Tammer, Daniel. Born on a Blue Day __________ Moore, Patrick. Tweaked _____________ Burroughs, Augusten. Possible Side Effects

 Daniel Tammet’s favourite sequence in pi’s infinite decimal tail runs from the 19,437th to 19,453rd place: 99992128599999399. To him, it’s a textured landscape, in shades dominated by deep blue.

Tammet has Asperger’s syndrome (an autism spectrum disorder), and synasthesia, a mixing of the senses. A savant, he has a visual, emotional response to numbers and words. His numerical capabilities are prodigious: he can multiply and divide large numbers faster than a calculator, and recently recited pi to 22,514 digits, breaking the European record. Skilled in language, Tammet learned Icelandic in a week for the documentary, Brainman.

His memoir Born on a Blue Day is precious not just because it was written at all.

Asperger’s, and particularly Savant Syndrome, is rare, and most savants are unable to communicate how they think (how their brain works) due to severe disability. Tammet provides an opportunity to examine his mind’s processes in his fastidious memoir. He tells it straight and linear; he couldn’t do otherwise. But where such direct prose in another story could desiccate your interest by the time you’d hit chapter three, here the telling cannot be removed from the tale. It’s an unintentional indication of Tammet’s personality and manner of thinking.

Details are precise. A mention of the main walkway in Kauna, a Lithuanian town where Tammet works as a volunteer, includes an exact length: 1,621m, while a recollection of the Seoul Olympic Games notes “8,465 participants from 159 countries”.

Tammet’s writing, like him, is detached, ordered, and a little naive. This directness enhances readability, and absence of sentimental hyperbole makes occasional emotional moments (such as his grief as an adult when a pet cat dies, or the book’s lone paragraph about his childhood lonelineness) heartrending. Most of the time, he teaches himself ‘proper’ emotional responses by mentally building what he describes as “a database of widely varied experiences that I could reference in all manner of future situations”.

Not content with fluency in seven languages, he is devising his own, Mänti. Researchers await its development intently, as Mänti should provide further indication of how Tammet’s brain works. This efficient novel is a neat starting point for such scrutiny.

With some websites asking “is this guy really human at all?” and other researchers believing that all humans have similar abilities without the means to tap them, Tammet could well be autism’s Rosetta Stone.

 

Where Born on a Blue Day is distinctly Disney, Tweaked is a weary drag queen singing “Like a Prayer” for the thousandth time. She’s hitting most of the notes, but there ain’t no love.

Tammet’s sexuality is barely broached, and then only in reference to his beloved partner Neil; in Tweaked, Moore would wear his rainbow on his sleeve, if only his leather vest had one. Gay New York and Los Angeles thrust through this gritty tale, even as stars in decline during the post-Aids 1980s.

A tweaker is a crystal meth addict; Tweaked is a beautifully structured novel by a confident storyteller. The novel’s publication is timely, given the focus on the increasing use of the drug “ice” in this country.

However, subtitling this book “a crystal meth memoir” does not really resound true: it is also a little bit love story, much more a chronicle of fast gay life. Most of all, Tweaked is more a tale of drug rehab than drug use.

The action centres on rehab and anonymous sex. Moore confesses, the drugs were all about sex: dark, tough sex.

Moore dabbles in cocaine and LSD but falls hard for crystal meth. A wannabe bad boy from smalltown Iowa, he delightedly falls in with the “Wrong Crowd” whenever he can. He stays up for days on end. He steals his lover, Dino’s credit cards the day Dino dies of Aids.

Then after one too many paranoid, psychotic moments, Moore takes himself off to rehab, and finds another habit. He attends AA and CMA and Cocaine Anonymous meetings all over LA.

A description of the horrors of toxic chemical cookers (in a highly flammable trailer in the desert) is one of the book’s strong scenes, and a pretty strong persuasion against illegal drugs. Another poignant moment sees Moore out, sober, dancing at a club. Leaving early, he’s over it: “I now belong to the world of morning, not night.” Did I say poignant? Sorry, I just meant sad.

In the main, this is a pretty tedious read.

The reader is ripped off: it’s short a half-dozen or so messy meth-tweaked anecdotes. Wrong, sure, but their dirty contrast would have created more interest in all that rehab. Or perhaps there are few sordid tales of drug use here becauseMoorecan’t remember much from those times.

Consequently, the rare rousing moments in the book are when Patrick tells others’ stories: beautiful Evan, crazy Angie the chemical “cooker”, flamboyant Lee (“A seizure at Bergdorf’s? That’s the most glamorous thing I’ve ever heard!”), Hisako the ex-heroin junkie photographer.

Afterwards, it all feels a little too evangelical. And when I look at Moore’s blog and see the place where he is writing from now, I wonder, is this the book he had to write? As part of the writer’s recovery?

Perhaps it’s Moore’s hyperhonest telling of his tale that makes him quite unlikeable. By the end, I just didn’t really care for all his 12-stepness. Or his kooky grandmother.

 

I guess Augustus Burroughs is more my man.

Burroughs has trodden similar paths toMoore, but his recounting is much funnier.

Of what Patrick Moore writes, Augusten Burroughs has too experienced and written about. Well.

Burroughs has already dealt with his unusual upbringing (in his celebrated memoir, Running with Scissors) and his turn on the addiction/rehab ride (in the sequel Dry), so Possible Side Effects arrives here as light relief.

A testament to the richness of Burroughs’ history (or his imagination) is that these stories – a collection of essays again mined from his intense life – are fresh and amusing. Laughing tears funny, in parts.

Scraping further matter from the unwritten crevices of his life, Burroughs hits high hats with tales of bad holidays, pornographic drive-bys, lesbian personal ads, and precious brand managers “crossing the mint threshold”.

But he won’t leave his readers comfortably amused. About halfway through this collection, and lulled by the last joke, you’re introduced – whack! – to a little of Burrough’s gloomy times. After losing his keys, the shame of a locksmith seeing the alcoholic’s squalor in which he lives eventually leads him to write Sellevision, his first novel, over a week. Writing more and drinking less each day, he’s dry on day three and writing until midnight.

Burroughs then lets some other horrors of his life sneak up on you. But they’re always, it seems, tempered by a sheen of tattered elegance.

The raised palm on the cover offers a delightful warning of what’s inside: it takes a few glances, then a longer look to see what’s not immediately apparent. A palm, it’s flesh coloured but a little wrong. Next to the extended thumb, five fingers. Funny, in both senses.

Charming, intelligent, a little nasty, Burroughs has made the most of his calling by telling his own tales. That they are still mint is a delightful miracle.

2006

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