She doesn’t feel like a person


She doesn’t feel like a person

DEBORAH STEINMAIR likes to read books with goofy, weird narrators.


SOME books simply melt in your mouth like a Lindt truffle. I love books where the narrator can barely distinguish a hawk from a handsaw when the wind is southerly.

Cassandra is such a character. Since childhood, she has felt like an extraterrestrial traveller who has to decipher the enigmatic behaviour of people. “That I’m some kind of alien, trying to learn how to be a human from scratch every day."

She knows people react strongly to her, mostly negatively. She is often asked never to return to places such as a book club, the apartment she shares with two people, her job and her relationship.

She perceives people's emotions as colours that she must interpret on the spot, with great difficulty. Her favourite reading matter — in her bedroom, in her handbag, by the toilet — is colour swatches from paint stores.

She is a perfectionist with a photographic memory and encyclopaedic knowledge. She (truly) always knows better and corrects people loudly. She realises that it doesn't endear her to others when she knows all the answers and shouts them out, but she can't help herself.

People complain that her facial expression never changes (she figures she'll probably age well), nor her tone of voice, and that she moves robotically. It feels as if she constantly wears a mask. She doesn't grasp sarcasm. Touch is especially painful for her, as is eye contact. Her foods must not touch each other. She has a germ phobia. She doesn't eat meat or “slimy chicken periods". Bananas are her staple food.

She plans her life meticulously: she wears an identical outfit in a specific colour for each day of the week. She arrives hours early for every appointment and becomes highly upset when people are late. She googles conversation topics before going on a date. She is beautiful and always gets asked on dates. Her last boyfriend, Will, broke up with her because she can't connect.

And she lost her job. Her boss accuses her of not being a people person, but often she barely feels like a person. Her struggle is everyone's: to find a foothold on this planet and navigate the turbulent sea of human relationships. Her challenges are just heightened.

Then she discovers she can travel through time. She launches herself four months back, to the beginning of her relationship with Will, and tries to do everything better. She has to repeat their first date over and over until she gets it right.

She tries to do things differently at work. She is a copywriter at an ad agency. I've been there too, and it's brutal. I could relate to her pain, especially during so-called brainstorming sessions. She repeats one session over and over until she realises she is simply unable to sit through it one more time, and she sends an e-mail to her boss:

I have been to this particular brainstorm, and this is how it goes:
- Relevant issues are put forward and immediately rejected.
- Everyone discusses the upcoming away day.
- They then reminisce about a past away day.
- A large box of doughnuts is eaten.
- Anton ignores everyone’s input and goes ahead with the precise client strategy he already had before the meeting.

This Groundhog Day-like repetition of the worst day of her life and all her attempts to make it better became a bit too much for me — I prefer broad strokes. Yet the character grabbed me by the throat and kept me reading.

She tries so hard. Slowly, the central tragedy in her life unfolds, and one understands her overwhelming sense of loss and displacement. Sometimes she simply can't help herself and blurts out her knowledge of the future. In a meeting she shoots down someone's proposal for a paintball outing: “Amir is going to get shot in the bollocks and sent to hospital squealing like a mating fox, and Grace will drink so many shots that she vomits into her handbag … and it goes down in history as the worst-planned away day our agency has ever had."

She eventually realises that she's not time travelling to undo events but to undo herself.

I recently read Michael Vlismas's biography of Elon Musk, in which he points out a paradox of society: only when you are considered completely exceptional are you allowed to chart your own path: “What does that say about our society, that all of us who don't have Asperger's are at a disadvantage because social pressure is so extreme that we're discouraged and dissuaded from our original, interesting, creative, unorthodox ideas before they've fully formed?"

Yes, that's one side of the coin, but are these people ever allowed to chart their own path before amassing billions and buying rockets? In everyday life, people on the spectrum struggle because there is little understanding of their peculiarity. “Get yourself together" is the attitude.

I enjoy being in the mind of someone who views reality with scepticism, like a visitor from Mars trying to make sense of the chaos on Earth.

It is simultaneously heart-wrenching and funny. And somewhere, it resonates.

What, where and how much? The Cassandra Complex by Holly Smale was published by Century and costs R340 at Exclusive Books.

What are we listening to? Pink Floyd: “Comfortably Numb".

♦ VWB ♦

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