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The Sheldon Effect: ‘funny’ books about mental illness

In the past few weeks I have read two books:

Book cover of When Mr Dog Bites.
Book cover of The Rosie Project.

Brian Conaghan’s When Mr Dog Bites is about a teenage boy, Dylan Mint, and his struggles with going to Drumhill special school and battling tourette’s syndrome (amongst other mental health issues). On top of all of that, he thinks that he is going to die.

The book has a lot of swearing and teenage frustrations and angst. There is a rather endearing relationship between Dylan and his best bud Amir. They support each other and understand each other in a way that only best friends can.

Tourette’s is talked about in an open way, and with Dylan as the narrator of the story, the reader gets an insider’s view into life with Turret’s. Yet, there is something that doesn’t sit right with me. The novel is jam-packed with homophobia and a lot of misogyny. I don’t believe these topics should be ignored in novels, rather I believe these topics should be addressed seriously in literature. Sadly, all the butt jokes, and ‘no homo bro’ lines go unchecked. They fly by like leaves on the breeze and I wonder what this says? Boys will be boys? Tourette’s Syndrome is an easy way to be homophobic?

At many points in the novel you can laugh along with Dylan, but sometimes I wonder how much of it is laughing with and how much is laughing at? This brings me to the second book I read recently: The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. It is a love story, essentially. Two people meet, change each other for better and worse and don’t realise that they love each other until the second last page of the novel.

Don, is a geneticist looking for a wife. Because he has no social skills, lacks an understanding of women, has weird quirks like running to a crazy schedule and having a weekly meal plan of the same food for each day, he creates a questionnaire to help him find the perfect wife. (Shel)Don is always measuring people’s BMIs and giving them inappropriate advice or making socially awkward and/or rude comments. He can’t cope with change and it is only after he meets Rosie that he starts to rebel a little.

For all the laughs you can get out of the book, I felt like Simsion was milking a dry cow by the end of the novel. At some point in the novel I found myself asking the same question as with When Mr Dog Bites, how much was laughing with and laughing at (Shel)Don? Is Asperger’s, autism, and OCD really that funny? Now this in no way implies that you can’t laugh or make jokes with mentally ill people. Laughter can be a great way to connect. What I fear is that these books promote the wrong kind of laughter.

The Sheldon effect as the title of this article would suggest is named after a trend I have noticed in contemporary novels, T.V. series, and movies. Main characters with some sort of ‘on the spectrum’ illness are the punch line of almost every joke. And it has made me wonder, is there not a better way to talk, laugh, and cry about mental health?

What do you think of the Sheldon effect? Do you know of any comedy novels that get laughter and mental health right? Do you think we should think more critically about how we present mental health in popular culture? As always, remember to share the reading love.