THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF
THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME
By Mark Haddon
Doubleday. 226 pp. $22.95
It's midnight, and an autistic 15-year-old boy is sitting on the lawn, holding his neighbor's dead dog, covered with blood. The neighbor runs out screaming, police arrive, the boy hits a policeman and ends up in jail. Thus begins a jolting spiral of events in the life of one of this year's most memorable characters, Christopher John Francis Boone, the narrator of Mark Haddon's debut novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
A first-person narration can be a difficult leap for a novelist -- the depiction of an unknown mind -- but even more so when the point of view is further challenged by an unfamiliar disability. Recent successful examples come to mind, such as Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn, with its protagonist suffering from Tourette's Syndrome, and Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, which explores hermaphroditism. Haddon has taken on a Herculean task: using the prism of autism, a condition in which, according to popular notion, a person cannot comprehend emotion. Yet through the smoke and mirrors of his character's oddly dispassionate view of the world around him, Haddon manages to rouse intense and devoted interest.
The murder of the neighbor's dog, Wellington, as well as the recent death of Christopher's mother, plunges the boy into a journey of self-discovery. He has been living with his father and his pet rat, Toby, leaving his street only to attend a center for special needs a few hours a day. Now, spurred on by certain events, Christopher is compelled to venture out, in a quest to discover Wellington's killer.
"This is a murder mystery novel," declares Christopher. It is indeed that, and more. It is also, surprisingly, a novel of manners, vividly depicting a world we may be too numb to see. Immersing readers in the vortex of autism seems to promise a world of chaos, and yet Christopher's mind is surprisingly clear; in the absence of obscuring emotional brushstrokes, he relies on sharp images, which are taut and devoid of discoloration. Mrs. Shears, Christopher's neighbor and owner of the murdered dog, is described by Christopher as wearing "a T-shirt which had the words WINDSURF and CORFU and a picture of a windsurfer on it," and he goes on to mention phrases she uses frequently such as "Let's rustle up some tucker" and "It's brass monkeys out there." And thus, in elegant shorthand, Mrs. Shears comes stomping into our lives in her flappy sandals.
Christopher lives in a world of facts and figures, cool decipherings of the complex and baffling world around him. Subtle gradations of emotion confuse him; straightforward logistics soothes him. He adores prime numbers and often, when sent over the edge by stress, will find a snug little corner and recite them to lull himself into a quiet mood. "Prime numbers are what is left when you have taken all the patterns away," he says. "I think prime numbers are like life. They are very logical but you could never work out the rules, even if you spent all your time thinking about them."
Siobhan, his counselor at the center, gives him simple line drawings of facial expressions, and Christopher carries them around, pulling them out for reference in difficult situations where emotions are at work. The habit underlines one of the important subtexts in this book: Because emotions are subjective, who can presume to say whether someone else can feel one -- or even what an emotion is? In Christopher's view, "Feelings are just having a picture in the screen on your head of what is going to happen tomorrow or next year, or what might have happened instead of what did happen, and if it is a happy picture they smile and if it is a sad picture they cry." The irony is, as Christopher engages in such cool dissections, the reader repeatedly experiences emotional catharsis.
The essence of good writing is a sort of cataloguing, if you will, with the author supplying the details of the world he wants to evoke and the reader supplying the nuances of interpretation. Thanks to the brilliance of Haddon's prose, this back-and-forth works extremely well in The Curious Incident.
Although the book is character-driven, it also contains a rich plot. It is a murder mystery, a road atlas, a postmodern canvas of modern sensory overload, a coming-of-age journal and lastly a really affecting look at the grainy inconsistency of parental and romantic love and its failures. It is a cross-generational novel, very neatly walking the line between adult literary fiction and young adult. My 11-year-old son found my review copy, and we had to bargain back and forth for it.
"Mr. Jeavons said that I was a very clever boy," Christopher remarks. "I said I wasn't clever. I was just noticing how things were, and that wasn't clever. That was just being observant. Being clever was when you looked at how things were and used the evidence to work out something new. Like the universe expanding, or who committed a murder." In this striking first novel, Mark Haddon is both clever and observant, and the effect is vastly affecting. *
Nani Power is the author of "Crawling at Night" and, most recently, "The Good Remains"