Today’s Book: “Troubleshooting” by Selene dePackh
The Plot: In a viciously ableist, fascist, near-future North America, a troubled autistic teenager named Scope Archer must escape a corrupt backcountry “development center” called Thunderbird Mountain before finding her way in the world.
Autistic Character(s): Scope, plus the author.
I picked this book up, uneasily intrigued by the premise, but unsure exactly what to expect. The back cover copy makes it sound like autistic Stalag fiction, complete with puzzle piece tattoos. The actual book itself isn’t quite that, but it’s a brutal, challenging, rather uneven book that I’m still not sure what to do with, which is why I took so long to get to writing the review.
Thunderbird Mountain is awful and dehumanizing in ways that will be familiar to anyone who’s read about or experienced institutionalization. It is also corrupt, with guards who will ask for sexual favors in exchange for small comforts, and thuggish “trusties” who might not bother to ask. Scope, who is underage but has already done sex work, navigates this environment more cannily than most; but it’s a hellish environment no matter how it’s navigated. Fortunately, Scope escapes the camp less than a quarter of the way through the book, but she must then try to navigate an external world which in some ways is no less hostile.
DePackh writes Scope’s point of view with a sort of vicious matter-of-factness, a point-blank refusal to sugar-coat any aspect of what this life is like, married to an equally strong insistence on her own agency. The book is at its best when it uses this voice and this tone to call out aspects of the ableism in Scope’s life which are barely exaggerated versions of the ableism of the real world – or maybe, even more uncomfortably, not exaggerated at all.
Take this paragraph, for instance:
I kept hearing how autistics didn’t understand sexual boundaries. I decided to make it work for me. It wasn’t a new concept. I couldn’t exist around humans without being slathered in it. Some autistics like my cousin Archer identify as asexual, but plenty of us play the hands we’re dealt.
Like. Ouch. I’ve never been in a situation like Scope’s (thank goodness – although, based on dePackh’s bio, the sex work in the book is #ownvoices) but when I read this quote I think about some of my own history of toxic relationships with people who thought that the autism made me easy to play, and I wince a little in recognition.
Back when I reviewed Mirror Project I promised myself that I would let myself DNF books if I needed to and still write a review, if I wanted, of the parts that I’d read. I have to admit that’s what happened with “Troubleshooting.” It’s not because of the dark content, exactly. (I still firmly believe that marginalized authors can, perhaps should, write exactly as much dark content as they want to.) But when the content of a book starts to get difficult enough to slow me down, I have to be sufficiently motivated to keep going. The bar for how compelling and how empathetic the book needs to be, in order to motivate me that way, gets higher. Not because of some objective rule about what you “should” or “shouldn’t” do in dark books, but just because of how my own endurance levels work as a reader.
“Troubleshooting” starts to fall down for me on these grounds in the middle sections. After Scope escapes from the camp, the book starts to meander and to feel a little unfocused as Scope tries various strategies for surviving in the outside world, feels unsatisfied by them, and starts drifting back into exploitative sexual situations. I was still rooting for Scope in a sense, and it’s not like this kind of drifting unhappiness is unrealistic for someone in her situation; but I was no longer quite sure what I was rooting for her to do, or even what she wanted to do in the first place, and her moments of anguish started to feel like they weren’t supported as closely or as vividly by what we saw on the page. I eventually gave up and stopped reading around the one-third mark.
Anyway, I think I have readers who might like this book despite its unevenness (as well as readers who would run for the hills, or perhaps already started running at the first few paragraphs of this review.) When it hits, it hits hard. Even when it misses, it is absolutely unflinching. I’ve never seen another book quite like it.
The Verdict: YMMV, but I didn’t like it
For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.