The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon is probably the most original and creative novel I have ever read. It is told in the first person by fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone, who has Asperger’s (or if you keep up with medical bureaucracy, which says this condition no longer exists, he is on the autism spectrum).
The opening chapter finds Christopher in his neighbour’s front yard in the middle of the night discovering the body of a dead dog. Not just a dead dog. A murdered dog. A dog with a large garden fork sticking out of it. Christopher is sad – or as he describes it – sad face (actual picture of a sad face). He yanks out the garden fork and is hugging the bleeding corpse when the dog’s owner comes out demanding to know what he has done to the dog.
But he didn’t kill it, which he tells her, and we know he’s telling the truth because he can’t lie, according to him. He decides he will find out who killed the dog so that the perpetrator can be punished.
And so begins a book completely lacking in emotion but entirely logical – in Christopher’s mind, anyway – as he begins his detecting. About half the book has absolutely nothing to do with anything as Christopher goes off on scientific and mathematical tangents, which help him stay calm in a chaotic world. About one quarter of the book focuses on his murder investigation and the other quarter of the book follows him as his world unravels around him when he finds out who the murderer is.
The chapters aren’t numbered the way you might expect. Christopher uses prime numbers only so it starts with 2, then 3, then 5, then 7, then 11, and so on. It only took me a moment when I began reading the book to realise this and he addresses this choice later on saying he likes prime numbers and they are so logical. It clearly makes sense to him. I find cardinal numbers – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, etc – to be perfectly logical but at least I can understand. Christopher cannot.
Assuming this is an accurate portrayal of how someone with Asperger’s sees and relates to the world, it provides an astonishing insight. The book itself is covered with recommendations from Ian McEwan, Oliver Sachs, the Sunday Telegraph, the Guardian, the Independent, The Times, the New York Times and more. They use words like ‘outstanding’, ‘stunning’, ‘superb’, ‘remarkable’, ‘impressive’, ‘exceptional’ and ‘brilliant’. There’s only one missing that I think should have been included as well: ‘disturbing’.
This is supposedly a children’s book and won several children’s book awards but it’s also a novel that parents should read before letting their children read it because it contains all of the following swear words: shit, fuck, shitting fuck, cunt. The main character also thinks a lot about stabbing people with the Swiss Army Knife he always has with him and tells the reader that his best dream is the one where everybody on earth who isn’t on the autism spectrum has died and he can go anywhere he wants without hardly running into anyone else.
I think perhaps the greatest achievement of this book is about two-thirds of the way through when Christopher decides to run away to London. But he doesn’t cope well in places with a lot of people and he descends into a version of autistic madness. He gets stuck in a tube station and doesn’t leave for about five hours and the way Mark Haddon has written this section made my brain hurt. But I think that’s the intention – to give the reader a short but intense idea of exactly how the brain of a person on the autism spectrum hurts when taken out of their comfort zone. For the reader, we can simply look away from the page or put the book down and take a break. But if you’re on the autism spectrum, the things that upset you can’t be so easily avoided. It’s hard work. Sometimes the only option is to shut your brain down and start again – Christopher does this by groaning, rocking backwards and forwards, and hoping when he stops everything will be okay again.
The more I got to know Christopher as I followed him through his adventure, the more I began to think of Asperger’s and autism spectrum disorders as a clinical form of extreme selfishness. Sufferers cannot understand and don’t particularly care about the feelings of others and simply do whatever it is they want, even when that is hurtful and destructive to the people around them. But what the novel also served up as a counterpoint was how often this description could be applied to people not on the autism spectrum. Christopher’s mother, father, neighbours, teachers, the police, strangers he meets in the street, they were all primarily concerned with what made their own lives easier. And while they understood the feelings of others, they often didn’t care about them. Which is really worse than not understanding and thus not being able to care.
For those who read a lot of my book reviews, this might seem to be a common theme, but I’ve withheld the fifth star for this book as well. Come on, it takes something mind-blowing to be considered a ‘perfect’ novel. And it just fell short. It has a quite traditional happy ending, in an autism spectrum kind of way. And even though it is told in a unique way, through the eyes of a boy with Asperger’s, it doesn’t tell a story that is all that different from many others out there.
But it is important, it is clever, it is original, it is intriguing and it is touching. It deserves to be read and discussed. It’s closer to a 5 than it is to a 4 but that’s the illogical Goodreads system we are given to rate with. No doubt someone on the autism spectrum could come up with something better. In the meantime, we’ll just have to cope with it – or else groan, rock backwards and forwards and hope when we stop everything will be okay.
*First published on Goodreads 31 October 2015