Max Tombay, one of the two central characters in Audrey Schulman’s new novel, is many things: an ethnobotanist; a mixed-race woman; a native of Bangor, Me. Above all else, though, Max is identified by her sense-perception of the world. She’s an “Aspie.” That is, she has Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism.
Max moves through her environs as if she’s navigating a scary carnival arcade. Sounds, colors and textures conspire to attack her. When she was a child, “sensation seemed to pour in as an uncontrolled flood, shimmery and overpowering.” As an adult, she controls the condition through practice and willpower. She eats oatmeal, rice, tofu, bananas. (“Pale food calmed her.”) She reads expressions by connecting the movement of specific facial muscles with a memorized set of corresponding emotions. She wears a uniform of gray pants and gray T-shirts so that color and pattern won’t be distracting. “The material was stretchy so the wind couldn’t brush it against her skin, jarring her.”
Schulman takes Max’s sense-driven otherness and doubles it down, plopping her in the middle of an African jungle — an American barely comfortable within her own skin who’s now completely out of her element. In doing so, Schulman creates a remarkably fresh, complex and memorable character.
The book opens with Panoply Pharmaceuticals recruiting Max to find a mysterious vine, said to be growing in a remote mountain jungle in Rwanda, that contains compounds with the potential to save thousands of lives — and, of course, enrich the company’s shareholders. Max considers her options: accept Panoply’s offer or “spend her life researching deodorizers.” So off she goes to a research station in Virunga National Park, where she is to board with three scientists studying mountain gorillas. Max’s new colleagues are “neurotypicals” (non-Aspies) and not exactly thrilled by her assignment.
“You search as long as you want, very long I hope,” one of them tells Max, “but I am not helping.” Panoply Pharmaceuticals has agreed to pay for park guards to protect the gorillas from poachers. As long as Max is still searching for the vine, Panoply will keep financing the guards. But if Max finds the vine, a swarm of harvesters are likely to overrun the park, ruining a habitat already under threat from both poachers and an army of khat-chewing children, called the Kutu, led by a Congolese warlord rumored to have a fetish for tattered wedding dresses and cannibalism.
Max’s adventure would be enough to fill any book, but Schulman sets herself an extra challenge by designing “Three Weeks in December” as a double-track novel. The “three weeks” of the title encompass both Max’s expedition, in December 2000, and the experiences of another American, hunting lions in west-central Africa, in December 1899.
That would be Jeremy Turnkey, a fragile young man, also from Maine, who is seeking a fresh start in life. A civil engineer, Turnkey has been hired to oversee the completion of a 500-mile railway across British East Africa. Jeremy’s not an Aspie; he’s gay — which, in 1899, was often equally daunting. Like Max, Jeremy tamps down his reflexes and urges. He mimics the speech and posture of straight men just as Max studies and imitates the social cues of neurotypicals.
Jeremy’s immediate problem is a pair of lions that have acquired a taste for day laborer al dente. Since the creatures are dragging his men out of their tents at night, it falls to the boss to kill the cats. “Shooting a few pesky predators is an integral component of the colonization process,” a British colleague tells him. “I have seen it work time and again. The tribes immediately become more pacified, convinced we whites offer certain benefits.”
The risk with alternating narratives is that one may outshine the other. And so it is here. The two stories neatly entwine at the end (sorry, no spoiler), but Max so overwhelms Jeremy as a literary force that you can’t help wishing the Aspie would grab a rifle, hop over to 1899 and shoot the lions herself.
This is a novel about two people, doubly outsiders, who have suddenly been placed in influential positions. Jeremy’s railroad, if completed, will bring both civilization and suffering to East Africa. Max’s vine, if she finds it, could save human lives but will almost certainly destroy the gorillas. Jeremy and Max are aware of the inequity and unfairness of their situations, and each is enticed by the notion of holding back, of allowing a small, relatively undisturbed world a few more years of peace. Yet neither is naïve enough to believe that ruination doesn’t eventually lie ahead.
“Three Weeks in December” will surely find its way onto syllabuses for college courses in postcolonial theory, but that’s selling it short. This is Max’s book. It’s a story about the senses, about perception and observation, the signals we send out into the world. Max is well qualified to discern status and relationships from a gorilla’s darting glance; her ability to sit and concentrate for hours leads her into a “botanical scale” of time. “There wasn’t just one speed in the world,” Schulman writes. “Other organisms could have a different meter to their movements. When she looked at a tree, she saw not a stationary object, but a photo of a dancer in mid-motion, the gesture of its branches describing its battle for food or love.”
By allowing us to experience life through Max’s extraordinary perspective, Schulman delivers the known world in startling new sounds, colors, tastes and smells. It’s enough to make a neurotypical jealous.