“One Station Away”
I seem to stumble frequently on autism related reading matter, and no longer believe it’s a coincidence. Certain types of narratives just find me now. My job is to bow to what I am meant to absorb. I understand better than I used to that my journey as a reader is to learn to center the autism perspective—to stop seeing it as alternative; to watch people like my own children inhabit the world as their own heroes.
The book I read most recently felt like having my heart excavated out of me. Everything hurt, but then it was healing to put myself in a skilled surgeon’s hands and just decide to see how I would be changed if I survived the ordeal. The surgeon is the sort who works to the strains of classical music, so you exist in suspension, feeling like your humanity is being permanently shifted, while intuition and skill and training hover over you, both involved in and detached from your fear and pain, and the melodies beyond time pull your soul out of your body and fix your broken heart. The best kind of writing is manipulative, cruel, life changing, hurtfully gorgeous.
Such a skill can be seen in Olaf Olafsson’s novel “One Station Away.” To be honest, I intend here to leave you only with my fleeting impressions because the way autism is addressed is so subtle that everyone should be running to buy or borrow this book and be changed by it on their own.
Magnus Colin, the protagonist, is suspected to have Aspergers, but never agrees to an evaluation. The same goes for his mother. I experienced this factoid with fascination because how many of us know in our guts that our kids did not arrive at their diagnoses in a vacuum. If it is genetic, then it follows that there are most likely expressions all through the family lines, but we pretty much agree to let sleeping dogs lie and to allow our kids to be spoken of as anomalies so that no one has to be outed or made to feel that their coping skills are visible to others.
Because the narrative never centers Aspergers overtly, it remains a dancing possibility, never quite brought to the forefront, which is both frustrating and realistic. Magnus’ close relationships and work interactions (he is a neurologist, which is just supremely perfect, hah) are shaped by the things he cannot say, by the distances that build up like longings that can never be assuaged.
In his work, Magnus and his colleagues try to communicate with coma patients who show signs of alertness, in an effort to determine if parts of their brains are still reachable. This whole thing could have failed spectacularly as a symbolic tool, but it does not. The reader ends up getting invested, groaning over the irony of Magnus with all his silences trying to tap into the silence of people’s brains, and yet seeing how someone like him is amply suited for the task.
There is a clinical yet hurtful detachment between Magnus and his parents, whom he refers to by their names, Margaret and Vincent. A pianist whose career never took flight, Margaret is eternally resentful of Magnus’ role in her mediocrity, Vincent her attention seeking enabler and exploiter. Magnus is only able to connect with Margaret through Vincent’s exaggerations and florid narratives. Otherwise, she remains a cipher as a mother. We can intuit Olafsson’s skill here: if two people whose possible Aspergers diagnoses will never be acknowledged try to force themselves into neurotypical normative roles, wouldn’t it follow that they are doomed to remain poles apart?
Every time Magnus talks to his parents about his own areas of surety, he is left feeling like he has wronged them. They are aggrieved narcissists, caught up in the centrality of their own victimhood, and his own certainties must never impinge. New information feels threatening to them, so they keep him at bay. What a lonely reality for an only child grappling with his own griefs.
Unexpectedly, Margaret experiences a late-in-life career boom, shepherded by Vincent into sudden fame. This part of the story is the one that brings Magnus and his parents into the same narrative frames, with horrifying consequences. I shan’t spoil it for anyone. Go read. But I will say that here is where the surgical precision is at its cutting best. A family that previously seemed to exist in some time and space warp winces in the light of modernity. We can only wince and cringe in tandem.
I’ve left the biggest truth of Magnus’ life for last. He was in an intense relationship with a woman named Malena, who died of a degenerative disease, leaving him in pieces. As their past is revealed to us, we start to see, though, how Malena insisted on a purity and perfection of interaction with Magnus. She never wanted to be a wasting away invalid with him, so she never allowed him to see her at her worst. She came to him only in bouts of wellness, so he experienced only wholeness with her, her health a taboo topic she never allowed him to address openly.
The pain that this incomplete disclosure leaves Magnus with infects his whole present day sense of self. How could he not have insisted on being more in her life? Why did he not bring forth the doctor in himself and override his apprehensions? But he was conditioned by the boundaries his mother taught him to prize, unable to push himself on a woman’s consciousness for fear of losing what little favor he enjoyed. He is watchful and perceptive, able to read Malena’s despair, but paralyzed by the inability to say shattering things, thus eternally denied closure. Malena never even said goodbye, just left him to learn later that she had died. If this is not the most poetic exploitation of Aspergers traits on Malena’s part, I don’t know what is. She took the best of these traits—an ability to fix on the reality in front of oneself, for example—and made a momentarily perfect world. Except she departed, and Magnus is left to obsess alone.
Grief can be felt in so many ways. I cried with Magnus, and hated him a little at the end for the choice he makes, but that IS what learning to center autism is. We have to get out of the way and let peace and closure take whatever form they have to.
Olafsson, Olaf. One Station Away. New York: Harper Collins, 2017.