Any previously marginalized group of people that tries to develop its own literature finds itself in a Scylla /charybdis situation when the success of a writer's work depends upon mainstream readers whose views they are trying to counter. They can risk alienation of their work with unconventional views and language or they can write to appeal to mainstream sensibilities and thus dilute the very purposes for which they were writing. Perhaps a poet can circumvent this by simply avoiding narrative, but for a novelist, where character and narrative are front and center, the situation is unavoidable. As the title of her novel, A Great Place for a Seizure suggests, writer Terry Tracy is not afraid of challenging convention.
Tracy tries challenging stereotypes about epilepsy on two important fronts – story structure and the portrayal of its main character Mischa Dunn. What is most important about A Great Place for a Seizure, though, is neither the fact that the book calls itself a novelory nor that its main character is not a candidate for Miss Congeniality, but what it has to tell the reader about living with epilepsy.
At one point late in the book, one of Micha's friends asks, "What is it like to have epilepsy?"
Mischa considered the question. It was one that she always heard circling in the background of other people's questions about questions about epilepsy. It was never asked outright…
Mischa has mistaken the question, however; what her friend really wants to know is what it is like to live a life with epilepsy? Both are important questions as are questions about how epilepsy is viewed by others and how a person with epilepsy wants to be treated. All of these are addressed on in Tracy's novel.
Throughout the story, Tracy describes what happens to Mischa as the seizures approach. In one of the more expansive passages, the author gives insight into how her protagonist experiences an oncoming episode:
As she was writing, the lines of the paper seemed to melt together. The perfume worn by the girl seated next to her stung her nose. Mischa couldn't take her mind off the smell. Is it citrus fruit? Grapefruit, apricot, maybe lemon? Yes lemon, with a soft wisp of mint. The smell turned into a taste that was tangy, with a murmur of sweetness, and she could touch it and feel pinpricks that tingled. The tastes turned to music. She heard chimes, each one distinct, swaying in random directions that combined into a cacophony of delicate sounds and then water; she felt waves of water surrounding her.
Although Mischa herself does see what others see happening to her, when she returns to consciousness, it is with excruciating headaches and generally with cuts bruises and bleeding resulting from having fallen against something. Unsurprisingly, the seizures leave her extremely weak as well, and she often will need to stay in bed for several days at a time.
What Mischa (or any person with epilepsy) undergoes during a seizure is important to understand and Tracy gives the reader ample chances to experience these vicariously (or as close to vicariously as one can from print). Temporal lobe epilepsy (the kind Mischa is diagnosed with) is a topic everyone should explore further, and the author gives ample tools "For Further Information" in the back of the book including websites, organizations and further reading. Just as important to the book is the answer to the question her friend was actually seeking, what it is like to live with epilepsy. The answer to this really has three strands that are braided together throughout the story: how Misha herself reacts to having epilepsy, how others view her, and how she reacts to the reactions of others. It is in this context that narrative structure comes into play because the episodic nature of the book reflects the episodic nature of Mischa's life itself.
On bright red of the book's cover, Tracy defines her work as a novelory:
(1) A fusion of the terms "novel" and "short story" to describe a series of linked stories that may stand by themselves as individual tales and/or come together as a novel, when read in sequence…(3) a gimmick.
Though a jest, definition three may be the most apt. In truth, A Great Place for a Seizure is essentially a picaresque novel about the exploits of Mischa Dunn, who measures each adventure by counting the number of seizures that occur during that episode. Throughout the first half of the book, one can't but help but be reminded of Terry Southern's Candy, as she moves in naiveté from one potential male predator to another (though Tracy's protagonist is a good deal more puritanical and much less charitable Southern's). This structure serves well to reflect the rather disjointed and unpredictable nature of Mischa's life, a situation caused by her refusal to accept her epilepsy despite the fact that it is the one constant in her life. Still, it is difficult to see each episode as a stand alone story since, stripped of the previous knowledge one has of Mischa's situation, the impact of any specific episode is likely to lose much of its impact.
There is one other constant in Mischa's life, though neither the reader nor Mischa is fully aware of her true value until further on in the story and that is her high school best friend, Sophie. Sophie plays Sancho Panza to Mischa's rather perturbable Don Quixote and helps to instill in her some sense of humanity she considers herself to have but in reality lacks. The other character who helps to save Mischa from her own self-absorption is Hector who enters the book about halfway through and who she eventually marries. In certain respects, Hector is her male doppelganger and perhaps that is what attracts Mischa to him. With Hector's entrance into the narrative, the book begins to take on a much more traditional sort of story development. In doing this Tracy is letting the narrative structure mirror Mischa's development as a character. For all her protestations, Mischa is essentially quite a conservative individual, who really longs for a traditional life – the D. C. setting, notwithstanding. Because Hector is so accommodating, even after marriage Mischa does not have to immediately realize that perhaps her epilepsy affects someone other than just herself. At one point, strained by an inability to comprehend how Mischa expects him to react, Hector's emotional dam finally gives:
Mischa! I don't know how to deal with your epilepsy! After a seizure when I try to comfort and pamper you, you push me away and scream at me. Other times you curl up in my arms. That same day, a few hours later, you attack me and tell me to go away! I don't know what to do! I'm paralyzed with fear that I might insult you or make you angry. I don't know what you want me to do. What is it? What is the right way to react? Tell me. I'll do it but right now, I just don't know how.
