In the labyrinth, there are wishes. Wishes and doorways. The boy’s body and the labyrinth within.
from “Labyrinth: Episode 8”
Oliver de la Paz writes directly to the reader from the very opening of The Boy in the Labyrinth, noting in the prelude to the collection that what follows is an allegory, a retooling of Theseus and the Minotaur subconsciously driven by his desire to understand his sons. The author explains that he and his wife are neurotypical, and that he has composed one hundred poems set in the labyrinth, each one an effort to connect with their autistic sons. As a collection, it is every bit as complex as one might expect from a contemporary retelling of Greek myth. Structurally, it is separated into ten episodes, framed by a credo and a coda. This decision helps make the narrative more accessible, containing an otherwise dense and often grief-laden story in manageable chunks.
Forgive the lack of objectivity, but I must confess: I was drawn to this book after hearing de la Paz read “Twenty-Eight Tiny Failures and One Labyrinth,” the poem which serves as an introduction to the collection. You see, I have an autistic son myself, and I was immediately struck by how de la Paz captured the daily experience of raising neurodiverse children. It is beautiful and frustrating and complicated. Somehow, de la Paz captured all of that in a single litany. When the book to which he alluded came to fruition, I knew that I wanted to spend time with it, both as a father and as a poetry lover. I was not disappointed.
Perhaps because of my own experiences, I was most affected by the poems featuring autism screening questionnaires, story problems, and multiple-choice questions. These poems came at the end of each episode and comprise little more than one-tenth of the collection, but they are so hauntingly accurate that I found myself walking away after each episode to process what I had read and, often, what I had repressed.
This is not to say that I did not enjoy the Minotaur myth poems, of course. They are brilliantly executed, ambiguous enough to be allegorical yet specific enough to be fraught with the authenticity of de la Paz’ experience. The boy finds comfort in the familiar walls of the labyrinth, but also distrusts the dark and, for most of the collection, fears the beast. By the end, one has the sense that the boy would just as well remain in the labyrinth as escape it, yet he has grown to take some solace in the presence of the beast. Mirroring a common experience between neurotypical parents and autistic children, the beast perpetually pursues the boy, not to harm him but to connect with him, and the boy perpetually evades that connection.
The Boy in the Labyrinth is a wonderfully unique collection which will appeal as much to parents of neurodiverse children as to classicists and serious poetry critics. The writing is as vulnerable as it is nuanced, as arresting as it is confounding. Oliver de la Paz is not afraid to leave the reader reaching for meaning, in effect mimicking the very experiences that compelled the allegory in the first place.