Bodies in Space is a novella-length story about Isaac, a young man whose cognitive abilities place him somewhere on the autism spectrum, and his relationship with his friend Rick, a videographer whom he’s known since childhood. Isaac lives a semi-independent life in a living space above his parents’ garage, he attends life skills class and therapy sessions, and three times a week he works at an office for which he performs some clerical tasks. His primary interests are space and Rick. Rick’s life is not so routine. He travels often for work with the amount of time he’s away and the level of danger involved varying. I can only assume his interests are traveling and exploring because he’s not shooting man-on-the-street documentaries. When we finally meet him, he’s returning from Mozambique.
Isaac is the narrator and it is done to perfection. We, the readers, are limited by his view of the world and of himself. Though he has a hard time focusing for extended periods of time, his thoughts are not sporadic and jumbled. So when he moves from one topic to another there is a connection between the two and you don’t feel like you’re being spun around while playing blind darts. We are always in his head and the times when he’s not concentrating on his own physical behavior, we are clueless about what his body is doing. There was a very interesting scene where he is masturbating and it just seems like the fact that he came was either completely due to magic, or that he’s really sensitive and really fast, but what actually happened was that his mind was focused on something other than his erection at the time his hands were attending to it. This level of attention runs throughout the story and makes it very easy to understand Isaac in his world rather than seeing Isaac as someone to feel sorry for even when he’s having a difficult moment. Isaac doesn’t need your sympathy.
The thing I appreciate the most about this story is how Bishop manages to write a character whose cognitive abilities limits the ways he interacts with people and things around him without him reading as stilted or flat. To someone with a broader range of subjective discernment skills, Isaac’s understanding of the world he lives in may seem rather simplistic, but it isn’t–he just doesn’t take the everyday things for granted. I’d like to say it’s because he can’t afford to since he continues to learn that things aren’t always what they seem, especially words, and that can make even what would appear to be a trivial interaction not so easy to navigate. On the other hand, according to and with the exception of Rick, Isaac is surrounded by people who have a great amount of confidence that he will never be able to be anymore independent that he is when we meet him. And if that is the case, he is probably constantly being cushioned from many of the blows of daily living by those people, so there’s no need or sense of urgency in him seeing beyond a few steps ahead of himself.
However, I think it’s more accurate to say that the reason Isaac’s perspective isn’t simplistic is because he doesn’t want it to be. Beyond things like learning life skills like making mac-n-cheese, moving above the garage because that’s what adults do, and holding down a job even if it is only three days a week, Isaac collects his experiences and the incidental things he learns like legos. Once he grasps the nature or multiple natures of these pieces, he can snap them together however he sees fit to build bridges, tunnels, and shelters to get over, through, and endure the successive moments in life. At some point he came across a piece called hugs. Another time he collected a piece called duration in regards to actions. At some other time he picked up a piece called selective interaction. With those and a few other pieces he’s able hug Rick’s mother for a count of three and move on, but, reconfigured, he’s able hug Rick, but wait for the signal that it’s time to let go or hug him and have the expectation of something more. He also has pieces that represent what’s important and what isn’t. These allow him to get away with tuning out things that don’t interest him or he doesn’t have ability to process at that moment. I say “get away with” because he does exactly that–he doesn’t feel the need to engage in the table’s conversation even though everyone else does (and he does have, to an extent, a grasp on social queues), so he tunes it out and only returns to it when Rick engages him, because, to him, that’s important.
At one point in the story Isaac talks about the wall that’s around his brain that makes it difficult for things to get in and even more so for things to get out. Through Isaac we get to know Rick and we get to see that he has his own wall that makes traversing the landscape of his life a struggle. Through Rick’s responses to the things Isaac does you come to understand that he cares for Isaac; that he sees him as a whole person with his own thoughts, feelings, and motivations; and that, even though their physical relationship seems to be in a progressive state, he takes neither Isaac’s willingness nor his inexperience for granted. Through Isaac’s responses to the things that Rick does–it’s important to point out that this includes things that he witnessed for himself, was told by Rick, or inferred–we come to understand that beyond his desire to be with Rick and be touched by Rick because it makes him feel good, that he understands Rick’s personality, that he understands that their relationship is different, that it matters to him whether or not Rick is present, that even though he has trouble with conceptualizing stretches of time, that missing Rick for a few weeks will be a lot different than missing him for seven or eight months. We also see that he understands that his words mean something to Rick and that he understands fear and courage. And the way his understanding of fear and courage were illustrated was great because it happened in parts and as both a lived experience and a witnessed one.
The relationship between Isaac and Rick is very sweet, occasionally sensual, and just a little heartbreaking. Isaac is living with an alternative manner of cognition, but his personage is not written in the shadow of it neither does his personage erase it. And though Rick has what amounts to a more common manner of cognition, he does not stand out as any kind of benevolent savior for or in the eyes of Isaac. They are equals and they are both dealing with and trying to overcome their limitations. It’s a great story and there are so many more things I could tell you, but it’s beyond me right now. Also, you should just read it for yourself.
As a bonus, before I found the cover on Smashwords, I created an image for this story because that’s just how this blog is; every story needs an image. So, here it is, I didn’t want it to go to waste.