2 november 2010

The curious incident of the dog in the night-time - Mark Haddon

I find people confusing. Thus begins one of the first chapters of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. The quoted words are expressed by 15-year-old Christopher John Francis Boone. Christopher knows all countries in the world and their capitals by heart and all the prime numbers up to 7,507. "A little professor", is how one might characterize Christopher because of his detailed knowledge of higher mathematics and his interest in complex technological machines. "Little Professors" is exactly how the Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger described is objects of study; children with the syndrome that was named after him in 1944. Although Mark Haddon once declared that he did not have Asperger's syndrome in mind when he wrote the book, the disorder which Christopher suffers from is most reminiscent of this variation within the autism spectrum.

The story is told from the perspective of Christopher. Christopher is writing a detective novel that should be like Sherlock Holmes. In the book he wants to find out who killed Wellington. Wellington is the dog of his neighbor Mrs. Shears. In between Christopher tells about his experiences outside his investigations and he reveals more about himself. In the future he wants to be an astronaut because as an astronaut he will work with complex machines and he can lock himself into a small cabin where no one else is present and where no one can touch him.

The reasoning, logic, fears and anger outbursts are described credibly by Haddon. It is likely that this is how you experience the world when you have this type of autism: mostly tiring and frightening because people and their behavior cannot always be categorized and because there is so incredibly much information coming to you. To keep the overview and to process all that information it needs to be chopped into small chunks. Christopher himself compares it to a conveyor belt in a factory that goes too fast, so that what is on it begins to accumulate and the stress level begins to rise.

Although Christopher says that he has not included any humor in his detective novel (generally Christopher doesn´t understand humor because humor often requires one to interpret things figuratively), the narrative style often creates funny moments. For example, when he tells about a fellow pupil in his special school, who tells him that he will never be an astronaut:

Terry, who is the older brother of Francis, who is at the school, said I would only ever get a job collecting supermarket trollies or cleaning out donkey shit at an animal sanctuary and they didn’t let spazzers drive rockets that cost billions of pounds.
[…]
I’m not a spazzer, which means spastic, not like Francis, who is a spazzer, and even though I probably won’t become an astronaut I am going to go to university and study Mathematics […] But Terry won’t go to university. Father says Terry is most likely to end up in prison.

On his quest for the murderer of Wellington, Christopher also discovers unexpected things that change his life dramatically. As a reader you travel along with Christopher, so that it is easy to identify with him. You get the same information as Christopher; there is no omniscient narrator who discloses extra facts. However, and that is so interesting about the narrative structure that Haddon has chosen, you have more knowledge than Christopher because information and knowledge are not the same. As a reader you are better able than Christopher to combine the different pieces of information and to draw your own conclusions. Christopher is always on the verge of discovering things that you've already discovered, and because most discoveries are unpleasant discoveries, you will quickly feel compassion for him.

Although the person of Christopher mainly arouses sympathy, the story also shows how difficult and sometimes annoying it can be to be around someone like Christopher. We, as readers, understand his behavior, because we know his thoughts. But for those who are directly involved in the story, his behavior often comes across as extremely selfish and egocentric. It is understandable that not everyone can keep his temper and patience with Christopher.

Do I recommend The curious incident of the dog in the night-time? A definite yes. A good novel is able to show a bit of the world that could otherwise not be seen. Haddon, made a successful attempt to look into the mind of a fifteen year old boy with a form of autism. He offers the reader an opportunity to understand a little more of that fifteen year old boy’s mind and thus to gain new insights. The book is interesting and insightful, but not only that, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is also moving and very entertaining. 

Mark Haddon, The curious incident of the dog in the night-time, (2003), 226 pages, ISBN: 978-0385512107

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