Thursday, 16 October 2003

Mark Haddon: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003)

Edition: Jonathan Cape, 2003
Review number: 1188

Novels with disabled central characters, and particularly ones in which these characters are the narrators, are rare. Mental illness is something which makes people especially uncomfortable and books which deal with it in anything other than a superficial way are really hard to find. (The criminally insane crop up fairly regularly in thrillers, but they are usually a device to inspire fear or allow the author to obfuscate a killer's identity by making them not have a reasonable motive.) Where a disability is taken seriously, the treatment is likely to be worthy and heavy going, and it took considerable enthusiasm from my mother to persuade me to read this novel.

Christopher Boone is a fifteen year old who has Asperger's Syndrome, and he decides to write a book to describe his detection into the killing of a neighbour's dog, found impaled on a garden fork. He is clearly remarkably intelligent (although he attends a special school, he is about to take Maths A-level at the age of fifteen), but he doesn't relate to his environment (and particularly the people around him) in the same way that a normal individual would.

The novel is really an attempt to explore these differences in understanding, and we learn a lot about how Christopher thinks. It doesn't greatly matter who killed the dog, and an understanding of human motivations and relationships will almost certainly mean that the reader works it out long before Christopher does. Far more interesting are things like his justification for deciding by the patterns in the colours of cars passed whether the day will be a good one or a bad one, and other insights into what might at first glance seem to be irrational ideas.

There are at least two ways in which this novel throws an illuminating light on how people think. (It is not surprising that cognitive scientists find people with Asperger's particularly fascinating.) One of these is just how much we assume in everyday life, how good we become at relating things together and interpreting events in terms of all our past experience. This is exemplified in The Dog in the Night by Christopher's solo rail journey from his home in Swindon to London (one of the simpler UK routes), where even tiny things like not immediately being able to understand that "two ninety five" is the same as "two pounds and ninety five pence" prove to be difficulties. What strikes me about this is that Christopher's abilities in this area - extrapolation of known background - are more akin to those of a computer program than those of a normal human being. To most of us the process of classification and generalisation is so automatic that we find it hard to realise just how difficult a task it actually is.

The other realisation that downs on the reader is to do with how Christopher sees himself. It is conventional to describe someone with Asperger's as "afflicted", but that is certainly not how it seems to Christopher. He is generally quite happy (the events which distress him, such as being touched, only have short term effects, and things that would upset a normal child, such as being told his mother is dead, don't affect him on an emotional level). In fact, it is his family which is made unhappy by his actions and by the strain of coping with living with him, even though they obviously love him very much. They hide their exasperation as a result, and combined with Christopher's inability to empathise, they manage to keep the destructive effect he has had on his parents' relationship completely secret from him.

My Room 101 nightmare has always been that I might go mad (and sometimes when particularly depressed I wonder whether I might already be mad and just not realise it). But there is only a certain distance from normality that it is possible to go before one ceases to realise that one is thinking abnormally. It stops being possible to put yourself in the position of another person who is thinking normally, as external evidence such as Christopher's special school education will still (unless the abnormality is really serious) make one aware on some level that one is not like other people. The way that Christopher is is to him just a fact of life, and it doesn't distress him in the way that being served yellow coloured food does.

Christopher's happiness is extremely important in The Dog in the Night-Time, as it prevents the novel being heavy and depressing. Instead, it is easy to read and fascinating, and is in many places quite funny. Reading it was an unexpected pleasure.

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