Here’s how this post works. I talk a bit about a book club I used to belong to. Then there’s a picture of an electricity pylon. Then there’s a content note. Then there’s the same picture of an electricity pylon. Then there are spoilers for Me Before You by Jojo Moyes, and for Overload by Arthur Hailey. If you wish to avoid spoilers, stop reading before you get to the pylon.
My previous office had a book club. From the beginning the emphasis was more on the ‘club’ than the ‘book’. At first we waited until everyone had read the book before we arranged the meeting. When we realised that it had taken us two years to read eight books we started going ahead with the meetings regardless of how many people had got through the one in question. The result of that was that the meetings became five minutes of book talk against two hours of gossip. The night we were meant to talk about Me Before You was hijacked by… in fact, I think it was my leaving do – and we never talked about the book at all. It’s been in the news, and therefore my mind, recently, and so I’m going to talk about it now.
[content note: discussion of euthanasia in fiction in the remainder of this post and in the external posts linked to]
I’ve been following the coverage around the release of the film version of Me Before You with some interest. I was troubled by the book at the time that I read it, over two years ago now, but what with one thing and another (read: my leaving do) never got around to discussing it.
If you want an itemised list of the problematic aspects of Me Before You, I can’t do better than refer you to this comprehensive sporking by Cara Liebowitz.In fact, I’m going to quote her summary, too:
“Me Before You” is a novel turned movie that focuses on Louisa, who takes a job as a personal care attendant for a wealthy quadriplegic man who hates himself, her, and everyone around him, in that order. She falls in love with him, though she can’t dissuade him, in the end, from going to Dignitas in Switzerland to end his life. Because being disabled is soooooooooo terrible and tragic, didn’t you know?! /sarcasm
The problematic aspects of Me Before You can be sorted into the following categories:
- ableist attitudes coming from a sympathetic but ill-informed character, deliberately intended to present them as ill-informed
- ableist attitudes coming from an unsympathetic character, deliberately intended to present them as unsympathetic
- relatively realistic portrayals of the obstacles
- coming from a sympathetic character, unintentionally presenting an ableist attitude as objective fact
- an overarching ableist assumption by the author herself
My impression is that I would sort these differently from the way that Liebowitz does, and other readers will of course sort them their own ways. I’ll also refer you to this post by disabled writer David Gillon. Whether Jojo Moyes would agree with any of us is of course another question, and to a certain extent is irrelevant.
My own feeling is that she forfeits the benefit of the doubt. Choosing the ending that she does – for which I was basically prepared from the start by the cover of the paperback edition I read, which makes some problematic assumptions of its own – she acquiesces to the prevailing cultural narrative that it’s better to be dead than disabled. She never really interrogates that, not in any meaningful way, and the net result is that Will gets no character development whatsoever.
Of course there’s an argument to be made about autonomy, and personal choice, and what that looks like when physical capability is restricted, but, contrary to the protestations of the film director, the direction that Me Before You chooses doesn’t feel like the ‘brave’ one to me. In fact, it felt far less progressive than Arthur Hailey’s Overload, which, though it was written thirty-three years earlier, I’d read only a couple months before.
Overload is magnificently tacky, and occasionally plain bizarre. It has ecoterrorism, irresponsible parenting (don’t let your children fly kites near overhead lines, people), a man who loses his penis and is promised a prosthetic one, some frankly appalling health and safety failings, and an equally appalling protagonist who spends the book shagging his way around the female half of the cast list. And mostly this makes my skin crawl, but…
One of said cast list is Karen Sloan, who is a far less miserable and more interesting fictional quadriplegic than Will Trainor. She’s portrayed as a sociable, attractive woman who desires and enjoys sex, who desires and enjoys life. She has a fulfilling social life. A neighbour’s child regards it as a privilege to perform small acts of care for her. Her eventual death, when the overload of the title leads to her respirator running out of battery, is presented as a tragic accident, not a ‘merciful release’.
I’ve been taking notes on how not to fail on my own account. After all, Wheels or Bonk or whatever we’re calling it these days has a disabled main character and a non-disabled narrator who starts out as a clueless jerk. Some things I’m going to try:
- undermining my unreliable narrator from page one
- reading around the subject more. A lot more.
- extrapolating from my own experience
- having a happy ending for everyone
- getting a friend who has a similar condition to my disabled character to read the damn thing and tell me where I’ve messed up
- offering her copious amounts of gin for her trouble
It really doesn’t feel like rocket science. Perhaps ‘fail less than Me Before You‘ is just a very low bar.