Today’s Book: “Mouse”, by Richard Ford Burley
The Plot: An autistic boy discovers he can talk to a ghost, is the reincarnation of Simon Magus (sort of), and needs to save the world.
Autistic Character(s): The title character.
This book is a fun urban fantasy with roots in medieval alchemy and ceremonial magic (not surprising, since Burley is a medievalist). It’s also a book with a pretty badass #ownvoices autistic protagonist from a somewhat under-represented part of the spectrum.
Mouse is a high school student who is “primarily non-verbal” – he can squeak out a word or two in an emergency, usually, if there’s no other option, but he prefers to communicate by writing notes. He is intensely sensitive and overwhelmed by the social information he sees in other people’s faces, which is why he never looks there. He’s taught in an integrated classroom with neurotypical classmates, but he isn’t especially talented at school; he mainly keeps his head down and tries to get through the day.
All these are great things to see in an autistic protagonist, and I liked seeing them. Unfortunately, the book kept making strange and inconsistent choices in how it portrayed them.
I feel really bad critiquing an #ownvoices author’s portrayal of autism, which makes this critique hard to write. It’s possible I’m missing something huge. But I’m just going to soldier on and show some examples of what I’m talking about.
In the beginning of the novel, Mouse is so painfully over-sensitive that he literally never looks at his classmates’ faces, recognizing them instead (in a cute touch) by their shoes. When he is pressed to look a classmate in the eye, the cascade of information there sends him straight into panic:
Ginnie crouches down in front of him. She lifts his bangs to look under and he can’t help it, he can’t close his eyes fast enough. He imagines it’s like being electrocuted; he sees it all in under a second, hears it like a building wall of static in his mind. He sees a dubious look on the surface of the most shining, blinding green eyes; he sees that she’s curious, interested; beyond that, she’s a little worried about breaking social taboos but a little excited by the prospect of it; he sees that she’s often a little bored and seeking a thrill but that she’s generally harmless to herself and others; that she’s the kind of person who smiles a lot but cries easily and that she desperately, desperately wishes life were simple enough to be solved with single, grand gestures rather than the day-in-day-out course corrections that constitute the waking world; and beneath it all he sees something more—an intricate reweaving of times and places, of ordinary days and extraordinary ones, the sadness of the mundane, and a crystalline, blinding hope she places in the new. And below even that he sees something bigger, darker, deeper—
Mouse recoils violently, nearly dropping what’s left of his lunch.
This is a bit of an exaggerated description, but it’s meant to be; it will later be revealed that Mouse is not just autistically sensitive but “a sensitive” in a magic sense. (As a side note, I know a lot of quite hyper-empathic autistic people. The part that I find unrealistic is not the amount of information, per se, but rather the fact that Mouse is able to process the information fast enough to consciously identify what all those different parts of it are before he recoils.)
Also, the description of Mouse’s shutdown immediately following this is just really good:
Even Mouse knows it was the wrong reaction. Everything’s gone quiet and they’re looking at him. The guitar has stopped. Mouse has his knees up to his nose and he can tell, even with his eyes closed tight, that they all have concerned looks. But he can’t move, can’t look. His stomach is a knot twisted to its snapping point, his heart is beating in his throat, he wants to throw up. Like a turtle curled up in its shell, he can’t risk extending his legs even to run away. He imagines for a moment the impossibility of ever moving again, of being frozen like this forever; but he doesn’t have to imagine, only remember the years of small rooms and soft voices, the gradual peeling open of a tulip flower cut too soon for the table.
As soon as the plot really gets going, though, Mouse seems to become less and less impaired for no discernible reason. We meet one magical character who is able to put up shields that make it more comfortable for Mouse to look at him; and we see Mouse practicing basic magical skills, like moving energy around to boil water. But we don’t see him practicing how to manage the onslaught of information that he sees when he looks at anything. Yet, the depictions of this onslaught of information, which were so effectively done at the beginning of the book, seem to just fade away as if the author forgot about them. First he’s no longer identifying anybody by their shoes. Then he is able, carefully, to look his love interest in the eye. Then all of a sudden we are reading scenes like this one:
The rest of the day passes in montage, and the following night, and the rest of the week. Sitting at his desk, exchanging glances with Bliss or Anna in the batcave, zoning out during dinner. He tosses and turns at night, wondering when the next attack will come.
Suddenly eye contact is a totally fine thing that we’re doing all the time, and I really do feel like I missed something.
We see some flash-forwards (this book has a couple of cool, timey-wimey twists) to an older Mouse in a dystopian world, who has somehow become calm and strong and commanding. He still doesn’t talk, but all the other impairments seem to have either gone away, or become un-noticed by the people around him. It’s hard to say, since nothing in those flash-forwards is actually from Mouse’s point of view.
We also have the problem that Mouse is a reincarnation of Simon Magus – or, not a reincarnation exactly, but a fragment of Magus’s consciousness that was passed forward in time. But the original Simon Magus wasn’t autistic, and has no problem talking. In emergencies, Mouse finds himself instinctively drawing on the original Simon Magus – which means he suddenly becomes a confident person who can conveniently talk and shout out verbal spell incantations at these emergency moments, including in the book’s climactic scene. This is a somewhat frustrating choice to me; I would much rather have seen Mouse figuring out ways to deal with magical emergencies without speaking.
Furthermore, since the original Simon Magus wasn’t autistic, Mouse is convinced that there must be a reason that he is autistic in his current life. Toward the end of the book, the reason is revealed:
Simon, that is, Simon Magus, he was a master strategist, he could see the way everything was going to go and planned ahead every time. But this time he couldn’t make the equations work—there wasn’t enough data. So he made Mouse to be the opposite of him—he can’t see, but he can feel. He can sense a pattern in the chaos and act right away. His intuition is exactly the opposite kind of knowledge to Simon’s.
Which, you know, sure – and I like the connection between autistic patterns thinking and magical intuition. Except I’m not sure how “he can act right away” jibes with his shutting down in the face of information earlier in the book. And the whole thing feels awfully close to two really problematic tropes – one being the person who seems to be disabled but it’s actually just magic, and the other being the autistic person whose character development consists of becoming less autistic as the story goes on.
This is all sort of nitpicky stuff; at the end of the day, we are still looking at an #ownvoices autistic hero who gets to be at the center of his own story, who has wonderful friends, family, and allies, and who saves the world. It’s well-written on a craft level, and it deals with its subject matter respectfully. If you’re not too bothered by the kinds of complaints I’m making here, and you’re up for a fun urban fantasy romp with medieval mages and mind-bending twists, then “Mouse” is for you. For me, it didn’t all quite work; but I’ll certainly be looking out for more from this author.
The Verdict: YMMV
Ethics Statement: I think I have vaguely interacted with Richard Ford Burley on Twitter once or twice, but that’s all. I read his book by reading an e-copy that the publisher emailed to me in hopes of a review. All opinions expressed here are my own.
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