by Mark Haddon
On Labor Day weekend, after attending a party in Falls Church where much cornhole was played and much beer was drunk, I found myself (and my ride) unwilling to make it all the way back to DC; we ended up sleeping at my ancestral dwelling in Arlington. I didn’t bring a book, and my phone was dead, so in the wee hours of the morning, unable to sleep, I decided to pick up a novel that would kill some time, something I’d read before, something that I could potentially finish quickly. If you’re good at following clues and taking hints, you know what book that is.
Actually, clues and hints aren’t a bad segue into Curious Incident. The title refers to a dead dog discovered by a teenage boy with undisclosed behavioral and emotional disabilities, perhaps most similar to the autism spectrum. Upon finding the dog’s body, the boy, Christopher, takes it upon himself to discover who might have killed the animal. Despite his reticence with and fear of strangers, Christopher identifies and interviews suspects in the neighborhood, following the clues and crossing people off the list as he gets closer to uncovering a major conspiracy.
I love that the plot of Curious Incident both follows and deviates from the whodunit structure that Christopher lays out. He realizes he’s writing a mystery novel, dutifully following clues wherever they may lead him, but he remains almost completely oblivious to what’s really going on, no matter how many of his “suspects” hint at the truth. On one level, yes, the mystery of the dead dog is the plot of the book; the search for the killer’s identity drives the first half of the novel, while the second half reckons with the killer’s motivations. However, were we given a more conventional narrator, the dead dog might better be described as the catalyst for the novel, rather than its central mystery.
As you can probably tell, the unique narration plays a huge part in the novel. On top of treating a neighbor’s dead dog as a Sherlock Holmes novel, Christopher omits composite numbers from his chapters, digresses into math or scientific fact at inappropriate times, and, most importantly, fails to even realize what his own novel is about. In one sense, he’s an unreliable narrator; we can’t trust him to accurately report on the goings-on around him, simply because he doesn’t always understand what’s happening. He misinterprets the intentions of strangers and loved ones, and he fears everything that he’s not familiar with. On the other hand, he is always truthful, especially with his own thoughts and feelings. He explains why he hates certain colors, why he likes to listen to white noise at full volume, and any other behaviors that most would consider “abnormal.” He’s honest to a degree that is unusual for fictional characters, especially in the noir world of mystery novels.
One important question will come to anyone who picks up this book: Does it accurately reflect the way autistic people think, feel, and experience the world? I couldn’t possibly answer that; I have no personal experience with it and I’m nowhere close to being qualified. I think it’s comforting to believe that the book is accurate. I mean, for one thing, Haddon is such a good writer that we desperately want his words to be a reflection of something real. Christopher’s narrative is so believable, and his line of thinking so logical, that we’re tempted to assume it must be grounded in either expertise or first-hand knowledge. But more importantly, I think we all want to believe that people on the autism spectrum, especially the more extreme ends, are more similar to non-autistic people than behaviors show. I’m guessing that this is why the book’s publisher, and the public, latched onto the notion that Christopher’s behavior was not only a portrayal of Asperger’s, despite the author leaving us without a diagnosis, but an extremely accurately portrayal of the syndrome. It would be reassuring, in a way, to think that a simple, short novel could bridge the gap between those with autism and those without.
Alas, I don’t know if these beliefs are warranted. I’m not saying they’re not; I really just do not know. I have read conflicting opinions on whether this novel portrays autism realistically, and I’m not going to jump into the fray with people who know way more than I do. Haddon himself does not specify what disabilities Christopher might have, and readily admits that he’s not an autism expert. Some might think of this as a cop-out, given the book’s marketing strategy clearly hinting at autism or Asperger’s.
I tend to side with the author, though. To me, it doesn’t necessarily matter whether the writing is real, or whether it corresponds in some way to a specific disease. Haddon’s goal in this case was to portray a way of thinking that is both human and alien at the same time, and in that he succeeds beautifully. Christopher appears to feel emotion like we do, but is simply unable to express it in the way that most people would. His preference for touching his palm to a loved one’s over a hug shows that he understands and sympathizes with the need for intimacy, even if he himself is terrified by being so physically close to another. These characteristics humanize behavior that might be jarring for someone encountering it for the first time, to the point where, towards the end of the novel, Christopher’s unique behaviors begin to elicit the same emotions in the reader that more “normal” behavior might; Christopher’s acceptance or rejection of an open palm gesture comes to mean the same thing as the acceptance or rejection of a hug, which is itself only a symbol of the acceptance or rejection of unconditional love.
The wonder of Haddon’s book comes not from the mystery, but from his ability to bridge the gap in understanding between narrator and audience. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time accomplishes this and more, breaking down and brushing aside human symbols and embracing the pure emotions behind them.