“Suddenly Clay realized that Dr. Williams’s questions were not really designed to make him feel better. He wiped away the tears that had pooled in his eyes. Dr. Williams had already seen him cry once today. Once was enough.”
As neurodivergent folk, our stories are often told about us and yet without us. Without our consent – or by consent gained through dishonest means – our lives are chopped up to bits; used as inspirational porn; distilled into sound bites; or, reduced down to tropes, clichés, or stereotypes.
Michael Scott Monje, Jr. is one of a significant cadre of autistic writers who are changing this trend. Defiant is part of the ongoing saga of Clay Dillon, the autistic protagonist to whom they first introduce readers in their novel Nothing Is Right. In fact, Clay’s entire story can be likened to a piece of music in multiple movements; at the time of this review, Monje, Jr. is publishing yet another piece of Clay’s story in a web serial novel Imaginary Friends.
Set twenty-three years after the first novel in Clay Dillon’s story, Defiant begins shortly after Clay discovers that he is autistic. Clay is now an adjunct instructor at a local university and his partner, Noahleen, has epilepsy and is unable to hold down regular employment due to health issues. When the novel opens, Clay is in a session with Dr. Williams, a psychologist to whom he turns for help – not to talk about his autism, but to answer his big question: “What do I do next?” In other words, Clay is seeking real, workable strategies to help him manage his problems and live a productive, happy life.
However, from this point Clay begins a difficult, painful, and frustrating journey as he struggles with a multiplicity of things, including: an unhelpful therapist pushing him towards allistic performance; communication difficulties resulting from working against his own neurology; how to support his partner Noahleen; sensory difficulties; workplace issues, including obtaining what he needs to do his job effectively; sexual orientation and gender identity issues; meltdowns, one of which leads him to injure himself; and body image issues involving weight gain since his teenage years.
Defiant is a unique, individual fictional narrative that at the same time depicts a common real-life autistic narrative – the struggle against external forces demanding compliance from autistic people. Clay Dillon’s entire epic is that of an autistic person conditioned and pushed into compliance and allistic performance since childhood – and although he discovers strategies and individual moments of defiance earlier in his life, it is in this novel that we see adult Clay truly defiant and triumphant.
Monje, Jr.’s lucid and starkly honest writing creates an open window through which we see Clay’s struggles and inner world. Through that window, the reader is drawn into his world, watching over his shoulder – or perhaps more accurately, watching from inside his head and heart. Nothing is censored or hidden from the reader’s view. And his frustration, rage, sorrow, and anguish when he collides with walls – both literally and metaphorically – are very painful to read.
But it was that closeness – and the pain in seeing him struggle – that made me root and cheer for Clay throughout the entire novel. The author naturally avoids the typical tropes of autistic fictional characters that have often plagued modern literature, film, television, and other media in that Clay is not a naïve, innocent savant. He is a fully fleshed, fully human character possessing an incredible amount of feeling and insight, and with an inner world that is at times messy, chaotic, horrifically dark, and morbid. He is the product of, amongst many other things, a dysfunctional family of origin from which he’s had little to no support. But he is also a product of self-reliance and an incredibly strong will to survive and thrive. You can’t help but cheer for him as he moves from compliance to defiance by facing each of his problems one by one – including a final showdown with Dr. Williams.
Narratives such as that of Clay Dillon seek to change the face of autistic representation in literature. Besides showing a full-bodied, believable autistic protagonist, Defiant seizes the reader by the heart and makes them feel Clay’s pain throughout his trials. This is a book that hurts to read – and it should hurt – and the reward of watching Clay succeed at the end is intrinsically gratifying. Defiant is a critical example of neurodivergent literature, and a key work that will build and develop this genre in the future.