Asperger's syndrome is a psychological disorder often categorized as a kind of high-functioning autism. Those affected with Asperger's often engage in obsessive routines, are drawn to complex patterns and are unusually sensitive to sensory stimuli. A basic symptom of the syndrome is a perceived lack of empathy for others, which results in poor communication and social skills. People with Asperger's often take things very literally. Still, those with the condition typically have above-average verbal skills. In short, you could see how, as a literary device, Asperger's syndrome could stand, writ large, for all of our own clumsy stabs of communication, for our psychological isolation, trapped as we are in the cage of our limited viewpoints. It certainly works for the narrator of Craig Lancaster's novel, 600 Hours of Edward.
The narrator, Billings resident Edward Stanton, is the son of a wealthy oil executive and combative pro-business Yellowstone County Commissioner, Ted Stanton. Banished to a small house by his parents after the "Garth Brooks incident," in which the singer took out a restraining order against Edward after he received a series of compulsively written complaint letters, Edward battles to maintain a semblance of order in an alien world.
And no wonder. Edward, who constantly reminds us he "prefers facts," finds himself surrounded by "normal" people who inhabit a world of conjecture, who are ruled by their imagination and emotion. They are irrational, often mean something completely different from what they say and are easily rattled by Edward's direct, clumsy style. Too often, Edward's interaction with this outside world leads to police intervention and endangers the stipend his father gives him for his house and living expenses.
To keep himself under control and out of trouble, Edward maintains a strict schedule. He wakes up nearly the same time every day, keeps a strict record of the daily temperature as published in the Billings Gazette and his waking time. He watches recorded episodes of "Dragnet" every night promptly at 10 p.m. His week revolves around the appointment with his therapist, Dr. Buckley, who serves as his guide and interpreter throughout. But this mysterious, irrational world conspires against him, works to draw him out. New neighbors move in across the street—a boy and his mother, who draw him out of his seclusion—and there's a note for him in his Internet dating mailbox.
Edward's most poignant means of communicating are his letters of complaint, which Buckley encourages him to write, but not to send. Every night, Edward writes a letter to someone who has confused or upset him that day, which he then stores in green folders in an elaborate filing system organized by name.
At the heart of the book is Edward's tempestuous relationship with his father, Ted. An egoistic, bombastic man, Ted Stanton is uniquely unsuited to be the father of a man with Asperger's syndrome. Ted's impatient, egoistic and short-tempered. He yells when frustrated with his son, communicates infrequently with him, too often using a lawyer and official legal correspondence to express displeasure. Edward, meanwhile, remembers happy memories as a child with his father, and is a devout follower of the Dallas Cowboys, the main shared passion between the two. He desperately seeks approval from his father, who he feels is ashamed to have a son afflicted with a mental illness. Edward needs his father to love him.
Lancaster really shows some skill and daring in his portrait of Edward. Giving a narrator a mental illness is not a novel approach in literature—Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night-Time and Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn are two recent detective novels with such narrators—but it's an approach that needs deft maneuvering to avoid either a patronizing or too-clinical tone. In 600 Hours of Edward, Lancaster gives us a realistic character struggling with limited tools to navigate his fears and yearning—and he seems an able representative of all of us.
If there's something to criticize in Lancaster's work, it's that the end is too pat, too overly sentimental. Edward's search for parental approval finds a neat and extraordinary closure of which even his therapist dryly notes of knowing people "who have waited all their lives to hear something like this." Indeed. Where Lancaster was bold in narration, craft and characterization, he's too gentle in his story. Someone once said in a writing class long ago that fiction is the art of creating beautiful, compelling characters and then doing terrible things to them. And maybe there's wisdom in that, because it's at moments of extreme crisis that our character is revealed.
Still, it's an extraordinary first novel, one free from the usual self-indulgent excesses of first novelists. It's a spare, elegantly crafted whizz-bang of a book that, on its surface, is as quiet and orderly as Edward Stanton, but underneath, also like Edward, a cauldron of barely repressed rage and desire seeking escape.
Craig Lancaster reads from 600 Hours of Edward at Fact & Fiction Friday, March 19, at 6:30 PM. Free.