Today’s Book: “Every Mountain Made Low” by Alex White.
The Plot: Loxley Fiddleback, a disabled woman in a strange dystopian pit of a city who has the ability to see ghosts, sets out to avenge her only friend’s murder.
Autistic Character(s): Loxley, our protagonist.
I want to talk about Loxley first, before I talk about anything else. Loxley is a fascinating character. She also illustrates one of the problems I have with how autistic characters are marketed (or not marketed) to the public. The back cover of “Every Mountain Made Low” says:
Loxley isn’t equipped to solve a murder: she lives near the bottom of a cutthroat, strip-mined metropolis known as “The Hole,” suffers from crippling anxiety and doesn’t cotton to strangers.
“Crippling anxiety” is such an inaccurate description on the publisher’s part that I’m still mad about it. There are some autistic people who could forgivably be mistaken for anxious NTs. People who mostly pass, but are afraid to leave their house or socialize because they don’t know how it works, etc. It is very apparent even from the early pages of the book that Loxley is not one of these people.
Indeed, while nobody in this book seems to know the word “autism,” Loxley doesn’t pass at all. Her movements, speech, and thinking are visibly different from those of the people around her, in ways that result in other characters calling her slurs (including the R-word) with depressing frequency. Under stress, she often stops understanding speech altogether. Loxley is not a “low-functioning” stereotype – she works three jobs! – but all of those jobs would be impossible without informal accommodations made by pitying NTs, and the pitying NTs aren’t usually nice about it. Sensory overload makes functioning in many everyday environments impossible for her, and even carrying on a conversation in the expected way is difficult, let alone making friends.
(At some point a character also calls Loxley a “mongoloid,” which suggests that she might have both Down syndrome and autism; or maybe that character is just an extra special bigot. It’s not clear.)
I’m not even sure I would classify Loxley as having anxiety (in the sense of an anxiety disorder) at all. She is fearful when she encounters new things, overloading things, ghosts who she believes will literally kill her if they get too close (although the reality turns out to be more complex), and things that contradict her worldview. She experiences sensory overload very intensely, but overload and fear are not the same emotion. Otherwise, much of her behavior in the book is actually quite bold.
Loxley’s narrative voice consistently does a thing that I really enjoy. A lot of books from the POV of autistic characters focus on trying to explain to NT readers why the autistic character behaves the way they do. This can be bad (an othering Autism Voice) or good (as in the case of books like On the Edge of Gone, which humanize their narrators by explaining exactly what about a given situation is so stressful for them).
“Every Mountain Made Low” seems to gleefully do the opposite. Loxley’s thought processes are shown the way any narrator’s would be, and there is certainly an internal logic to them, but it is a logic that doesn’t seem to care at all if NT readers will find it logical:
She kept her hands close together, humming and picking at the plastic as quickly as she could. She had to get that tape off. No one should tape stuff to themselves, because now, instead of skin, she had tape there. She had to get her skin back. She wanted to explain, but all that came out were jumbled noises, probably because of the tape.
This kind of thinking feels real and familiar to me, especially from times when I am more overwhelmed, but it’s something I rarely see narrated in this way and I love it.
The Hole where Loxley lives is more or less literally a hellhole, arranged in nine concentric circles of increasing squalor and misery. The misery comes from unfettered capitalism and social inequality, not from any divine source, but the Hole also holds many secrets, and ghosts are not the only supernatural thing Loxley will encounter before the book is done.
The sheer dystopianness of “Every Mountain Made Low” can make it a difficult read, especially in the first few chapters, in which Loxley goes about her daily life and terrible things keep on happening to her – including an attempted sexual assault. The assault at first felt gratuitous to me, but I realized later in the book that it is actually a pivotal moment in Loxley’s character arc. Her mother, long dead when the story begins, gave Loxley many rules about what was and wasn’t safe; when Loxley is assaulted by someone her mother told her to trust, she begins to realize that what her mother told her is not always true. While Loxley has realistic trauma from the assault, it’s also a moment she returns to as she grows: while her previous life crumbles around her, she learns to discard the rules she was taught and make her own. It’s a difficult but important arc to see for an autistic character, when in real life we’re so often given oversimplified social rules that don’t actually keep us safe.
The setting never stops being dystopian as heck, but it begins to feel less oppressive after the first 1/3 or so, as Loxley becomes are more active character who navigates the Hole as she wishes and determines her own destiny.
