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October 1, 2014

Books

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The make-’em-laugh project

By Nicolás Meyer
For The Herald
It’s been a long time since I previously read a book with so many laughs — not just smiles but actual laugh-out-loud moments — as El proyecto esposa.

According to the information contained in its acknowledgments, the idea for this comic book (first envisioned as a TV drama series) arose before 2007. That means its hero, Don Tillman, cannot have been inspired by Sheldon Cooper, the main character in the US sitcom The Big Bang Theory, which began that year. However, those who were familiar with that brilliant series before reading this novel will have trouble seeing Don in their mind’s eye in any other shape than that of the awkward genius Sheldon. At least until the heroine, Rosie (the book’s original title in English is The Rosie Project), likens Don to Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird.

On the other hand, the film As Good as It Gets — which is explicitly referred to in the book — was from 1997. So it isn’t out of the question that Jack Nicholson’s obsessive-compulsive character in that comedy partially inspired the author of the present novel, Graeme Simsion (a New Zealander living in Australia).

There are major differences, though. The fictional Don and Sheldon, like the man played by Nicholson, certainly have obsessions and compulsions. But they aren’t also misanthropes, the way he is. To be precise, they are both within the range of the Asperger syndrome — a kind of mild autism that leads some individuals, usually super-bright, to lack skills in non-verbal communication. Without help, they can’t tell when someone is being ironic, sarcastic or facetious. In the main, they aggravate people not by surliness but by not understanding others’ feelings and being literal-minded and insistently logical. When a young woman asks Don, “Give me a minute,” he sets his chronometer.

When, despite everything, she invites him to share a taxi with her, he accepts because it seems to him to be the rational way to use fossil fuel.

The question that arises with this kind of material, of course, is whether it is making fun of sufferers of a medical condition. The one general answer one can give is that there is no general answer; it depends on how it’s all handled. In this case, my judgment is that anybody who says that El proyecto esposa mocks people with Asperger’s hasn’t understood the book, or has only read a few pages before dashing off a complaint.

When I say that Don, who is a professor of genetics, is the book’s hero, I mean it in every sense. He is flawed; and he is aware of it — dead easy, since people have been informing him about his shortcomings all his life. Now, motivated by what he is flummoxed to deduce is love, he faces his inner flaws and fights them. If somebody takes the trouble to elucidate to him what the outer signs of a given feeling are, he is perfectly able to detect them thereafter in any interlocutor.

Further, he is now willing to act accordingly, i.e., to follow the proper social protocol that has been explained to him. He eventually reaches the point where, when reporting to his lady friend that he has spent the best time of his adult life with her, he has wised up enough to stop himself from adding, “save at the Museum of Natural History.”

The main plot device is that, having read statistics that married men live longer (and, the stats say, more happily), he determines to wed, for which purpose he creates a 16-page questionnaire for potential applicants (to be filled in on both sides). Then into his life comes the breezy Rosie, who is clearly inadequate in every way.

Readers don’t need to be geniuses themselves to imagine which way things will go, but wait. Tying in with the above, there’s a big sub-plot. As a geneticist, Don can help Rosie, who was brought up by a stepfather, to find out who her real father is. Here too, readers may come to suspect the truth, though in this case only after a while.

But again, wait. The fun is in getting there. And the text also slips in serious information on such things as how behaviour has been conditioned by evolution.

The second half of the book is quieter in its humour than the first, but, if anything, even more perceptive in its behavioural observations — not only of Don but of “normal” people as well.

One small complaint I have is that a bit of plot information, involving the flagging of Ireland on a world map, is revealed at an unfairly late point in the story.

It wouldn’t even have been too hard to solve that detail of the plot mechanics in some other fashion.

The Rosie Project was translated in Spain, so that, elsewhere, some Spanish expressions may have to be puzzled out from the context, or looked up.

Here’s one item of help: to be a capullo means to be a jerk.

El proyecto esposa, by Graeme Simsion (Salamandra); 315 pages, 135 pesos.

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