I was given Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time as an Easter gift from my mother-in-law. She had read the book and thought I might find it interesting. It came highly reccommended and she let me know that she’d given it as a gift to others as well.
High expectations. A short, readable book with an intriguing theme. What happened?
For better or worse, I had a very visceral reaction to this book. I don’t know if that fact alone makes it a good novel, but it definitely affected me. Sure, the book is popular and well-reviewed. Yes, it did make me think quite a bit. But I’d be hard-pressed to say I enjoyed it.
The problem, if there is one, is the protagonist. Not hero, not anti-hero, Christopher John Francis Boone, the novel’s autistic, 15-year-old narrator is stuck between rootable, good guy detective and frustrating, petulant teenager. Granted, his autism is the driving force here, but it’s not a thing that the reader ever has a chance to feel comfortable about. Christopher is a taoist protagonist: neither good nor bad he just is. The story flows through him, but it is at times not about him and totally about him, seemingly in the same paragraph.
The action starts quickly with Christopher bending over the lifeless corpse of his neighbor’s dog. An altercation with a police officer and some well-reasoned, yet ultimately fruitless detective work, spur the action of the book’s first half as well as the title. Somewhere in the center of the novel, things take a decidedly depressing turn.
Christopher ends up running away from home and we see, for the first time, the darker side of his condition. Previously, we’d seen his fun side: prime numbers for chapters of his book, discussions about the brilliance of Sherlock Holmes, instances of his near-photographic memory – all advantages of his autism. When he is out of his element, however, we’re witness to headaches, nausea, irrational fear of people and an inability to grasp not only the minutiae of human facial expressions, but something as obvious as the kindness of strangers.
This is not a novel of easy answers. The “mystery” aspect of this book is solved fairly early on. The mystery to me was how the people around Christopher learned to deal with his very specific needs. His very gifted mind is devoid of any discernible humanity; he has intelligence but no wisdom. Emotionally he’ll always be 5 but intellectually he could be a Nobel laureate. I was left, more often than not, feeling frustrated and angry that the other side of his brain wouldn’t kick in. If he could solve the quadratic equation and play Chess in his head, how could he not see a person’s face and define their emotional state?
So the structure and conceit of the book are fabulous. A story told by an autistic teenager. Brilliant. Rain Main turned inside out – prime-numbered chapters and all.
But the story somehow feels lacking. The first half repeatedly shows Christopher’s brillance and his father’s resilliance. The second half promises the scatterd, conflicting inner workings of this man trapped with a child’s emotions. But the ending is completely rushed and the major impetus for Christopher’s acceptance of his old homelife, his A-level math exam, is totally glossed over. That one event could have spanned an entire chapter or two itself and served as a fitting connection between Christopher’s logical and child-like halves. As it was, it barely took 3 pages of text and didn’t have the weight and impact it could have.
Overall, I suppose I did enjoy this book, if not the story ultimately. It succeeded in setting a very specific mood and voice – that of an autistic narrator. I know more about autism now, despite how uncomfortable that knowledge makes me feel. I can honestly say that the father in this novel is braver and more patient than any literary character I can remember. I’ll also admit that I found myself identifying with the mother quite a bit too. I’m just as torn between how I might handle Chritopher’s autism as his own parents and as his own brain. These characters were all real people to me, even Christopher, and maybe that’s just a frightening and sober thought for someone who lives such a normal life.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time keeps you suspended awkwardly between the clinical rationality of it’s protagonist and the gritty, emotional reality of his life. It will, at the very least, make you think.
As an aside, one of the logic puzzles Christopher mentions in the book, the Monty Hall problem, really got to me. I couldn’t make the statistics make sense in my head. Luckily for me a blog I read had an entry on this very subject just this week. You can also find a scholarly explanation of the Monty Hall problem and an interactive “game” illustrating the scenario online.