Today’s Book: “Displacement” by Richard Ford Burley.
The Plot: Jamie, a teenage punk at an elite prep school, develops a mysterious illness – and wakes up having transformed into a perfect copy of his dead twin sister. As he and his friends try to cope with whatever just happened, the truth about Jamie’s body – and his sister’s – connects to a series of conspiracies far stranger than they ever could have guessed.
Autistic Character(s): The author, as well as a girl in Jamie’s class named Tina – more on her later.
Although I mostly enjoyed Burley’s previous book, “Mouse,” I really had no idea what to expect going in to this one. The “boy wakes up in a female body” trope is one that many trans readers rightly view with suspicion. Fortunately Burley, who is nonbinary himself, approaches the topic with nuance. And while gender is a major part of Jamie’s character arc throughout the book, it quickly transpires that there are far wilder things afoot than a gender transition.
To get the gender aspect out of the way, though – Jamie, who soon takes the more androgynous name Leigh, is realistically confused and upset as he adjusts to a body that causes dysphoria for him. He sticks to he/him pronouns throughout the book, and experiences some of the microaggressions and awkward moments that are realistic for a trans boy at a not-very-progressive upper-class boarding school. These moments are handled with nuance and care, and they don’t take over the story. Meanwhile, as Leigh adjusts to his new social role, he starts to realize that he might not have been fully comfortable as a boy either, and that it might be more accurate to call himself nonbinary.
The big, cosmic, weird shit aspects of the story don’t really begin to come together until halfway through, but they’re worth the wait. Fortunately the time spent waiting for them – as Leigh and a plucky, punky group of school friends hang out together, start a band, play pranks, deal with gender feelings and so on, and as mysterious messages from an ominous entity called “Betza” begin to arrive – is entertaining enough in its own right. I won’t spoil what turns out to be going on, but it involves secret weapons, alternate universes, runaway AI, and nanotechnology… just for starters. Even given the strangeness of the incident that starts out the story, Leigh and his friends are in for a much wilder ride than they know.
Autism isn’t foregrounded in this story, but the group of friends accompanying Leigh on his adventure includes an autistic classmate named Tina. I really like how Tina is written – she might be one of the best examples of an autistic secondary character / sidekick, seen through non-autistic protagonists’ eyes, that I’ve ever read. She’s quiet and mousy, but she loves the same music as the main characters, and she asks to join the band that they’re starting; as soon as the main characters hear how she can play the bass guitar, she’s instantly one of them. She’s clever in a realistically autistic way – noticing small details, at several points, that the others miss – without being turned into a cleverness plot device. The main characters notice her differences, but they’re genuinely happy to have her around.
There’s another minor character who reads as possibly autistic to me – a prickly computer scientist named Faye, who’s happy to spend all of her time alone in a lab developing her pet project instead of bothering dealing with humans. But we don’t see enough of Faye to make me confident saying it for sure.
Overall this is much more a story about gender, otherness, family bonds, and friendship than a story about autism – but it’s a surprisingly fun ride, and well worth picking up.
The Verdict: Recommended-2