Monday, December 30, 2013

Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a novel about how people attempt to cope in a cold, harsh world. Don't let the fact that the main character has autism fool you into thinking this is a novel about autism. Author Mark Haddon has admitted to doing little research on autism for the novel. What the novel gives us is a different perspective on life, through the eyes of Christopher Boone, whose condition serves as a sort of tunnel vision lens, yet allows him to see things most people fail to notice. He lives by a set of rules that help him cope with the irrational and chaotic nature of the world. Of course, we all live by some set of rules, some set of guiding principles that allow us to do the same. What makes Christopher different is that while most of us learn to accept the irrationality of life, Christopher is doomed not to.

Christopher likes to interact only with a small set of people. At school he talks with his school mentor, Siobhan, about things he doesn't understand. He lives alone with his father ever since the death of his mother. His mother's death has made him more acquainted with his neighbor, Mrs. Shears, who helps his father out. His routine begins to change, only slightly, when he comes upon Mrs. Shears' dead poodle, stabbed with a garden fork. After an unpleasant encounter with a police officer who dares to touch him, Christopher decides to do some detective work and solve the mystery of the poodle's murder.

Becoming a detective means leaving his safe shell and stepping out of his way to ask people questions. Christopher doesn't much like talking to people because he doesn't understand body language. In fact, Christopher doesn't like a lot of things. He doesn't like the color yellow. It's a bad day when he spots four yellow cars in a row on his way to school. Conversely, he loves the color red, which means that sighting four red cars in a row means it will be a good day. He also doesn't like it when people use facial expressions to communicate because he doesn't know what they mean. He hates the use of metaphor because it confuses him. What Christopher does love is math. He is very logical and will probably be a very successful mathematician. The chapters are numbered by prime numbers rather than in direct sequence. Haddon is so good at convincing us that Christopher exists that it made me wonder whether Christopher is a version of himself, to some extent.

The novel revolves only loosely around the death of Mrs. Shears' poodle because the story, as told in the first person from Christopher's perspective, goes off on numerous tangents. These tangents are often amusing or revealing in some way, and they help explore the mindset of Christopher as well as what he values. Other things that are more important than the death of the poodle happen, but the poodle's murder is significant because it makes Christopher step outside his comfort zone. He appears to be the perfect sleuth, capable of sticking to the facts and not letting his imagination spoil his investigation. He considers all possibilities and eliminates the improbable ones. He even fancies himself a sort of Sherlock Holmes and talks extensively about some of the Holmes novels (as a warning, if you have not read Hound of the Baskervilles, Christopher shamelessly spoils the ending). Yet Christopher lacks an important tool to be a good detective - social recognition. What would be an obvious solution to this investigation for most observers is overlooked by Christopher because he, ironically, fails to put two and two together.

Some have compared Christopher Boone to Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye, and I can see the resemblance. Caulfield, like Christopher, has a narrow view of the world. Where Caulfield sees everyone as phonies, Christopher seems to regard others as intellectually inferior. Both novels make use of the unreliable narrator, in that a reader not making full use of their critical reading skills might be mistaken in believing they are meant to adopt the narrator's viewpoint. However, with Christopher things are made more challenging by the fact that he is an intellectually gifted individual. You may find yourself with a nagging doubt or suspicion about something Christopher hasn't perceived, yet Christopher's undeniable logical intelligence will have you second-guessing yourself.

In Catcher in the Rye, one of the defining moments of how Holden views himself is when he likens himself as a rescuer of children, saving them from running off the edge of a cliff. He believes he holds the key to truth in a world of phonies, yet the reader sees otherwise. Christopher has a similar moment when he compares the way he sees the world to how others see the world. When most people gaze at a field and are asked to describe it, they may mention there were cows and a house and other details, all vaguely described. Christopher, however, will go so far as to tell you how many cows were there and how many had black spots and how many had brown spots and then how many spots each one had. He believes his way is superior, even though Siobhan admits this level of detail would be overwhelming to most. What Christopher misses out on, however, is the beauty of such a field. He takes it all in and simply plugs it into his mathematical brain.

Though the novel is written from Christopher's point of view, and though the reader has plenty of reason to sympathize with him, the character with which I made the greatest emotional connection was the father. The two most poignant moments in the novel involve him. We can sympathize with Christopher because he does suffer, yet his emotional state can be difficult to grasp. This novel does an excellent job of putting readers in the perspective of somebody with autism. However, I kept putting myself in the shoes of Christopher's father, thinking about just how difficult life would be to have to raise a child like Christopher. I mentioned in the first paragraph that the novel is about trying to cope in a difficult world. From Christopher's perspective, we see, in a peripheral way, how his own parents have attempted to cope with raising an autistic child. Raising a child is hard enough, but raising a child who emotionally does not develop the way most people do, who throws violent tantrums when things don't happen a certain way, is a trying experience. Christopher's father is a rare person who is able to do this with love, care, and patience. Not everybody is able to handle the difficulties life throws at them as he does.

The novel is very entertaining, with lots of laugh out loud moments and plenty other thoughtful ones. Christopher dives into all sorts of tangential subjects, but always from his fascinating perspective. The only parts I object to are some repetitive action scenes toward the end, where less detail may have been better. Yet, at the same time, Mark Haddon follows through with the logical impulses of his narrator. It's amazing the way Haddon is able to keep up Christopher's performance, including all the little details that go along with being Christopher. Haddon writes with such a precise style that Christopher is able to come to life as a person all his own. And when we root for Christopher to achieve his goals, we're rooting for an imperfect person to be successful in a difficult world, because if there's hope for Christopher, there's hope for any of us.

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