***SPLOILER ALERT*** THIS BLOG CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS
I read a book the other day. This is a remarkable thing, in a way, because, despite my bookworm tendencies, I haven’t read a book, a novel, for a long while. I’ve been reading other stuff, academic stuff, school stuff, stuff rooted in my reality, and my novel reading habit has taken a bit of a back seat. But, at the recommendation of my friend Carol, and because my mum gave it me for Christmas (such was her surprise that I hadn’t read it that she bought me a copy so that I could remedy the situation), I sat down the other day and read a novel, cover to cover, in a couple of sittings.
I’ve never been a particular fan of John Steinbeck, I have to admit. I read The Grapes of Wrath (Mum, again) during my A Levels, and failed to be blown away (other than to be icked out by the idea of a woman breast feeding her husband out of desperation), I failed to connect with the subject matter or any of the characters, and never really went there again. But, seeing as Carol (and Mum) told me I should read it, and I had some spare time, I did.
Of Mice and Men. It’s an interesting book, in a writerly way. It reads like a play (I read the introduction too, so I know he meant it that way); you can imagine it on film, what with the way he describes the settings, as if they were the shots he would order if he were calling them. I liked the spare-ness of it, but I can’t say that I liked it, however skilfully written it is, however interesting or innovative its style.
It’s Lennie, you see. Lennie, and how he is represented. The things he does, the things the other characters say to him, say about him, and in the end, do to him.
The first time we meet Lennie, we know that something isn’t right. He doesn’t drink the water like a normal person. He sticks his head in the pool like an animal. He doesn’t know his own strength, he kills other things with astonishing ease, and doesn’t understand the consequences of his actions. His sexuality is a powerful, frightening and unrestrained thing. He isn’t like us; he isn’t like you and me.
George, his friend (I could never quite work out of they were relatives, certainly George is very keen for his work-mates to know that they aren’t), his carer, has a complex relationship with him. On the one hand protective, on the other, frustrated. He blames Lennie, fair and square, for the fact that he can’t go ahead and do things at his own speed. Lennie is holding him back. If it weren’t for Lennie he would be somebody, do something. He bullies, and yet protects him, when it is to his advantage.
Lennie, it is quite clear, is learning disabled.
Not that Steinbeck would have conceptualised him in that way, of course. Steinbeck was writing in the 30s, in a different ideological age. No doubt he would have classified Lennie in a way that would make us in the early 21st Century wince, and feel glad that times have changed.
Except that I can’t help wondering. At the end of the story, George kills Lennie with a single bullet to the head. Like the dog in the middle part, his life is ended for him; he is put down. Is it to prevent his suffering? Is it to save him from a lynching? Is it a release? Is it an execution?
Is it, when you think about it, despite its age, that much different to the stories we tell about disability today? To abort and try again (in order to increase the sum total of happiness in the human condition)? To, as in the Me Before You film (trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eh993__rOxA ) , end suffering – because a life with disability, for some people, is a life so far away from what it means to be a man, that it is a life not worth living?
What, I wonder, will A think of this book, when (if) he reads it at school? Will he have a sensitive teacher who understands that here is a boy whose older brother has learning difficulties, for whom he feels a complicated love? Will he have to write essays about it, try to explain? Will A be as tired, as I am, of the negative, ending-in-death, everything-is-difficult-and-it-isn’t-fair-on-me disability story? What will he think of the unsaid narrative that the best way to ‘deal’ with people like Lennie, people who are different, who don’t fit the mould, is to get rid of them?
A couple of weeks ago I read another book, a different book, and one that lifted my heart. In it, Mia tells the story of her sister, a little sister with a learning disability, with Down’s syndrome. (For more information and how to buy, read Hayley’s post here http://www.downssideup.com/2014/05/i-love-you-natty-siblings-uplifting.html ) She doesn’t moan, or complain; she doesn’t make out that disability is the most important thing about her sister. She doesn’t tread the old paths, re-write the same old same old doom and gloom. She writes a new story – and I love her for it.