Book: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Author: Mark Haddon
Type of work: Fiction
Why Did I Read This Book: I worked briefly at a used bookstore (waves to all my awesome coworkers at the Half-Price Books in Round Rock, if any of them ever find this review site) and a woman told me she had read it for her book club and wanted a copy for her daughter because she liked it so much. Her daughter worked with special needs children and despite the number of times I had seen copies of the book in new stores, I had no idea the book revolved around a “special needs” kid. On the basis of that woman’s like of the book and tantalizing premise of an autistic teenager writing a book, I decided to give it a try.
Availability: Published in 2003 by Vintage Books, this book is still widely available. You can get a copy here:
Comments: I do my best not to be an armchair psychiatrist because invariably such endeavors show my utter ignorance in the realm of psychiatry and the workings of the human brain, but I wonder what my extreme love of the spare style used to write this book says about me. The trope of the book is that Christopher Boone, a 15-year-old autistic savant, discovered a neighbor’s dead dog, stabbed to death with a pitchfork, and decided to write a book about his attempts to solve the dog’s murder. As he writes his book, Christopher uncovers a shocking family secret and is forced to crawl outside the extreme limits his autism place upon him. Of course, I won’t spoil the ending but the plot, while at times a little obvious, is overshadowed by the experience of spending time in Christopher’s head, a time that is nerve-wracking, saddening, frustrating and amazing.
The book is written in a very simple, matter-of-fact manner, stripped down prose that reflects the way Christopher’s autism forces him to process stimuli. For example, he says:
I see everything. This is why I don’t like new places… But most people are lazy. They never look at everything. They do what is called glancing, which is the same word for bumping off something and carrying on in almost the same direction, e.g., when a snooker ball glances off another snooker ball. And the information in their head is really simple…
And when I am in a new place, because I see everything, it is like when a computer is doing too many things at the same time and the central processor unit is blocked up and there isn’t space left to think about other things. And when I am in a new place and there are lots of people there it is even harder because people are not like cows and flowers and grass and they can talk to you and do things that you don’t expect, so you have to notice everything that is in the place, and also you have to notice things that might happen as well. And sometimes when I am in a new place and there are lots of people there it is like a computer crashing and I have to close my eyes and put my hands over my ears and groan, which is like pressing CTRL + ALT + DEL and shutting down programs and turning the computer off and rebooting so that I can remember what I am doing and where I am meant to be going.
It is no accident that Christopher thinks of his mind as a computer. He is a mathematical savant, able to perform complex mathematical formulas in his mind as easily as I compose sentences. All the chapters are prime numbers because he likes prime numbers. Though he is severely limited in his social interactions and attends a school where other children consume their own feces, Christopher is able to convince school officials to permit him to sit his A-levels in math.
The parts of this novel that sucked me in the most were those where I saw the interesting rules that Christopher used to govern his life. He followed a close schedule, and the rules that most of us learn as children, like don’t talk to strangers, are taken to an extreme with him. The minor phobias in his life were staggering, from his loathing for all things yellow and brown, to his refusal to use a bathroom that in his mind had been befouled. He wet his pants rather than use a toilet he found suspicious, even after it had been cleaned.
But for me, the best part was when Christopher’s discoveries for him to leave his father’s home and go to London. Terrified, overwhelmed and frightened, Christopher’s anxiety affected me as I read it.
So I put my hands over my ears to block out the noise and think. And I thought that I had to stay in the station to get on a train and I had to sit down somewhere and there was nowhere to sit down near the door of the station so I had to walk down the tunnel. So I said to myself, in my head, not out loud, “I will walk down the tunnel and there might be somewhere I can sit down and then I can shut my eyes and I can think,” and I walk down the tunnel trying to concentrate on the sign at the end of the tunnel that said WARNING CCTV in operation. And it was like stepping off the cliff on a tightrope.
The latter quarter of the novel is indeed a tightrope that the reader feels acutely as Christopher walks it. It was shocking to me at times how much I related to Christopher. My aversion to loud noise, hatred for being touched, my affinity for animals, which far trumps my affinity for humans, my dislike of change in general. While there are those who would argue that I am certainly maladjusted, I am definitely not autistic. I think it speaks volumes that Haddon could impart a commonality of experience between an autistic young man and a merely neurotic middle-age woman.
On several occasions, I felt this novel was a close cousin to some of Ruth Rendell’s depictions of mental illness. Writers of moderate skill can take you into someone’s mind, and show the thoughts, motivations and frustrations of an average person but it takes a deft hand and no small amount of talent to transport a reader into the mind of someone whose mind is so very different from the “average” mind. This book is amazing and I recommend it highly.