Sebastian Lane is 7 years old and everyone keeps asking him if he's okay. His mother used to ask, and now it's his sister Cass, his dad, his teacher Mrs. Lambert, constantly asking. When not asking, they're telling him that everything is going to be all right. It's supposed to seem comforting, maybe, but young Sebby doesn't seem to notice or care whether things are all right or not. He's a little kid, a strange one at that, and his mom is dead. She's been hit and killed by car. How could it possibly be helpful for any adult to ask him if he's okay?
Up High In The Trees is a debut novel by San Francisco teacher and writer Kiara Brinkman, and Grove/Atlantic appears to be putting some serious marketing budget behind it. Check any of your favorite mommy blogs over the last couple weeks and it'll be there, in the AdSense sidebar. I had some trepidation about reading it, actually. Everything that I knew about the plot can be summed up in four words: Autistic Kid, Dead Mom. Ever since Mark Haddon's Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time, narrated by an autistic teenager, books narrated by fictional or actual people on the autism spectrum have become a bit of a publishing fad. Especially beloved are savants that have abilites that appear magical to boring neurotypicals like you and me (Daniel Tammet, author of Born On A Blue Day , can allegedly recite pi to 22,514 places). These books lead us to believe that men with Asperger's are always doing calculus, and women with autism are wordlessly communing with animals (like Temple Grandin does with livestock, or Dawn Prince-Hughes with gorillas). Going in, I wondered, is this book going to be painfully precious? As I've remarked before, novels in the Women's Weepie vein tend to traffic in issues that almost automatically make you burst into tears before you finish the first page. Did Kiara manage to write a whole Autistic-Kid-Dead-Mom book without making it so every reader wants to crawl into the cupboard under the sink?
Miraculously, yes. But not for the reasons I'd imagined. She managed it because her novel isn't an Autistic Kid book. It wasn't until three-quarters of the way through the book that I noticed something. Never once does she say that Sebby is autistic. It's in the ads, on the jacket and in the reviews, but it's not ever stated in her book. It's fiction, for God's sake, it doesn't need to be. Sebby is certainly odd, dislocated from his place and time. Hence the title: "up high in the trees" is where Sebby's mom told him he lived before he was born. And he's still there, floating above, looking down. Does he have autism? Who cares? I'm a reader, not a doctor, I'm not in the business of diagnosis. Giving Sebby a convenient label takes away a great deal of the beauty and mystery from an otherworldly creation. It dumbs down what turned out to be a very beautiful and deeply strange little book. He's certainly odd, but no odder than anyone else in the story.
If Sebby has some sort of diagnosed cognitive issue going on, he himself is not aware of it. He crawls into small, dark, comforting spaces, and is yelled at to "stop hiding." In school, he just falls asleep. Blessedly, he doesn't do math or do any horse-whispering. Up High In The Trees is entirely filtered through Sebby's skewed perspective, in short vignettes, usually less than a page long. As a result, the plot is fragmented, he sees and recounts things that don't make a whole lot of sense. His mother has been hit and killed by a car under ambiguous circumstances. His father pulls Sebby out of school and holes up with him in the family's mountain cabin. Sebby's two older siblings, Cass and Leo, stay home. Alone with Sebby, Dad begins to completely unravel. Here's a favorite scene of the Lane family attempting to interact in some kind of normal fashion:
"I'm having a Beatles party, [Dad] says.
What? Leo asks.
A Beatles party, says Dad. I'm playing all the songs in order. Some songs I have to listen to more than once, he says, because they're too good.
In order of the American release or the UK release? Leo asks. He wipes his nose with the back of his hand.
American, dad says.
Oh, Leo says and walks away.
It's Thanksgiving, Cass tells Dad."
The "Beatles party" Thanksgiving continues for 16 straight hours. The Lane kids wonder aloud if someone should make a turkey, but decide against it. Would YOU be able to tell which member of this family is allegedly the "autistic" one, given the way they all behave? Suspend some disbelief, folks! It's fiction. Strange behavior does not have to be explained away in a novel, if it serves a purpose.
Brinkman uses no quotation marks when characters speak, which contributes to the dislocated, underwater feeling. Sebby imagines incidents from his mother's life, things that happened when he wasn't there or wasn't born. These might be stories he's been told, or he's inventing them, or maybe he really is "up high in the trees," traveling through his mother's past, watching them happen: "At the end of the pier, Mother dropped her favorite thing. It was an owl carved out of pink soap. She dropped the pink owl in the water to see if she would jump in to save it and she did." Such an emotionally complex, symbolically rich sentence, I don't even want to attempt to unpack it. The book is full of those.
Up High In The Trees takes place in 1992. There are passing references to world events, to Clinton's election and other things. It appears, though, that the main reason for anchoring the narrative in that year is that it establishes the parents as baby boomers, and gives Brinkman a reason to weave a '60s soundtrack through the novel that you can practically hear. Music is being listened to, or discussed, constantly. The aforementioned Beatles, the Mamas and the Papas, the Beach Boys: Brinkman never quotes the lyrics directly but gets Sebby to mention them in a sideways fashion that lets you identify the songs. In one particularly moving passage, Sebby comes upon his father singing the lyrics of Van Morrison's "Cypress Avenue" at the top of his lungs. "The words get stuck in Dad's head and then he has to let them out. This has happened before... Dad says the words about cherry wine. His head is rocking and his hand bangs against his chest with each word." Whether we're looking at a man wracked by grief, Asperger's, drunkenness, or mental illness, Brinkman leaves in the eye of the beholder. Sebby doesn't have words for any of these things, and so neither do we.
One good thing that could come out of this book being marketed as part of the current autism fad is that it will attract readers who would never have otherwise picked it up. Tricked into thinking they're reading popular fiction, they will instead find a fairly audacious, difficult, small literary masterpiece. If you allow Sebby Lane to transport you up high in the trees, you will be altered by the experience.