Thursday, July 27, 2006

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon

Now here's an interesting book. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a work of fiction written as a first-person narrative, as if you were privy to the private writings of some real-world person. First-person narratives are not exactly new. From Dracula to Flowers for Algernon to Life of Pi, the technique has been used time and time again to give the work a more realistic feel. What makes this book unique is the character doing the narration, an autistic teenager named Christopher Boone.

Because he is afflicted with autism, Christopher is not your typical boy next door. He just doesn't "get" the social world, and probably won't catch the full meaning of what you say to him. He only understands the literal and the logical, and yet much of his reaction to the world around him is driven by superstition, and a very odd set of superstitions at that. He is easily overwhelmed by noise, crowds, or just about any other type of stimulation, which he copes with by curling up in a ball and moaning. And do not try to touch him.

When this severely challenged boy happens upon a dead dog with a pitchfork sticking out of it, he is understandably upset. When Christopher is then accused of killing the dog he is thrown into the role of a modern-day Sherlock Holmes with a partially malfunctioning brain. His quest to identify the dog's true murderer takes him far beyond his familiar world. For Christopher, that's a big deal.

He tells his tale as an autistic train of thought, complete with barely relevant details, lengthy tangents, and atypical conclusions. It's a fascinating view of the world through a different set of eyes. Some of the most dramatic moments in the book are scenes where Christopher's viewpoint and the reader's viewpoint are noticeably different. The ending is perhaps the strongest of those moments. Several people's lives have been turned completely upside down, but Christopher honestly believes everything is back to normal and OK again. To Christopher, things have been resolved. It's only the reader who realizes how unresolved and out of balance things still are. The dichotomy will leave you feeling satisfyingly unsettled.

I've got a couple of suggestions to help you enjoy this book. First, you've got to accept that the events of the book are nothing more than a context in which to watch Christopher. By the middle of the book the actual plot line has become predictable, but Christopher himself has become an absolutely enthralling character to observe. You often know what's going to happen next, but Christopher's reaction is much harder to guess.

Second, learn a little about autism before you read the book. You are much more likely to pick up on the subtleties that way. Based on what I've read in some negative reviews of this book, Christopher's oddities are just plain irritating unless you have some clue as to why he is the way he is. Someone who understands how difficult it is for an autistic individual to distinguish between the significant and the trivial, for example, will find that Christopher's detailed explanations of vaguely related topics are not only interesting in their own right, but also serve as character development. Readers without that understanding will wonder why the author just wasted two pages. A little background goes a long way toward enjoying the book and toward developing empathy for Christopher.

There are quite a few F-bombs scattered throughout the book. If that's something you care about, consider yourself warned.

It's natural to compare The Curious Incident with a book I mentioned earlier, the classic we all read in junior high, Flowers for Algernon. Both books are told through the eyes of a young man with cognitive defects. They share many common themes. But rest assured that these are two very different books. It's certainly possible that Mark Haddon was influenced by Algernon, but The Curious Incident cannot be remotely considered a copy of the former. Not only do the plots and writing styles differ significantly, but the two works have completely different core purposes. Algernon is primarily a social commentary, while The Curious Incident is primarily a character study.

I highly recommend this book. Be prepared to either love it or hate it.

4 Stars
4 out of 5 Stars4 out of 5 Stars4 out of 5 Stars4 out of 5 Stars4 out of 5 stars

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