Thursday, February 08, 2007

Mark Haddon, "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" (2003)

Authors have shown a widespread versatility in using all sorts of first person narrators throughout literary history. The postmodern world has ushered in the era of multiple perspectives. William Faulkner blazed that trail with his classic The Sound and the Fury. In an era of expanded access to virtually everything that has ever been printed, it would be easy to believe that it's all been done. Yet Mark Haddon, in his novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, was able to find a bit of novelty.

Haddon's narratorial voice is an autistic teen named Christopher. The story begins with Christopher's discovery of the death of his neighbor's dog. The hapless canine has been murdered with a garden fork, and Christopher decides that he will try to solve the mystery of the perpetrator. His father, who clearly has his hands full as the single parent of an autistic child, tries to discourage "detective work", but Christopher is not to be deterred. He writes about his explorations, and the result is the book the reader holds in his/her hands.

An autistic narrator is a reliable one, by his/her very nature. Christopher is constitutionally incapable of not telling the truth. The writing is therefore quite literal, as while an autistic person can form a simile, the use of metaphor or intentional humor is quite beyond his ability. This quality certainly makes the work a quick read. Once the intitial mysteries are solved, and additional discoveries are made, the main thrust of the book turns to a desperate flight Christopher makes to London... by himself.

I found the book to be overly predictable, but its not the plot that's meant to distinguish this book from other coming-of-age stories. What makes reading Christopher's story fascinating is the peculiar window Haddon provides on the inner life of a person with autism. The arbitrary nature of his likes and dislikes, the suffering due to overstimulus, the overreliance on logic, and the mathematical approach to understanding life's mysteries all combine to fill out a singularly interesting character. In addition Haddon provides visual representations with which Christopher renders his experiences meaningful. For the most part they jigsaw neatly with the story's thread. There are asides that seem completely off topic, yet serve to demonstrate the odd thought patterns one experiences with autism.

This strangely disjointed book was indeed curious enough to maintain my interest. Apparently it struck a chord with the masses, because it ended up being a national bestseller. That makes me wonder whether or not people chose this work based upon some perceived gimmick, or whether its reputation spread through a network of people trying to understand an affliction that has grown terribly common. In either case the book could have easily come off as exploitation. But there is a refreshing sense of realism in Haddon's writing that seems to preclude mere contrivance.

I don't know whether or not Christopher's narration is an accurate representation of the way someone with autism thinks... but it's notable that Haddon avoided a candy-coated characterization that would make us empathize too cleanly with Christopher in an "aw... shucks, isn't he special?" kind of way. He seems to have included all the dirt and hardship this fictional working class family has to endure as a result of Christopher's affliction. And Haddon avoids the sort of patronage to the political correct that might have been inavoidable had this book been written by an American, rather than a Brit.


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