THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE
DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME
A novel by Mark Haddon
A Non-review by
a book can be both enduring and problematic. Mark Haddon's
novel, THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME;
Doubleday, US printing July, 2003, is the story of Christopher
Boone, a fifteen year old with "special needs";
a spaz or mong as the unkind normal kids call him. Of the
novel, the Library of Congress lists: 1.Autism--Fiction
2.Savants (Savant Syndrome)--Fiction 3.England--Fiction,
otherwise the word autistic is not used.
The plot involves the "murder" of a neighborhood
dog, Wellington. The dog's owner, Mrs. Shears, accuses Christopher
who is taken into custody and held in a cell until his father
comes to fetch him. Once released, with a warning, he decides
to investigate the killing and write-up his discoveries
and his sleuthing evolves into the story of his life. All
of this is good, and I would have no quarrel if I had not
been researching certain types of mental disorders, in particular
Autism and Asperger's Syndrome. In one of those eerie coincidences,
my sister suggested the book knowing nothing of my research.
I leapt at the idea; a novel written from the voice of an
autistic boy, great. The plot fits lightly over what most
readers, I suspect, really want to know: what goes on inside
the head of a character afflicted with this mysterious disorder
whose most common symptom is an almost other worldly emotional
detachment? Lack of eye contact, a strong desire not to
be touched and the inability to read other people through
the usual facial and eye cues ("mind blindness")
are typical. Repetitive behavior like hand flapping, circling,
head banging are also common. Frequently, autism is accompanied
by mental retardation and sometimes the so-called the savant
syndrome is present, a genius for mathematics, say, or the
ability to memorize vast quantities of data such as timetables,
skylines or phone books.
A child with mild Autism, or its high-functioning cousin,
Asperger's, can grow into an adult with useful skills and
the ability to live on his or her own. Temple Grandin and
Donna Williams are two noted, accomplished autistics. Christopher's
future looks bright. He is smart and very logical though
obsessive about order, which serves in part to protect him
from the messy emotionalism of other people. Logic, however,
does not prevent bad choices that can be dangerous and/or
out of sync with the way the rest of the world operates.
Still, he functions.
Christopher on the mind: "People think computers are
different from people because they don't have minds
the mind is just a complicated machine. And when we look
at things we think we're just looking out of our eyes like
we're looking out of little windows and there's a person
inside our head, but we're not. We're looking at a screen
inside our heads, like a computer screen." Christopher
explains that emotions too are pictures on the internal
screen, of past and future events, and if they are happy
pictures a person is happy or sad if the pictures are sad.
But Christopher inhabits in a world where people behave
with conflicted often confusing emotional responses and
at times neurotic solutions to their problems. They generally
do not mind being touched or having the different foods
on their plate touch (actually, I prefer my foods not overlap,
but never mind). Christopher finds other people extremely
difficult to comprehend, and they, sadly, find him even
The jacket flap informs us that Mark Haddon has worked
with autistics, and the experience clearly had a deep effect.
Yet Christopher Boone is too much like a composite of a
text book high-functioning autistic profile, right down
to the "Smarties" test used by cognitive development
researchers. Every child in England knows Smarties candies.
The test is to ask a child what is inside a Smarties box?
The child will naturally assume candy and will be very surprised
to find pencils inside when the tester opens the box. A
normal child will answer when asked, what will Mary say
when she comes into the room and is asked what is inside
the Smarties box, "Smarties." An autistic child
given the same test will say that Mary will expect to find
pencils in the Smarties box because the autistic child cannot
imagine a mind knowing something other than what it knows.
This is huge. What bothers me about Christopher--or Mark
Haddon--and the Smarties test is that, like so much else,
its use in the book reads like a thesis of autistic traits
bundled into one boy. Christopher is convincing as a character
from a literary point of view, but I think there is something
untruthful going on.
For one, savants are usually handicapped socially (in the
past called idiot savants) but with an incredible gift.
Think of Peter Seller's character Chance the Gardener in
the film, Being There. Everyone gives him attributes he
does not possess because he is a brilliant gardener who
speaks of all things in relation to this one area which
they interpret as profound because of his childlike purity
and honesty. The others are so jaded and removed that Chance
seems like a saint. But Chance is obsessed with television
and cannot live on his own. A savant is possessed by a gift
that often has little meaning beyond a personal satisfaction
known only to the autistic.
Christopher works primary numbers in his head. He can also
draw, memorize maps and timetables and talk about astrology,
computers, death and, well, it goes on so that except for
some quirks and a ticish unease among people he's an all
around budding genius. This is not believable, however delightful
Christopher's insights may be. Like Donna Williams, Christopher
has a sense of being different. By the time Donna Williams
wrote her autobiography, NOBODY NOWHERE, she had come to
see some advantages to her differences, particularly in
her more spontaneous or artist response to the world, but
she went through hell to collect herself, to find a way
to live among non-autistics. The acute sensory world of
autistics, commonly lacking the filters "normal"
brains develop to handle bombardments of sensory stimuli,
is barely touched on in Haddon's character.
A high functioning autistic memorizes charts of facial
expressions in order to understand other people, and of
course facial expressions do not operate like charts. Interlocution
is problematic. Areas of interest are sometimes excruciatingly
mundane, like city bus schedules. Christopher cannot make
small talk (a possible asset in my opinion, but never mind).
This, Mark Haddon brings out beautifully. For all his quirky
brilliance, Christopher can be a real bore. Who wants to
I have not worked with autistic people and research is
not the same as actual experience. The book, though, could
leave readers with the idea that autism is weird but kind
of cool, sad but somehow deep. Autistics may in some ways
be deeper. If you are not socialized like everyone else
you must operate in some other way. One theory of autism
allows that parts of the brain are dysfunctional allowing
other parts to function in a superior way. Here is Christopher
on the Smarties test, which of course he failed, "That
was because when I was little I didn't understand about
other people having minds
but I don't find this difficult
now. Because I decided that it was kind of a puzzle, and
if something is a puzzle there is always a way of solving
it." The problem I have with this otherwise good book
is that it might make it seem as if the puzzle of autism
can be solved just like that. The autistic daughter of a
friend of mine lost all her language when she turned two,
she is twelve now and can barely communicate. Her father,
though, says she is happy.
© September 2003 J. Stefan-Cole