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A novel by Mark Haddon
A Non-review by
J. Stefan-Cole

Sometimes 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.

Other Book Reviews:

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
- Mark Haddon

Come Closer
- Sara Gran

Morningside Heights
- Cheryl Mendelson

- Michel Houellebecq
The Usual Rules
- Joyce Maynard

Bangkok 8
- John Burdett

A Whistling Woman
- A. S. Byatt

Being America
- Jebediah Purdy

Fresh Milk
- Fiona Gile

The Man with the Dancing Eyes
- