Eli Gottlieb has done something unusual — he's written two novels, 20 years apart, from opposing but connected perspectives. The Boy Who Went Away
, his first novel, draws from Gottlieb's own childhood to chronicle a young boy's coming of age in a family with a severely disabled, classically autistic brother. It won the American Academy's Rome Prize for Fiction, and Phillip Lopate
called it "shockingly, electrically alive." Gottlieb went on to write two critically acclaimed literary thrillers, The Face Thief
and Now You See Him
, which was devoured by our CEO, Miriam Sontz: "I read it for an hour at lunch and then finished it the same night right after dinner, when I heated up leftovers so I wouldn't have to spend time away from this book."
His newest novel, Best Boy, written from the perspective of a middle-aged autistic man who's been living in institutions most of his life, tells the other side of the story from The Boy Who Went Away. Walter Kirn calls Best Boy "A literary experience of piercing, invigorating, profound humanity," and Andrew Solomon raves, "Amid the flood of books about autism in childhood comes this gripping novel about the fresher territory of autism in midlife...written with élan, wit, and great empathy." We're excited to choose Best Boy for our Indiespensable #54.
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Jill Owens: How did you decide to revisit the territory of The Boy Who Went Away from a different point of view? How do you see Best Boy relating to that first novel?
Eli Gottlieb: I think that what all the books I've written have in common on one level is a real attention paid to the mechanics of narrative. I think that's the place that I really am happiest in the actual gearing of long-form narrative.
I wrote that first book because I was writing a book that was far more avant-garde, if you will. It was based more on the influence of Milan Kundera. The only typescript of that book was stolen out of my car, and in response to that, almost in a fit of rage, I decided to completely abandon the idea of any distance between myself and the reader and wrote a book that was as self-revealing as I could make it. That was my first novel, The Boy Who Went Away.
I just dispensed with the entire postmodernist bag of tricks and wrote a very straight-ahead, conventional narrative, but I was ambivalent about the autobiographical, and I made a point of writing two books after that that were not explicitly autobiographical.
I think that the truth is, there was a voice in my head that had always been in my head, that had been there from the very, very beginning when I first started writing as a boy, and it was the voice of my brother.
I was, as I say, writing from a very early age, and I think one of my reactions to the extremity of my childhood with this person in my life — who was clearly deranged and very unhappy to be on the planet — was that I made fun of my family in stories. From the very, very first, I understood that these people were worthy of fictional depiction. It was my way of grounding myself. It came to me very early on as an aid in exploring my relations with the world.
After doing two books that had nothing to do with my autobiography, per se — all novels, of course, are autobiographical in the sense that all of the characters are necessarily fractions of yourself, but these books were not explicitly autobiographical — I felt the need to do something that seemed to me to come from deeper down. I had written these two books which had very fast-paced narrative structures to them and sort of hitched a ride on some thriller-esque elements, and I decided to do something that drew from deeper down and that was against the grain of the slickness that was attaching to these two previous books.
That's really the best explanation that I can give. The way I write books is not like other people I've known, who can have a very preformatted idea and a blueprint in their head. I really don't proceed like that. I just kind of accrete the book, and I don't really start out with a clear sense of where I'm going.
I did know that for Best Boy, I wanted to go against my own facility and strike out in a different direction that did not depend on the conventional literary repertoire of storytelling resources and stylistic resources, most of all. And this voice that was always there rose up.
Jill: How did that voice translate to the page?
Gottlieb: I wrote the first draft of the book in the second person, and the second person was extremely useful because it can get at the strangeness of the person inhabiting it. Because it's unclear whether that person is talking to the reader or themselves. That ambiguity of the second person form was extremely useful for me, as I say, in capturing or mapping a lot of the perceptual oddity of the narrator's point of view.
What then became clear to me was that, at least for this book, the second person would prove to be too fatiguing to the reader, and also for the writer. [Laughter]
So, having written a couple of hundred pages in the second person, which allowed me to inhabit this skewed perceptual landscape more efficiently and more freshly, I think, I then recast it in the first person while trying to retain that oddness, that peculiarity of the point of view.
Jill: You wrote an essay for us a while ago that was about living in and leaving Italy, and you wrote that essay in the third person, which was unusual for an essay.
Gottlieb: It's interesting. I think that maybe learning another language in depth made it easier to step away from some of my own literary habits. I remember in the 1980s, when I was living alone in Padua, Italy, and learning Italian necessarily, because I was completely alone — it satisfied the need for writing. For two or three years, I didn't write. And during that time my Italian became extremely proficient.
I think that learning another language is one of those things that allows you to develop a bit of perspective on your mother tongue and to step away from it a bit. I think that helped in writing this new book.
Jill: I was interested in how you thought about the way the narrator, Todd, used language, because he sometimes has very literal thought processes. At one point he says he thinks that he can hear the actual sound of money in his brother's body, which shows that his observations about the world can also be quite poetic.
Gottlieb: Well, it was a process for me of first eliminating the "literary" elements of the writing, and then backing up to try to find the strangeness in the individual sentences. It was actually an extremely labor-intensive book to write. It probably seems deceptively slight, but in fact, it took a tremendous amount of labor to find the strangeness in the sentences, and in the perceptions.
One of the challenges of this book for me was to make other people interesting enough so that they could carry the formal dance of relations of a novel. Because novels are always about relationships. When your narrator is somebody as self-enclosed as a severely autistic person is, can you make the secondary characters interesting enough to carry a book?
That was something that I had to negotiate within the writing very, very attentively. He could not have perceptions that were too high-functioning. His language could not be too recondite or studied. A lot of the inspiration for this, in a way, was the sort of broken poetry of which a mind like my brother's is capable of. Spontaneous, putting together words and images that you would not expect.
It really was like I assimilated this outlook into myself, and stayed in it, and it eventually began to direct me as to what to do. But I was careful to try not to make him ever too knowing or too literary. There are very few commas in the book, for example. The sentences are short. There's kind of a linguistic bluntness to the way it's written, which is at odds with the rest of my books, which are more conventional and literary, so I took a risk in that sense. I went to a place that I was not familiar with.
Jill: I read that you'd studied as a poet initially, and I do think that is evident in the book. Without being overly literary, there's that kind of freshness and perception that good poetry does show us.
I love some of Todd's observations, like the way he describes Martine. He says that "it was fun to be around someone who spoke to you out of the surprise places in conversation and had a girl-voice like a bunch of warm hands that pleasantly handled your insides." That's not something most people would say, but it feels like an accurate description by anyone who's interested in someone they'd just met.
Gottlieb: Yes. John Ashbery says somewhere about how writing in meter is like riding a bicycle where the pedals force your feet to move. In a similar way, it was like inhabiting this perceptual universe pushed me into places that I wouldn't have visited myself. And that I sometimes didn't really want to have to visit. Every book, for me, is a hell of a different hue, but this one was particularly difficult for me to write. I don't know why, but it was.
Jill: In a lot of ways, Todd, it seems to me, is pretty high-functioning. He can live mostly by himself, and he's able to read and to use the Internet. How common is that among residents at institutions like that? Because the range is pretty wide, as it is portrayed in the book.
Gottlieb: Yes, it's not that common, but it happens. I spent a lot of time in therapeutic communities and residential communities for the developmentally disabled growing up, because my brother was my mother's main job in life. We were very involved in his upbringing after he left home. After my parents' death, I then became his guardian, so I spent a lot of time in these places. One of the things you realize is that there is not a standard tool kit. It's an infinitely various rainbow of skill sets that come to the disabled.
They're strong in certain areas and weak in others. There was a guy at one of my brother's places, for example, who was extremely gifted with photography and had tremendous ability to frame and photograph, but couldn't really read. You find every sort of possible distribution of skills among individuals.
Jill: Todd does try very hard to be "good." He has a number of coping strategies that he goes through to help his anxiety and his temper, which seems pretty impressive.
Gottlieb: Yeah, he does. Don't forget, he's been there for a long time. He's internalized what he's been told to do, and he has a very, almost devout relationship to doing what is right. It is his lifeline, and again I have found, in my experience, very often people with autistic tendencies like my brother have an extremely, almost fetishistic relationship to doing what they've been told to do. It's extremely important to fulfill the obligations that have been posed on them. That's a way of maintaining structure.
Jill: The brother in Best Boy, Nate, is a less sympathetic character than the narrator in The Boy Who Went Away, perhaps in part because he's only portrayed from Todd's perspective. How did you think about his relationship with Todd?
Gottlieb: In the same way that I took a grain of truth in the first novel, in each of those characters — the narrator, the brother, the mother, the father — and extrapolated it out for the purposes of drama, in this book, I made him more emphatically an asshole than he likely would have been.
However, having said that, I think it's very important for people to understand the kind of human strain that siblings are under, when they have to take care of the disabled on an ongoing basis, for extended periods of time.