In fact, it can be startling how active a character Loxley becomes once her friend Nora dies, and once she sets herself to avenging Nora’s murder. In one of the first such moments, trapped in a car with the head villain and his henchmen, Loxley calmly informs the head villain that she is going to kill him. It isn’t bluster, nor even a threat in the usual sense; in Loxley’s mind, it is a fact, and there is no reason not to state facts when asked.
These moments continue throughout the rest of the book. Loxley has an assertiveness, once her mind is set on a course of action, that is entirely and wonderfully autistic; and she has the capacity for violence, when cornered, to back it up. If I refer to her actions as startling, it’s because of how rarely a character like Loxley in fiction is allowed to be violent and assertive. If Loxley were a neurotypical man mourning the death of a woman, her actions would be entirely within the bounds of what action/thriller stories of this type allow. But for someone like Loxley to take on the role of the vengeful, punishing action hero is entirely unexpected and wonderful. It’s an approach that doesn’t win Loxley many friends, but one that ultimately leads to her victory.
Another ability Loxley has is that, as she interacts more with certain ghosts, she starts to have flashes of memory from their point of view, and to be able to call up some of their skills when needed – including social skills. For example, she calls up Nora’s insight in order to ask a favor from her employer more effectively:
She sounded just like Nora. She wasn’t Nora, but she could conjure all the turns of phrase and speech of the dead woman. She could hold her body in such a way as to make it more appealing. It wasn’t as though she could draw forth the ghost’s memories, but she could sense its subtle influence on her mind. She could look at Don’s face without trying to puzzle through the multitude of muscles that created his expression.
It can be dangerous to give autistic characters skills like this – magical abilities that can make them less autistic when the plot requires it. (I previously complained about the use of such an ability in “Mouse.“) Here I think it works a bit better than it did in “Mouse,” for a couple of reasons. Loxley doesn’t overrely on her ability; it’s one tool in her inventory, and one that comes with a heavy, exhausting cost. It also has longer-lasting, subtler consequences. Loxley sometimes behaves, under the ghosts’ influence, in ways that she didn’t expect to. Rather than clarifying everything, the ghosts’ perspective often leaves her with difficult questions about the world that she inhabits and the people she thought she knew in life.
There is one major flaw with this book, however, and it’s to do with the treatment of race.
One of the beliefs Loxley was taught by her mother, and has to eventually discard, is that black people are untrustworthy. Early on in the book she refuses a black man’s help for precisely this reason. Just as with her mother’s other erroneous teachings, she eventually learns better, even ending up with a black friend and a black love interest who are two of the most sympathetic characters in the book. But this doesn’t happen until much later, by which time many readers of color will already have been thrown out of the narrative.
When she does get the chance to interact with a group of black people, Loxley unthinkingly parrots several of her mother’s statements about them. The only pushback she gets is a mild, “Your mother was kind of a racist, wasn’t she?” Loxley learns that her beliefs about black people were incorrect, but she doesn’t learn that they were wrong in any ethical sense, nor does it seem to be important to any of the black characters that she learn this. At another point in the book, Loxley is startled and distressed when she learns that Nora had unspoken ableist attitudes, but she never makes the inference that her racist thoughts, spoken or unspoken, might have been equally distressing to her black friends. Nor, for that matter, does it present any obstacle to her romantic relationship with a black woman who says her own set of casually ableist things.
Even though several black characters in the latter half of the story are quite sympathetic, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth that the “good” black people are portrayed as being people who don’t challenge Loxley about her racist statements – and who, incidentally, both end up making immense personal sacrifices for Loxley’s sake.
Loxley’s racism doesn’t feel necessary to the story. It doesn’t seem to be an inherent part of the setting, at least not to the degree that Loxley experiences it (a scene from Nora’s perspective merely neutrally notes that “people of all colors” are present in a room, while Loxley at the beginning of the story appears to be entirely unfamiliar with interacting with black people). And while it serves as an example of an incorrect belief of her mother’s that Loxley needs to unlearn, there are plenty of other examples that already do that job in the narrative.
Readers who like the sound of “Every Mountain Made Low,” but want a better book where race is concerned, might instead try the equally gritty “An Unkindness of Ghosts” by Rivers Solomon.
Despite these missteps, my overall impression of “Every Mountain Made Low” was positive. It’s a memorable book with a tense and compelling plot which was hard for me to put down once it got going, and it features a strong autistic protagonist of a type I’ve never seen before. The world of autistic SFF characters is richer for having Loxley Fiddleback in it. I’ll certainly be looking out for more of Alex White’s books.
The Verdict: YMMV, but I liked it
Disclosure: I have briefly corresponded with Alex White online.
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