By Graeme Simsion
DON Tillman is 39. He's tall, fit and intelligent and, as an associate professor, has status and an above-average income. As he (sensibly) points out, in the animal kingdom he would succeed in reproducing. Don would like a wife.
Well, yes, but women find him odd. Don is more IT Crowd than Mr Darcy. Don has never been on a second date. It's the same with friends; he has only two - Gene and his wife, Claudia. As the novel opens, Don, the geneticist, is doing a favour for Gene, the psychologist, and stepping in to give a lecture on Asperger syndrome.
Graeme Simsion has produced a first novel of meticulously judged writing. Photo: Michael Clayton-Jones
Here's Don's response to an audience question - oh! these ignorant, irrational, emotional people - about Asperger: ''Fault! Asperger's isn't a fault. It's a variant. It's potentially a major advantage. Asperger's syndrome is associated with organisation, focus, innovative thinking and rational detachment.'' The next few pages are an amusing and touching display of Don's refined capabilities in each of these categories. Rational detachment, however, can malfunction when confronted by extreme attraction; enter, stage right, the adorable Rosie Jarman.
Not so long ago, with the insensitive gusto of the ignorant, we used to shorthand certain types as ''trainspotters'' or ''barbed wire collectors''. Now, with regular dispatches from the world of neuroscience, we're more educated, maybe even over-educated in some ways. Perhaps we're no longer ''tribes'' but ''syndromes'', and within our syndromes we're classified into spectra. Classification delights by providing instant relief from ancient philosophical questions, but for deep and subtle illumination, one must turn to fiction.
So The Rosie Project comes from a line of novels that includes Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Jodi Picoult's House Rules and Toni Jordan's Addition. The central character in each of these novels has a brain that is wired with difference. Obsessional is the word that clicks into popularised language because, Lord knows, we all have our own high- and low-functioning obsessions. We all harbour our spectra within syndromes but, through luck, and sometimes through the kindness of others, we find an individual path in the world.
Simsion reassesses the idea of range for a man who makes lists, ticks items off and has learnt to function in the safety of a minutely ordered world. Don doesn't want to be socially isolated, he just wasn't blessed with the emotional landscape that most of us pick up so carelessly that we don't even realise we're doing it. If Don knew how to articulate wistful, he would be halfway there.
Simsion must make the hero of his novel - a man with some discouraging character traits - sympathetic, and he does this by the most reliable trick in the fictional world: romance. Rosie, with whom the emotionally puzzled Don falls in love, is his perfect other half but, just as Elizabeth and Darcy have to go through a series of trials before they can agree to love, so do Don and Rosie. (Trivia: Jane Austen is on a site about famous people with Asperger. Could this account for that inimitable spruceness?)
Rosie must teach Don about emotions and his instruction comes in a series of trials and a comedic period of chance in which the wrong women are set up and discarded. Or they gallop off watched by a bewildered professor. Once Rosie appears, Don gradually unfurls and unfolds, revealing a tender, intimate side that is endearing. The funniest and saddest comedy of the novel is solicited because of Don's formality and unfamiliarity with the delicate emotions of yearning and desire. And in these spheres, Don is as apt a pupil as anyone.
As in every pleasing love story, the lessons learnt are not only one-way. Glowing with savoir faire, Rosie is an acute young woman with irreproachable taste in men - perfection is Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird - doing her PhD by day and working at night in bars. But Rosie's mother is dead and she doesn't believe her father is her biological father and so she has need of Professor Tillman the geneticist. Rosie can tutor Don in the ways of the weary, wicked world but Don also has things to teach the erratically imperfect Rosie.
The Rosie Project is 1930s screwball comedy updated for 2013. Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, or Rosalind Russell and Grant in His Girl Friday have the same pitch, intelligence, wit and farce with a love story at the centre of it all. (And, incidentally, both were directed by another interesting obsessive, Howard Hawks.)
Madcap indeed, but, like those films, The Rosie Project is underscored by meticulously judged writing. Simsion is in his 50s and the fact that this is his first novel is astonishing, although he has said he has been working on it for years. It shows. This is polished - hand-polished - writing. The novel has been sold into more than 30 countries, a success even before it is published here. Extremely loud and incredibly long applause.