- The Secret Life of Stories: From Don Quixote to Harry Potter, How Understanding Intellectual Disability Transforms the Way We Read by Michael Bérubé
The Secret Life of Stories is a short, elegantly written monograph that gives a reader the feeling of sitting in an engaging seminar with a witty, candid, and empathetic leader. It reviews literary disability studies in a way comprehensible to those new to the field, even as it invigorates and extends that thinking for current disability studies scholars. Readers familiar with disability studies will find the book’s opening contention familiar—that “representations of disability are ubiquitous, far more prevalent and pervasive than (almost) anybody realizes” (1). But Michael Bérubé contends that disability studies has gone somewhat adrift even as it revels in this ubiquity. His book reminds us that the current critical emphases on assessing kind or accuracy of literary depictions of disability can threaten to inhibit the more innovative interpretive possibilities that disability studies offers. As he points out, the field need not be “confined to the representation of human bodies and minds in literary texts” (25). Taking up his own methodological challenge, Bérubé offers in his work a different take on what he calls the “deployments” of disability in narrative, arguing that “they can also be narrative strategies, devices for exploring vast domains of human thought, experience, [End Page 116] and action” (2). Bérubé argues, in particular, that the deployment of intellectual disability provides the opportunity for a more capacious understanding of how narratives work. For example, Benjy’s intellectual disability in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury can invite a re-imagination of how narratives are “supposed” to unfold; Christopher’s hyper-intricate descriptions of the world around him in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time can expose the constructedness of (neuro)typical narration. In building upon similar work of other literary disability studies scholars, Bérubé also offers in this book a thoughtful interrogation of some of their foundational ideas, such as David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder’s “narrative prosthesis” and Ato Quayson’s “aesthetic nervousness.”
In their ever-expanding body of work, Bérubé contends, scholars can unwittingly undermine their own political ends and limit an understanding of what disability can do for stories, by diagnosing and cataloguing disabled characters, as well as emphasizing physical but not intellectual disability. Bérubé further asserts that critical interventions must not simply define disability as the literal depiction of an identity always fated to be contained, erased, or dismissed. Instead, Bérubé aligns himself with and builds upon the approaches of scholars such as Tobin Siebers (visual studies) and Joseph Straus (musicology). Like them, he uses this book to claim aesthetic weight and legitimacy for disability in art. His approach eschews supplying an exhaustive (and exhausting) catalogue of examples, instead emphasizing through its case studies disability’s narrative possibilities. In this sense, The Secret Life of Stories is an important addition to other work that has shown disability to be a generative force in artistic, social, and cultural creation. I am thinking here, for example, of H-Dirksen Bauman’s notion of “Deaf gain” and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s concept of “disability gain,” both of which emphasize that there is a collective knowledge all readers (not just those in disability studies) can acquire from disability experiences.
Framing his work with engaging stories from his life as a scholar, teacher, and father of an intellectually disabled son, Bérubé moves thoughtfully and purposefully through a wide range of texts, popular and canonical, traditional and experimental. His broad historical scope helps him delineate “a few of the most important and engaging uses of intellectual disability in fiction” through his shorter case studies (31). In particular, he focuses on the ways in which intellectual disability becomes a transformative element in narrative in delineating motive, time, and self-awareness anew. For example, he [End Page...