Friday, June 7, 2019

Book Review: Graeme Simsion's The Rosie Project

Most people have never met anyone autistic. Their perception of autism is usually from Dustin Hoffman's Rain Man (1988), 
Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory, or my favorite, Abed from the Community series. (South Korea's Marathon (2005) and Britain's A Brilliant Young Mind aka X + Y (2015) are also excellent, with the female lead in A Brilliant Young Mind perfectly written.) 
Given the popularity of some autistic characters, as well as greater interest into autism by neuroscientists, numerous fiction books now involve autistic protagonists. Sadly, all their authors have failed to present works both respectful and interesting, except two: Graeme Simsion and Helen Hoang

At first glance, techie-turned-author Graeme Simsion looks exactly like a stereotypical mad scientist. If a gargoyle could turn human, or if Moe Szyslak had a Ph.D. in data modeling and an ever-present smile, Graeme would be the result. 
Graeme knows autism well--he jokes his thirty years in information technology provided him ample research--and he's conformed his behavior to the autistic world, a welcome form of empathy. For example, many autistic people are paradoxes in that they adore unusual behavior (that increases efficiency) and despise rules, but once a logical rule is presented, they demand strict adherence. At 7:29pm, Graeme looked at his watch and did not stop looking at it until 7:30pm, when he promptly started. (Logical rules followed? Check.) Before his presentation, he disregarded the standard procedure of making people wait in line to get their books signed and went around the room, multiple pens available, to sign anyone's book upon request. (Noncomformist? Check.) 

Graeme and I discussed the book, which I had just finished, for a minute. I found the ending confusing, but he said the identity of the father "was meant to be clear." In retrospect, it probably should have been clear, but I was not prepared for deception from Don Tillman, the protagonist, which threw me off. (A recent Star Trek movie with Spock featured the same trick.) 

The Rosie Project is not an entirely original idea. Johannes Kepler, a gifted astronomer, approached finding a wife in almost exactly the same way, generating a mathematical answer to "The Marriage Problem." (His answer worked for him, surely creating bias.) Though most of us would sneer at Kepler's or Tillman's methods--Rosie, at one point, accuses Don of objectifying women--an approximate 50% divorce rate in most Western countries indicates the usual procedures aren't working well. 

My chief complaint about Graeme's book is although the first half is written like a novel, the second half panders excessively to Hollywood--even including the cliché of all clichés, a Disneyland trip. Nevertheless, I was sufficiently amused in the first half to keep reading, and the book is good. Not great, but few of us can claim to have written great books. Indeed, Graeme admitted he wrote the book as a screenplay and is hoping for a movie. His first two books are bestsellers, and "studios use [bestselling] books for adaptations because sales are established," so there's a better-than-average chance you'll see him on a red carpet someday. 

To explain some of Don's nontraditional behavior, especially in the second half of the book, Graeme delivered a profound observation: 

In romantic comedies and in real life, people do crazy things when they're in love, and the only unrealistic part is the "happily ever after." 

Other Graeme Simsion highlights: 

1. Autism is "not a disability, it's a difference." 

2. When you get to the end of the book, what do you think about Don? The "comedy doesn't detract from Don's good character," so we're not laughing at him. 

3. There's a "difference between empathy and not reading [social] signals." 

4. On the writing process: I won't stop until I've done 1,000 words, which I review first thing in the morning. (Sometimes it takes longer to write the 1,000 words, so I don't know what time I will finish.) I repeat the process for 90 days, after which I have the first draft of a book/screenplay. Then, I ask friends "to mark any passages they'd be tempted to skip," which I consider for deletion. 

5. After publication, I consider "what worked, what didn't work, and what to do differently next time." 

All in all, it's hard not to wish Graeme well. He has the advantage of being Australian, which makes his behavior easier for foreigners to handle--they can't tell if he's a bit off or just acting like an Aussie. Me, I can see his behavior is deliberately tailored to make autistic people or Aspies more comfortable, and it's nice to know at least one person gets it, even if everyone else doesn't. 

Bonus, on the dangers of generalizing: "If you've met one autistic person, you've met one autistic person." 

Bonus II: Rosie was not written with Rosie McGowan in mind. In the original draft, Rosie was "Klara," a Hungarian physicist. 

Bonus III: if you like Simsion's character, you may also like the nonfiction book Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's (2008) by John Elder Robison. 

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