In saying this, Hector has probably voiced the collective cry of everyone who has tried to help her throughout the book (and probably many readers as well), but of course Mischa does not know the answer herself. When she becomes pregnant, however, the realization finally sets in that, much as she might wish it to be, her epilepsy is not just all about her. This realization only increases once her daughter is born and the seizures increase in both frequency and intensity. Whether Mischa's eventual recognition that she sometimes needs help from others is the capitulation of ideals or a facet of maturity is something individual readers can judge.
One of the most formidable tasks of a novelist (or a noveloriest) who creates a protagonist with a disability is not to let that character fall into the stereotype of being cute, docile, angelic, and helpless. In other words, in creating a character who is not a Jerry Lewis poster child. In this regard, Tracy has undoubtedly succeeded. If there is one thing Mischa does not inspire, it is pity. If anything, Mischa leans in the direction of assuming that in order to prove herself, a person with epilepsy has to be something of a Clint Eastwood character who "don't need no help from nobody." In fact, contrary to what one might expect of someone who dislikes being judged by surface appearances, Mischa herself is quite judgmental and is quick to categorize each new group of people she encounters as "these types of people." At one point towards the end of the book Mischa states, "I am not a compassionate person." Whatever she is, Mischa isn't a poster child.
Regardless of any perceived character flaws, the complaints Mischa voices concerning the treatment of people with epilepsy and, for that matter, physical disability in general, are quite legitimate, and one of the focal points of the book. In high school, for example, the high school principle, Sister Alice, upon learning that Mischa has epilepsy summons her to the office and says:"Mischa, I want to talk about your plans for next year. I think you should pull out of the race for student body president. You are epileptic and that would interfere with the job. I don't think you could handle the pressure."
Though Mischa's reply to this assertion is "don't worry, I can handle it," it is the first in a long series of jobs in which she feels compelled to prove herself in situations in which a person without epilepsy would not. Even though she proves remarkably adept at every job she secures, when a seizure does occur, the consensus of many of her co-workers is that she could not handle the stress, but as Mischa says of her seizures, "She had them in different places, in different countries, at different times in her life where there was pressure and no pressure, where there was stress or no stress. They just happen. Why can't people understand? They just happen?"
It is not just employers and co-workers whose perception's Mischa has to deal with. Like many books aimed at changing people's perceptions of disability, A Great Place for a Seizure takes aim at the medical establishment, especially doctors. Throughout the book Mischa encounters doctors who are paternalistic and seem to care little about her as an individual She has to defend herself against doctors who feel that she should have brain surgery or whose only interest in her is how she might be used in a case study to enhance their careers. The way in which A Great Place for a Seizure differences from many books with a similar viewpoints is that Mischa never really identifies with others with epilepsy and, in fact, distances herself from association with people with disabilities. For her it remains, a David and Goliath struggle – Mischa against the medical world.
Searches for ways to express the viewpoints, values and needs of an emerging culture demand experimentation and risk taking. The inevitable result is that some risks will pay off more than others. The risks Tracy takes in trying to develop her novelory, even if somewhat tongue-in-cheek at times, are laudable. As critics in the disability studies movement like David Mitchell and G. T. Couser have pointed out, the danger of the acceptance of traditional forms for the expression of a non-traditional cultural experiences is that one imports along with those forms the language and prejudicial assumptions upon which they are built. In that sense, new forms of expression need to be sought. Nevertheless, there are a couple of stylistic techniques Tracy employs (and which are not attributable to Mischa's personality), that probably would have been better if handled differently because they are disruptive – not in a postmodern or Bathesian sense that attempts to call our attention to the artificiality of language, but simply because they tend to distract from the flow of the story Tracy herself is trying to tell.
The first of these is Tracy's tendency to refer to a character by two different names within the same paragraph, as when she says, "The first time Richard did this, Mischa and her mother were stunned. Her father had never raised his voice before." It takes a moment for the reader to realize it but Richard is Mischa's father. So why give him two different appellations? Yes, this is a petty point, but like a gnat around the eye, it is an unhelpful distraction. Perhaps it is a question verisimilitude in point of view. If we are looking at this man through Mischa's eyes, does she see him as "father" or does she see him as someone she thinks of as "Richard?"
This leads to the second, more problematic stylistic tendency. The text continually shifts point of view. This is hardly a new technique inasmuch as it Joyce and Faulkner used it to critical acclaim almost a century ago, and even contemporary literature makes frequent use of it. In Christine Stark's powerful novel Nickels: A Tale of Dissociation, the author's constant flip-flopping of points of view works very effectively to pull the reader into the kaleidoscopic mind of its main character and differentiate it from others telling the same story. A Great Place for a Seizure, however, has no need of such a device and when employed it tends to come off as affected.
Whatever minor stylistic concerns A Great Place for a Seizure may raise, it is an important book. There are very few works of fiction in which the main character has epilepsy and fewer still that try to address the issues that those with epilepsy have to deal with head on. It occupies an uncomfortable borderland between novels of people in wheelchairs who may have a physical impairment but who can point to the social construction of disability as the bigger issue and novels of people with terminal cancer whose situations are considerably more existential. Tracy's work forces readers into a journey, episodic though it may be, that makes them consider not only what living with epilepsy is like but what their own views and reactions might be. It generates many more questions than can be discussed in a short book review and is sure to provoke differing reactions between any two people who read it. A Great Place for a Seizure can be purchased at Amazon and is available as an eBook compatible with Kindle.