiction – rather than the opposite.
In this novel, Lette has undoubtedly done what she has set out to do, which is to shine a light on the subject of Autism and the sex lives of Autistic people, attempting to “normalize” it. As such, it is a well-intentioned novel, like others also about people with ASD, of which there have been many, such as The Pleasure of my Company, by Steve Martin, The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night–Time by Mark Haddon. There is even a list of novels about ASD on Goodreads, justifying its own category.
Let’s not forget, however, that ASD is a serious disorder. Humour, romance and happy endings, like in The Rosie Project, even farcical humour, like in Best Laid Plans, do not accurately depict the troubled world and very difficult circumstances of ASD sufferers, even if they have Asperger syndrome and are on the “interesting” or “more socially integrated” end of the spectrum. It really is no laughing matter.
Read my review of Lette’s novel To Love, Honour and Betray.
About the header: The bed on the book cover integrated into antique bedroom of the Kirsti House in the 15th century wooden town, Old Rauma, in Finland. The photo is by M.F. O’Brien, 2017.