Book Notes for the week of Jan. 26

Mark Haddon has a winner

By: Dr. Joan Ruddiman
   "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time" is billed as the first novel by author Mark Haddon.
   What a debut. Originally published in England under two covers — one marketed to adults and they other to young adults — the book has "swept around the world like a virus," as Haddon observes. It is the winner of the Whitbred, the United Kingdom’s "best book of the year" award — incredibly prestigious.
   Mark Haddon may be a first-time novelist, but he is a longtime writer. Funny that his skills as a writer are now so acclaimed when he has been writing and illustrating children’s books for almost 20 years.
   This is a point to be made because the beauty of "The Curious Incident" lies in the narrator’s voice. What Haddon does, like most good writers of children’s literature do, is "put myself in the mindset of a 5-, 7-, or 10 year-old." In this grown-up version, Haddon puts himself in the mindset of a 15-year-old "special needs" boy named Christopher Boone. Though he does not identify the disability, the original covers and all the reviewers used the term "autism."
   More likely, Christopher lives with Asperger’s syndrome, a relatively new diagnosis for behaviors that have long fascinated and repelled "normal" people. Christopher does not like to be touched and screams mightily when he is touched. He groans to block out unwanted stimuli, and in extreme cases curls into a ball and rocks with his eyes closed.
   Such behaviors are associated with autism. However, unlike expected autistic behaviors, Christopher interacts with people and holds conversations, though he doesn’t enjoy such "chatting." He is also brilliant in puzzling out math challenges, doing extensive calculations in his head and remembering precise details indefinitely. (His father does not write down his PIN, rather has Christopher store it in his head.)
   Whereas autistic behaviors are unconscious and are not able to be self-examined, Christopher is aware of his quirks. He does not like the colors yellow or brown, does not eat food that touches other foods, he does not like changes in his routine or interacting with new people. He does not tolerate lies. He is also aware of what he does not comprehend.
   "I find people confusing.
   This is for two main reasons.
   The first main reason is that people do a lot of talking without using any words…" (examples such as resizing an eyebrow or breathing loudly through the nose).
   "The second main reason is that people often talk using metaphors… "
   Christopher expounds on the Greek derivation of the word "metaphor" which ultimately means to "describe something by using a word for something that it isn’t."
   Thus, a lie. Everything in Christopher’s world, and therefore in his narrative voice, is straight up factual. It is in this that Haddon blends dark comedy with intense pathos.
   Though Christopher cannot tell a lie, he also cannot see the truth. Buried in those lifted eyebrows, heavy sighs and many angrily uttered expletives are the other "facts" that fill out the mystery that Christopher is trying to solve.
   Late one night, Christopher finds the neighbor’s dog dead — a pitchfork through its body. After the initial kafuffle of being accused of the deed and rescued by his father from the police station, Christopher decides to solve the mystery much like his hero Sherlock Holmes would do.
   (As an aside, the Holmes character exhibits Asperger-like behaviors. It is only through Watson that the reader "gets" what is going on. Think about it!)
   We "normal people" can read all the clues that elude Christopher as the mystery is about betrayal, passion and human failings. Even as the truth unfolds, Christopher misses it.
   A movie is coming, and it has the makings of being a good one. Haddon has populated his quirky plot with interesting characters. This extraordinary, brilliant boy lives in a working-class neighborhood with blue-collar parents who have no skills other than a parent’s love in knowing how to deal with him. Sadly, the one thing they can give him — love — is something Christopher just does not understand. How he copes, and how others deal with him, is fascinating, frightening and ultimately heartwarming.
   "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time" is a fast read and perhaps should be read in one sitting. Christopher is a unique character and a full immersion helps the reader enter into his world through his eyes and mind.
   The book is marketed to young adult readers and given the subject and age of the protagonist, teens will gravitate to this novel. However, some caveats should be considered. First is how "true" is the portrayal of Asperger’s syndrome and the other is the issue of the liberal use of four-letter words.
   Thanks to the reaches of the Internet, several critical analyses of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time" can be shared. One is a review of the book by William Schofield, an 18-year-old who identifies himself as having Asperger’s syndrome. In an article published in The Guardian, Schofield notes that he shares many of Christopher’s "routines, tendencies and lifestyles of AS," including the ability to "use a database of films in my head to play a certain scene." Christopher survives some harrowing adventures by employing this talent and runs math problems in his head to relax.
   Like Christopher, Schofield has gained with maturity an "awareness of how the ‘normal’ world works." For example, Christopher thanks his father for supper, not because of any gratitude, but "because it is the thing to do."
   A particularly favorite character is Christopher’s teacher Siobhan. We only know her from Christopher’s constant citings of "Siobhan said… " but she must be largely credited with guiding him to what awareness of the world he does have.
   Haddon worked more than 20 years ago with disabled students, including with children he now realizes had autism and Asperger’s syndrome disabilities. But at that time those terms for such behaviors were not used. Though he claims he did not set out to write Christopher with such a specific disability, Schofield and others appreciate that the behaviors are accurately drawn.
   As to the foul language, and it begins on the first page, John Mullan of the University College of London offers an interesting take on how expletives here are used purposefully and effectively to create character and plot.
   Christopher, the boy who only observes facts and does not amend any details, is telling this story. He "reports" what is said. And often what his unrelenting logic drives "normal" people to is extreme frustration. Hence, cursing, which Christopher quotes without hesitation.
   Mullan writes, "Much of the book’s comedy lies it the contrast between the factual blankness of his narration and the exasperation implicit in the four-letter words he hears. This is the kind of speech that Christopher, who has Asperger’s syndrome, would never use for it is the direct expression of feeling. Yet it also stands for the linguistic incompetence of all those ‘normal’ adults, inadequate in all their different ways."
   Don’t let the language stand in the way. Haddon’s first adult novel is, in a word, remarkable. For teens or adults, it is a fascinating, entertaining and unforgettable reading experience.
   Dr. Joan Ruddiman, Ed.D., is a teacher and friend of the Allentown Public Library.