More than that, or in addition to that, a lot of resentment often accrues over the fact that you have been exiled to the suburbs of your own family as a child growing up, because the invariable result of a disabled child is that they become the center of the family, and everyone else rotates around them. The mother and the child form an indissoluble bond, and everyone else is relegated to the bleacher seats of their own family.
I myself am a pretty caring and attentive guardian to my brother, but for the purposes of drama in this book, and also to underline these points that I thought were worth making, I turned him into a more noxious individual.
It also just didn't interest me to make him a nice guy. [Laughter]
Jill: Todd's fear of animals, once he explains it, is truly a horrifying idea: "The problem was that just like cats or bunnies, dogs were also people. They were people with distorted long ears and long noses and pointed big teeth in their mouths who had been crushed into strange bodies and forced to bark horribly instead of talking but they were still people." That's such a disturbing and specific image. Where did it come from?
Gottlieb: Well, that came from the fact that many classical autistics have a very serious and abiding fear of animals, of cats and dogs. In my brother's case, nothing I could do would dissuade him. I would put in front of him a creature that looked like a Disney animal, a puppy with long lashes and fluffy ears that just wanted to lick his hand, and he would draw away in horror.
I wanted to try to explore why there was this passionate and irrational fear of even the gentlest four-legged animals. I don't think my brother was as scared of fish, for example. So why this intense fear? And that's where it brought me. It was an investigation into a longstanding, genuine fear that I tried to unpack.
Jill: If it's anywhere near the truth, then it makes a lot of sense.
Gottlieb: Yes, who knows? Autism is a black box. Autism repels language.
Though again, I think it's very important to continue to specify classical or severe autism, because what's happened due to the widening of the diagnosis of autism over the last 25 years is that it doesn't mean only one thing, the way it used to, far more dependably. All of these other pathologies, or whatever you want to call them, all of these other syndromes have been subsumed under the rubric of autism. So you have people that are extremely high-functioning, who think of their autism as a gift, and they get very offended if you describe it as a disease.
Jill: There is so much language, so much writing, in The Boy Who Went Away. Denny is spying on his own family. So he's keeping notebooks full of observations. His mother is keeping notebooks about his brother. His father is writing his own journals about the war. Did writing run in your family? Did your mother and father do that?
Gottlieb: Well, I came from a book-worshipping family, a bibliophilic family. My dad was a book binder and a paper maker and a rare book collector. My mom was a novelist manqué who was basically masquerading as a piano teacher. I grew up in a house that just adored books. I'll never forget a friend coming over when I was in my 20s, coming back to my parents' house and saying, "Gosh, this is the reverse of the normal house you see with friends' parents. A shitty house with great books." [Laughter]
That was really where my father's heart was, and I grew up in his library. I am basically an autodidact, and I really have the inestimable advantage of having had this beautiful library.
Whenever my father would see a new novel of mine, the very first thing he would do would be to take the dust jacket off and open it up in such a way so that he could see the mechanicals of its construction, the binding, the paste. That was the very first thing he wanted to see, and only then would he read it.
Jill: Do you collect now?
Gottlieb: I inherited his collection, and I actually wrote a piece about it for the New York Times' travel section. It was about going to Colorado, where I used to live. I moved from Rome to Colorado and got married there. I got divorced, and I couldn't take the many thousands of his books that I inherited, so I put them in storage. A once-in-a-thousand-year flood then swept down the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, and I lost some of his books, which was really heartbreaking. I lost a full collection of first editions of Conrad, for example. That kind of thing.
I don't have enough money to collect, really, but in my own kind of cheerful, limited way, I will occasionally spy first editions in bookstores that have been overlooked and get them, if I think that they're worth anything and I like the book.
But my father was a true collector, and it was a lifelong passion. His thing was mainly the history of science, celestial navigation — steering by the stars. But yeah, we were a book-loving family. My mother was reading Dickens on her deathbed.
Jill: Is there a question that you haven't been asked that you'd like to be, or anything that didn't come up?
Gottlieb: One thing that happened with this was that I had to reread The Boy Who Went Away, because they were republishing it. They reformatted it, and in fact there were an enormous amount of typos in the early ARC.
I hadn't read it in a long time, and I was actually doubly thrilled that you guys are including this other book. I don't know of any other experiences for a reader where they can see the severe impact of a disability on a family, from both sides of the sibling aisle, over time.
What it did to me — though I'm not obviously a credible witness in this sense — was give me the feeling of a family planetarium, in which you could actually see the movement of things through space and time. That's what I want to say.