Those of you following along at home may remember when I read Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. At the time, I mentioned that in some ways it was a remarkably boring book, and then a remarkably disturbing book, but all the while a remarkably fascinating book because the real meat, I believed, was not in the Devil-Wears-Prada-meets-Hostel plot, but rather in the way Ellis chose to narrate the book from the sociopathic narrator’s point of view, which brings up important points about narrator reliability, and was if nothing else one of the neatest rhetorical tricks I’ve seen in a long while.
Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time strives for the same thing, only without the gruesome torture. Rather, Haddon narrates through the eyes of a 15-year-old autistic boy named Christopher who is an idiot savant at math (for instance, he mentally calculates the cubes of the cardinal numbers to relax) but socially inept in the way that many autistics are. Autism, despite not being a new idea in pop culture (think Rain Main, or the unnoticed Mercury Rising) is still not understood very well, conflated with mental retardation. Importantly, I think that Haddon’s approach to constructing an autistic character is not only thorough, but sensitive to the issue, as well. Readers really do get a sense of the difficulty autistics have with sensory input, and with so-called “emotional intelligence.”
The book begins under the pretenses of a mystery novel (the title itself is a nod to an adventure of Sherlock Holmes) as young Christopher stumbles upon a murdered dog and ends up being blamed for it. From there, he spins his tale—part detective work in the present, part character development in the past, and part random tangents about math and science, such as the Monty Hall Problem. Without telling you how the “mystery” ends, I will say that it is solved about halfway through the book—the dead dog is a red herring in a much larger mystery that Christopher unravels. In a way, the book segues from a mystery to a bildungsroman at it tracks Christopher’s narrative progress as well as his emotional development (if you could call it that—I am unconvinced that Christopher develops emotionally at all, but does grow intellectually in a way that allows him greater interaction with those close to him).
One of the aspects of the novel that I found most compelling was when Christopher deconstructs certain things that we as ‘normal’ people take for granted, using the cold, questioning logic of a young child coupled with his own honed mathematical approach to life, which inadvertently points out the absurdities that really make no sense to a person without predispositions to the maudlin or the illogical. It’s fascinating, really
This book was a surprise for me—I didn’t know what to expect, but I was really impressed by Haddon’s debut, to the extent that I’m more than willing to read anything else he writes. If you’re at all curious about this sort of thing, give it a try: it’s only 240 pages, and quite enjoyable.