My review of...
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
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Only after finishing this novel did I realize that it never uses the word “autism.” Neither the author Mark Haddon, via cover copy, nor the narrator Christopher Boone, in his own self-depiction, ever specify in what way he is diagnosably different.
He is, though, clearly different. The fifteen-year-old attends an alternate school in his little English hometown, where the occasional “black day” obliges him to kneel in the corner of the classroom and groan for hours, or a disturbance to his routine leads him to wet his pants. He interprets everyone’s words literally, rendering idioms meaningless and jokes disorienting, and he never allows others to touch him or make eye contact. In brief, when I dove in I felt I was in a fictionalized episode in the adolescence of Daniel Tammet, whose memoir I devoured last year—Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant.
Tammet’s memoir is remarkable in that it welcomes the average reader into the mind of someone on the autistic spectrum when those minds are typically, almost by definition, closed off to communication. He depicts a world in which most human interactions are overwhelmingly indecipherable, and the patterns of mathematics offer respite and pleasure. Tammet renders seemingly odd or antisocial behavior relatable by revealing his inner motives; Haddon accomplishes the same feat in the character of Christopher.
Christopher, too, excels at math(s). He also loves his routines and the logic of Sherlock Holmes, around which this story revolves. The Curious Incident opens on the mysterious murder of the neighbor’s dog Wellington, a disruption to Christopher’s daily life that prompts him to take on the case as an amateur detective. Although he emulates Holmes in his methods, he fixates entirely on the most literal of clues without any regard for the subtle hints that swirl in the human encounters all around him. Most readers will piece characters’ glances and tongue-slips into a narrative of personal dramas long before Christopher has looked up from his list of black-and-white facts.
To him, people do not compute. As he notes at one point, when he’s forced to engage with too many it’s as if he’s flooded with more data than he can process. His head feels “like a computer crashing, and I have to close my eyes and put my hands over my ears and groan, which is like pressing control-alt-delete and shutting down programs and turning the computer off and rebooting.”
Thus most of the relationships and motives in The Curious Incident are revealed through details that Christopher mentions but fails to interpret. Still, it would be far too simple to say that this is a drama told unwittingly by an unreliable narrator. There are two layers to Christopher’s account: the layer of human interactions, to which he is blind; and the layer of earthly beauty and logic and objective reality, which it seems Christopher is constantly experiencing while others obliviously fixate on their personal problems.
He continues from the above, “that’s why I’m good at chess and maths and logic. Because most people are almost blind, and they don’t see most things, and there’s lots of spare capacity in their heads, and it’s filled with things which aren’t connected and are silly.”
He makes an excellent point. We block most of what our senses convey and lose ourselves in thoughts, selectively focusing on what seems significant. But who’s to say what’s significant? Most of us ignore the colors around us, the numerical quirks in our days, the feel of the wind or the texture of a train on its tracks, the scale of our bodies to the stars above. Not Christopher. Perhaps he has a better sense of what matters, and it isn’t the petty quarrels that drive people to lash out at innocent dogs.
Or, not a better sense, but a different sense. We each see the world in our own ways, Christopher included, and why should we put a label on that? “Autism” is too easy. A single word can’t capture or convey how it feels to be a given individual; a whole book can barely begin to do that.
I’d already written the above review before I did any research into Haddon’s writing process, and I was gratified to find that he himself addresses this idea on his blog. I’ll leave you with his words:
curious incident is not a book about asperger’s. it’s a novel whose central character describes himself as ‘a mathematician with some behavioural difficulties’. indeed he never uses the words ‘asperger’s’ or ‘autism’ (i slightly regret that fact that the word ‘asperger’s’ was used on the cover). if anything it’s a novel about difference, about being an outsider, about seeing the world in a surprising and revealing way. it’s as much a novel about us as it is about christopher.
labels say nothing about a person. they say only how the rest of us categorise that person. good literature is always about peeling labels off. and treating real people with dignity is always about peeling the labels off.