Gay Times April 08 - Issue 355
Novelist and critic Adam Mars-Jones, whose new novel, Pilcrow, is told from the point of view of a young disabled boy, writes here about minorities within minorities, political correctness and why disabled people are so often neglected by mainstream culture
I’d rather not blab all the secrets of a book that took a long time to write, so let’s just say that John Cromer, the hero of my new novel, Pilcrow, is put to bed when he’s three and gets up again when he’s seven. (A pilcrow, by the way, is a little symbol that lives at alt+7 on my computer keyboard, an old symbol with a modern use – as an icon on a word processor it means ‘reveal non-printing characters’.) From that point on, he does all he can to join a larger world, but it’s uphill work. At the end of a long book, more than 500 pages later, he’s still only 15, and just beginning to stake his claim to an education that’s tailored to his mind rather than his body.
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If the minority is always right, then John is pretty much infallible. I really pile on the marginalising factors – left-handedness is about the only disadvantage he’s spared. This isn’t as perverse as it sounds. The whole point is that John is in the same minority as everyone else, a minority of one. He addresses the reader on terms of strict equality. My subject isn’t impairment but wholeness against the odds.
Of course I have to get the bloody details right, of everything people have to cope with when their bodies don’t co-operate. And I’m not going to sanitise the emotional repercussions. I lived through the era of ‘positive images’ for minorities in the arts, and I don’t remember it with affection. As far as I’m concerned, the stronger a community is the more contradictions it can accept from its own people. Airbrushing out the awkward stuff doesn’t fool anyone.
I remember a story that was submitted to me in 1982 or so, when I was editing an anthology of gay and lesbian fiction for Faber (published as Mae West Is Dead). It described an elderly male couple walking through a park where gay men lay in each other’s arms, the dear old folk giving their blessing to the easy joy of the young. It wasn’t a story, but a sermon that patronised both age groups. If the couple had resented the casual pleasure being taken on the grass, denied them in their own youth, or else felt sorry for a generation that would never have the thrill of slipping a ten-bob note into a guardsman’s trouser pocket in a Chelsea pub, then that would have been a different matter. I might well have published it.
As far as my character John goes, I have a secret weapon in the form of first-person narration. The real power in a novel lies in control of the point of view. If you get to tell your own story, then by definition you aren’t helpless. You have the last word, the first word, and all the words in between. You own your world. Physical difficulties (in a book) are small beer compared to that.
Early readers of the book have been surprised that it has the bad manners to be funny. I think it’s appropriate; laughter doesn’t blot out the fact of suffering, it lights it up from the inside. Comedy has the power to turn helplessness into a form of play, and laughter can create moments of equality – though having the last laugh is even better than having the last word.
In 1986 I wrote a story called Slim, one of the first to take Aids as its subject. Inevitably it was a dark story, but one passage, which pitted alternative medicine against Hollywood schlock in my narrator’s mind, was clearly comic: “One of the things I’m supposed to be doing these days is creative visualisation, you know, where you imagine your white corpuscles strapping on their armour to repel invaders. I don’t seem to be able to do it. I think of Raquel Welch in Fantastic Voyage. That’s the film where they shrink a submarine full of doctors and inject it into a dying man’s blood. He’s the president, or something. Raquel Welch gets attacked and almost killed by white corpuscles; they’re like strips of plastic that stick to her wetsuit until she can’t breathe. So I don’t think creative visualisation will work for me. I still can’t persuade myself the corpuscles are the good guys… ”
It makes sense that someone who made jokes all the time when he was well would make them when he was deathly sick, but I still wondered whether the passage worked. When I read it aloud to audiences, though, I was reassured. People didn’t want to laugh, seeing that my character’s situation was so dreadful, but if they did then their attitude to the story shifted. They stopped responding as if listening to it was a ghastly social duty. They were much freer than when they thought they were attending a sort of funeral, much more open to what I was trying to do.
With a hero who’s in an area of overlap between minorities I’ve had a chance to think about how they compare. From the point of view of the general reader – say, the book club reader, Richard-&-Judy or otherwise – it might be easier to contemplate the sex life of a disabled gay man than his straight counterpart. Sex for a straight man is assumed to be all about penetrative, while gay men have a wider repertoire. It takes John so many pages to get anywhere near erotic contact that I’m fairly confident readers will be cheering him on by the time of the Music Room scene, when some at least of his dreams come true. That’s a purely literary effect, though, and needn’t translate to any actual broadening of attitude.
In fact there’s a theory that tries to account for how reluctant people are to identify with the disabled. We’re talking, after all, about the only minority that most of us are pretty much bound to belong to at some stage or other. In a rather politically-correct but useful and sobering phrase, we’re all only temporarily abled.
People seem to find it easy to murmur to themselves, “There but for the grace of God go I”, or some other formula to acknowledge that it only takes a moment to exchange a motorbike for a wheelchair. At the same time, we behave as if the border between the two states, disability and temporary ability, were rigid and heavily patrolled.
This is where dear old Freud enters the argument, muttering, “Return of the repressed” into his beard. If we treat disability as completely foreign, unimaginable, it isn’t because it’s unfamiliar but for exactly the opposite reason. Because it’s deeply familiar. Because we remember it and fear its return.
That early disabled state – unable to control movement, to express oneself – is being a baby. At some level we know only too well how it felt to be at the mercy of love or indifference, unable to impose ourselves on our surroundings, passive and seething. As adults we insist on placing a barrier between disabled lives and our own, not because they’re too different, but because they’re not different enough for comfort.
So if we ignore and neglect the disabled, at least there’s a reason. Not a good reason, but a reason. I hope this theory isn’t true. It would explain a lot, though, wouldn’t it? It fits the facts.
Pilcrow by Adam Mars-Jones is published in April by Faber & Faber, £18.99