CM . . .
. Volume XXIII Number 1. . . .September 9, 2016
The Turing Machinists.
M. E. Reid.
Toronto, ON: DCB/Dancing Cat Books, 2016.
210 pp., trade pbk. & html, $14.95 (pbk.).
ISBN 978-1-77086-466-5 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-77086-467-2 (html).
Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up.
Review by Bev Brenna.
“So, Del, you want to tell me why you’re doing this?”
James laughed as he studied my face. “No, don’t tell me. Hey, I remember what it was like when I first started. You think being a rock star is going to get you laid, right?”
“Uh, I don’t—”
“Yeah, okay. It is true, actually. Being in a band is a bit of a chick magnet. But if that’s the only reason you want to do this, forget it. Women are trouble.”
“It’s not the reason I’m doing this,” I said, looking down.
“No?” I thought I detected skepticism in his tone. “Then why are you doing this?” he asked.
“Because I don’t want my parents to divorce.”
Del is a 17-year-old in a special grade 12 program for students with autism. Suspicions that his parents are splitting up motivate him to actualize his father’s faded dream of becoming a rock star, and Del persuades a group of classmates to form a band called “The Turning Machinists” that initially seems doomed. Along this initially predictable plot line towards musical success plays a cast of characters, Del included, who really rock with superb portrayals that are both dynamic and original. Kudos to author M.E. Reid for very fine work, here.
While Del congregates a group of musicians whose talents at first seem minimal, he also convinces his neighbor James, a reclusive rock legend, to support them as a manager, intent on winning the “Cubground Pub Battle of the Bands” in nearby Toronto. When they make it to the semifinals, managing the short yet challenging trip without the presence of their mentor, the plotline takes a twist into sublime territory. Winning the contest becomes secondary to the fact that, as a group, these classmates have stepped into an unknown reality which, for people with autism, involves overcoming tremendous fear. In the aftermath of their success, even Del’s thoughts about his parents’ divorce take a backseat—so that, without actually preventing them from separating, he manages to navigate himself into a position of confidence where he can be less affected by the change. This choice on the author’s part pushes against a “traditional happy ending” and into complex and satisfying territory.
Most of the key characters have Asperger’s Syndrome, but it manifests differently in each band member, and it’s clear that Reid—a mother of two children with autism—knows this territory well. Even the diagnostic information is up to date, including a nod to contemporary chromosomal genetic testing as well as the reference that Asperger’s is now absorbed into the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis. In addition, Reid is able to do what very few previous authors before her have accomplished, creating naturalistic portrayals that embed cultural differences alongside differences related to ability—and she does this with finesse.
The first chapter is somewhat heavy on explanation with a rather difficult blend of current context, backstory, and information from Del’s point of view about autism, as well as a stream of consciousness section about mathematician Alan Touring. However, the writing is compelling, and most readers interested in character-driven work will persevere. Explanations of autistic behavior, such as “stimming”, slow the pace, but the information presented is intriguing, and the details do set up later situations. For example, when Del becomes anxious, in order to self-calm, he gets out his “Dream Sweeter” assembly instruction booklet for the R29863 king-size bed. This is a strategy that appears throughout the story, gaining humour through its repetition. Once readers begin to recognize the organization of the text—how Del switches from explanation, to narrating the action, to connecting with the past—readers will be able to enjoy a hilarious, yet poignant, ride to the finish.
An example of a particularly funny scene occurs as the band is rehearsing at the home of one of its members:
The other side of Djebar’s double garage was stacked with boxes of dolls. But some of them were out of the boxes, with most of them wrapped in protective plastic. Djebar had told me he used to have nightmares about them.
“I can’t play with all of them staring at me,” said Petula, gesturing.
James followed her gaze to the other side of the garage. “Huh? They’re only dolls.”
“Make them stop looking at me!” Wesley was cringing behind the snare drum. Sogi put his bass guitar in front of his face. Djebar stared down at his feet with an anxious look on his face, and I was standing by the garage entrance preparing to bolt. Darrin was already halfway out of the garage.
“Ah, hell,” James muttered as he spotted me. “Come on, Del. They’re dolls. They’re not real.”
“We all know they’re not real, James,” said Djebar. “But they’re…”
“They’re distracting us,” said Sogi.
“Just turn them around so they can’t see us,” I said to James.
Another conversation a little later offers, in a similar vein, the impetus for Del to be the band’s front man:
James looked over at me, sighed, and then said, “We need a lead singer. How about it, Del?”
I stared at him, stunned.
“Del can’t sing,” Sogi said. “He stutters.”
“He does?” James sounded surprised. But his expression was unreadable to me.
“He only stutters when he’s nervous,” said Petula.
“People don’t stutter when they sing, do they?” Djebar asked.
“He also cries when he’s nervous,” said Petula.
“Oh, yeah. He does,” said Djebar.
“He doesn’t cry that much,” said Darrin.
“Well, he can’t cry and sing at the same time,” said Sogi.
While this is M.E. Reid’s first book for young adults, she delivers a masterfully unique montage of a story that offers the utmost respect for difference while at the same time employing the perspective of a very reliable and self-smart narrator who completely wins our hearts. Reid is certainly an author to watch.
Bev Brenna, a literacy professor at the University of Saskatchewan, has 10 published books for young people.
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