September 23, 2004

Words, Words, Words

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Even Mark Haddon, the author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (Vintage, 2003), is willing to point out the paradox his novel”s narrator, Christopher Boone, embodies. ‘ … if Christopher were real he would find it very hard, if not impossible, to write a book. The one thing he cannot do is put himself in someone else’s shoes, and the one thing you have to do if you write a book is put yourself in someone else’s shoes. The reader’s shoes .’ Haddon elaborates, listing his narrator”s glaring, though ultimately essential, flaws, ‘ … he can’t understand metaphor, he can’t understand other people’s emotions, he misses the bigger picture … ‘ but then goes on to say that it is precisely Christopher”s directness, the honesty he gains from being unable to get outside of his own perspective, that ‘makes him incredibly well suited to narrating a book. He never explains too much. He never tries to persuade the reader to feel about things this way or that way; he just kind of paints this picture and says, “Make of it what you will.”‘ Christopher himself even weighs in on the subject at one point, explaining, ‘This is another reason why I don”t like proper novels, because they are lies about things which didn”t happen and they make me feel shaky and scared.’ All of which belies the fact that it is indeed a highly readable novel, full of funny and adorable scenes, touching confessions, and charming British slang.

Haddon”s narrator, Christopher Boone, is a young boy who lives in Swindon, England with his father and his pet rat, Toby, his mother having passed away two years before the start of the novel. When Christopher, a long-time fan of Sherlock Holmes mysteries, discovers the body of a neighbor”s dog who has been murdered with a garden fork, he decides to launch an investigation into the mysterious crime and, at the suggestion of one of his teachers, to keep a record of the events that follow. Although his exact diagnosis is never discussed in the novel, his language, inability to lie, discomfort in crowds and new places, and compulsive habits, combined with his off-the-chart mathematical ability, suggest that he has Asperger”s or some related syndrome. How does this disorder manifest itself in the text? Through lists of fears and phobias, precise timetables, chapters that do not flow into one another, and accounts of the day”s events in which every detail has the same weight, the same importance. It can be seen, too, in the choice to include so many images in the text — copies of road signs, train schedules, hand-written letters, math puzzles, and maps of the neighborhood — as if these objects could not be explained or represented by anything other than themselves. In Christopher”s world, there is only literal meaning; everything else exists as a lie.

Like any good mystery, The Curious Incident is as concerned with exploring the unknown spaces within its characters as with the curious crimes they may or may not have committed. Yet Christopher himself has no access to these spaces. He is completely absorbed in the material world: what happened and when it happened and where, and strikingly unmoved by the emotional events his detective work uncovers or generates. Haddon explains, ‘There is a very true sense in which there is something more wrong with the people around Christopher than with him. By the end of the book, although he hasn’t profoundly changed … he has managed to restore order to his life … But if you look at the people around him, they’re still struggling with these huge problems … They’re the people who in some sense have something wrong with them.’ From Christopher”s point of view, this novel is about how he takes on a challenge, solves a mystery, and succeeds in clearing obstacles he didn”t know were there.

But what about from our point of view? What do we take away from our encounter with this strangely endearing child who faithfully reports only what is true, and who so often appears to be missing the point entirely? Remarkably, what we learn from Christopher is empathy. For all the moments of foreignness when his obsessions become opaque and inexplicable — like when he explains that he ‘saw 4 yellow cars in a row on the way to school, which made it a Black Day, so I didn”t eat anything at lunch and I sat in the corner of the room all day and read my A-level maths course book’ — we find moments of clarity and lucidity. His words put us outside our own bizarre rites and rituals, offering us the one thing he does not, and cannot, have: the ability to feel what someone else is feeling.

4 Stars

Archived article by Rebecca Schonberg