Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Many Mysteries

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon, Read by Jeff Woodman, 2003

Every year, it seems, there is a new disease that is the trendy one to have, to get, or, for those unfortunate enough not be so hiply afflicted, to write about. Last year’s Munchausen by Proxy is so last year, and as for Seasonal Affective Disorder and Epstein-Barr the less said the better. How gauche.

2003 saw the media discovery of Asperger's, a curious and often mild variant of autism marked primarily by communication difficulties such as being unable to correctly read facial expressions or nonverbal signs. Those afflicted are often very literal in their language, clumsy physically, and have very concentrated interests bordering on obsessive. Rumors swirled on the internet that Bill Gates was a sufferer; the television program Law & Order featured a killer suffering from Asperger’s; and noted children’s author, Mark Haddon made his debut in adult novels with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

Which is not to say that Haddon’s novel unduly capitalizes on Asperger’s or glorifies it or in any way uses the syndrome merely as a hook. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a prime example of what a talented, sensitive writer can do with a subject despite the sudden fashionista bandwagon.

Mystery readers familiar with Sherlock Holmes will recognize the title of this book, an allusion to the solution to the puzzle in The Hound of the Baskervilles, though the literary distance traveled between that early master of mystery to this one is immense. Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn performed the same trick, spinning the hardboiled crime noir by afflicting his narrator with Tourette’s.

The Curious Incident interestingly enough starts off with chapter two. The next chapter is chapter three, then chapter five, then chapter seven. Can you guess what the next chapter number will be?

As with many autistic spectrum disorder sufferers, our narrator, fifteen year old Christopher John Francis Boone, is a math whiz. Whenever he is feeling stressed by someone having touched him, by four yellow cars going by on his way to school (or by anything colored yellow or brown), or by any break in the routine of his life, Christopher does math problems as a way of calming himself down. His favorite math problems are simple ones, powers of two and three.

Each chapter is a prime number (a numeral that can’t be divided by any other number [2, 3, 5, 7, 11, etc.]), which introduces us both to Christopher's idiosyncratic mind and to a nice long list of primes. It is a bit of jar after hearing the title to hear “Chapter Two” then the story.

The mystery at the heart of this book, however, is the murder of a dog named Wellington; our detective finds the body with a garden fork stuck through it and is determined to find out whodunit. In the background, though, lurks the story of Christopher's mother who died a couple years earlier, while in the hospital for some time. The investigation of the crime begins to unravel a number of larger, unexplained features of Christopher’s life. When he begins finding contradictions and uncovering the truth of the story, it is his Asperger’s that prevents him from fully putting the pieces together. As a reader, you are supposed to figure it out before Christopher.

The book is such an interesting interior monologue that the mystery itself is really only a secondary aspect of the story. What fascinates is not finding out who killed the dog (the mystery of which is solved halfway through the story), but in Christopher finding out his own strengths and limitations. In us learning the way a mind beset by Asperger’s circumnavigates the world most of us take for granted.

The second half of the book allows us to watch as he learns these things, when he comes to believe that the dog’s murderer now means to harm him. Christopher embarks upon a trip, leaving his small town to travel by train to London. Along the way, he is pursued by the police and the canine’s killer, eluding them both to hide out with family members living in the capital. And it is the temporary sanctuary he finds there that transforms his life.

Haddon's descriptions (along with Woodman's youthful narration) of the most mundane activities (buying a railroad ticket, riding an escalator, buying a ticket for the London Underground and getting change) has a certain special quality to it, an amazement that is touching. Through the book, familiar things are dusted off, shined, and presented as wonders. It is all too easy for an author to dish up characters with some odd qualities about them (missing a leg, a severe stutter, regular seizures and hallucinations) and to use that facet of their life either for cheap sympathy or to add quirk and color to their writing. What Haddon does here in his debut is demonstrate for us, at a distressingly miniscule level the challenges such a person might face, then he throws that situation into dramatic activity. The result is compelling and touching.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is actually incorrect - the title is a reference to Silver Blaze, not Hound of the Baskervilles.