Family, friends, and teachers have all gotten on me about how I have to write a book. About what, no one ever seems to say, just that I need to. While I’ve written scores of commercials for radio, a PSA for movie theaters, and a few short stories, I still haven’t been able to tackle The Big One. Writing a book has proven to be quite difficult. It’s not something you can just sit down and do — or at least it’s not something I can just sit down and do. So I have nothing but respect for those who did find a way to sit down and do it, especially those who, like me, are on the spectrum.
James Williams, an author with autism, has done just that — twice. Mind you, his first book, Out to Get Jack, was written when the author was only thirteen, and like the writing of most thirteen-year-olds, it’s much too inchoate for me to give it a fair shake in this arena. However, his 2011 outing, The H.A.L. Experiment, is considerably more polished, a piece of young adult science fiction with the potential to inform and entertain young readers both on and off the spectrum.
In The H.A.L. Experiment, Mr. Williams explores that fundamental argument of developmental psychology: that of nature versus nurture. Here, it is applied to children with autism: that is to say, how much autistic behavior is a function of being treated like a person with autism, or, in some instances, like a second-class person? An unscrupulous grade school principal looking for fame arranges to have Lenny, a boy with autism, live with a colleague of hers while being treated as if he does not have autism. At the same time, the family of Hector, a young bully, will be made to treat their son as if he does have autism. Along with Alice, a friend of Lenny’s who acts as something of an intermediary in this scheme, the three children make up the namesake H.A.L. Experiment.
Perhaps unwittingly, the novel’s setting proves to be one of its more interesting aspects. Mr. Williams is a native of the Chicago suburbs, and wisely chose to write what he knows. In his case, it’s the North Shore, a chain of affluent railroad suburbs along the Lake Michigan shoreline, spanning from the Northwestern campus in Evanston up to the old-money horse farms of Lake Forest. (As for how far inland the region can be said to go, most natives will tell you the designation terminates just west of their own lot line. It’s that kind of crowd.) Suburbia as a fictional trope is traditionally all about incubating a sort of painfully average boredom and alienation, but the North Shore is a different beast, one that has been surprisingly well-mined in American fiction.
This is the suburbia of Ordinary People, of Mean Girls, of countless John Hughes films: a place where you’re reminded of success and expectations at every turn, opening up wayward paths into selfishness, social climbing, and despair. In towns where even the elementary school principals have their doctorates, it’s not wholly unreasonable that a school administrator might subject children and families to a highly abusive experiment out of sheer runaway ambition. As a native of Northbrook, Mr. Williams must have sensed the pressure to succeed among his own teachers, compiling and amplifying those traits to create his Dr. Wikedda (a play on Winnetka?), whose experiment as carried out never could have passed the most lenient of ethics boards. The author captures a host of other hyper-local details that form a definite sense of place, from drives down the North Shore’s main artery of Sheridan Road to the region’s vast forest preserves to emotionally distant dads taking the Metra to their jobs on the Board of Trade. As someone who just this summer discovered that a Northbrook forest preserve is bigger on the inside than it looks from the outside, just as a character notes, Mr. Williams’s faithful representation of home, with all its good and bad, made this fellow Chicagolander smile.
“Mr. Williams is a native of the Chicago suburbs, and wisely chose to write what he knows.”
While it’s important to remember that this book is presumably aimed at young readers on the spectrum who may take an interest in the broad-brush speculative nature of the story and in grown-ups being made to look foolish, I still have reservations about the greater narrative of the book. That much of the experiment’s “treating him like an autistic kid” consists of adults being downright abusive is troubling. In my role as a producer with the channel, I have had the opportunity to meet numerous families of autistic children, whether through home video or in person. I’ve been made aware of parents who have treated their autistic children very poorly. I have also met parents who demonstrate preternatural compassion, patience, and dedication to their children. Thankfully, the latter has outnumbered the former. Perhaps this is the unspoken fundamental flaw in the doctor’s experiment, a sort of twist on the Unreliable Narrator trope, but there is no single way to treat a child as if he or she has autism. If there were, it certainly wouldn’t be for parents to belittle and scream at their child for minor transgressions, as the experiment seems to prescribe. The entire approach leads one to wonder how much of this writing was an exercise in catharsis. I can’t help but worry about the ramifications of giving young readers on the spectrum the idea that any raised voice is something so victimizing as “treating me like an autistic kid.” While adults do not have a good showing in this story, the principal characters Hector, Alice, and Lenny are clearly written with the author’s sympathies.
While I’m glad that the author completed the accomplishment of writing this book, I would be remiss in not addressing what I feel are a few unavoidable realities about the self-publishing industry, of which The H.A.L. Experiment is a product. I’ve come to suspect that some of us are laboring under the false premise that writing is a solitary and intensely personal pursuit. And it is — when you’re keeping a journal. When you are producing something to be shared with the world, however, there need to be gatekeepers along the way, gatekeepers whom the vanity press does not require. A distinct example of something that never should have made it to press is the use of uppercase letters to denote yelling. In a story like this, tension among characters runs high, and this needs to be communicated. However, while all-caps is understood to mean yelling on the Internet, it’s a convention that does not lend itself to the printed page. Reading line after line of dialogue set in caps is hard on the eyes, and goes beyond evoking narrative tension to simply upsetting the person who is trying to read the book. In the plainest of terms, it’s unprofessional.
I can’t help but worry about the ramifications of giving young readers on the spectrum the idea that any raised voice is something so victimizing as “treating me like an autistic kid.”
I understand the reluctance. I’ve been on both sides in my professional life. I’ve edited and been edited. I’ve proofread and been proofread. I’ve come out of either role feeling hurt, embarrassed, or convinced I must be the only sane person on the planet. I know my counterparts have felt the same way. One of the toughest things an aspiring writer has to do is disabuse oneself of the notion that creativity is to spring forth unimpeded and untouched by any other person, lest the sole artistic vision be compromised. A great way to learn this lesson is to write for radio: it’s simply amazing how much the exact words you chose don’t matter when another person has to read them out loud. I still won’t claim to be perfect in this respect. Even recently, I have, to borrow a phrase from the late David Foster Wallace, “bared my canines” on some flourish that I could not, would not part with. But I know that I can’t leave my writing unchecked. Even on this blog, I benefit from editorial oversight to tell me when I’ve gone off the rails, or when some turn of phrase isn’t nearly as clever as I think it is. And so it is that The H.A.L. Experiment could have used some reining in at select points. At 225 pages, it gets to be rather long for what I presume is the intended audience.
Overall, the book features an interesting story arc and allows the author to demonstrate a keen sense of wordplay, the sort of love for language that we so often see in many on the high-functioning end of the spectrum. If absolutely nothing else, The H.A.L. Experiment will serve as an inspiration to youngsters with a similar love for language that writing a book isn’t an insurmountable task. It’s for that reason that I give the book a recommendation, albeit a cautious one, to parents and school librarians. There’s no question that James Williams has natural writing talent. Now, for the nurturing.