by: Elizabeth Johnson Lee
I enjoyed the House at 844 1/2. It is a story about a woman approaching middle age who suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome. Most of the world is familiar with Tourette’s from the commercials on television. This is an in-depth fictional account of life with the Tourette’s as it manifests slightly differently for the female protagonist and her son who has inherited the syndrome.
This book is an example of what I call Mythic Memoir. By that I mean that this is the mythologized story of the writers life, what they would wish it to be. I understand that much fiction is based in some sense of the author putting themselves into the protagonist role in their imagined universe. Mythic memoir is evidenced by being just a little too close to the author’s real life.
We as writers are told repeatedly to write what we know, and we do. But when we are too close to our subject matter we tend to make false assumptions about our readers. Mythic memoir is at it’s most obvious when the writer is trying to make a point they are certain their audience will not understand. Rather than allowing the reader to experience the definitive scene we are bombarded with multiple variations along with explanations to be sure we “get it.”
This does not imply bad writing or a bad story. In fact it’s common to find this is with well established highly popular authors. The problem is bad content editing. With highly successful writers, publishers “skip” this step deeming it unnecessary for sales. With self published authors it’s a step that’s rarely considered. Even when self published authors look for this kind of critique they are under no obligation to accept it.
Back to Elizabeth Johnson Lee and her book specifically it’s an easy read and she has a lot to say. I think this could be better told in two or even three distinct stories in distinct genres. There is the classic romance novel aspect to this story. Even if we include the fantastical elements the story works much better without the issues her son is facing with Tourette’s. The sex scenes are vivid but not compelling as romance. They do point out the core relationship issues, but don’t need to be rehashed for the reader as our protagonist confides to her friend.
The women’s relationships and confidences are more in keeping with memoir. Given more focus on those elements and the job history this could have been a very woman sympathetic piece. The memoir element and living with Tourette’s syndrome would play better either without the fantasy element or entirely embodied in the fantasy element. Elizabeth Moon does this brilliantly creating a fantasy world where she explores the real issues of living with autism in The Speed of Dark.
As a teen fiction novel, the story of the son and his struggle coping with Tourette’s would be fantastic if we remove any hint about his Mom having sex – with anybody! The story line of his teenaged friend being under so much pressure to succeed was poignant. I would have liked it more fully developed in a second book as devoted to exploring depression and teen suicide as this one is to living with Tourette’s.
In the case of 844 1/2 there are points at which I struggled with the story overall. There is a spot where it appears it is the Tourette’s that allows the entry into the alternative world. There is a spot where it seems that curing the Tourette’s is the only way to achieve a persons full potential. There is a great deal of “preachiness” about the virtues of a vegetarian diet. Aside from the vegetarianism, these issues resolve themselves as the story progresses.
Overall I find this to be a fun read. There are some serious typos and other editorial errors, common in self published books, but not enough to become irritating. I also would recommend this book to any adult dealing with Tourette’s Syndrome either in themselves, a spouse, a friend or with their children. It’s always nice to know you are not alone. It is also important that literature like this is out in the world expanding our awareness of both what is possible and what we take for granted in our own lives.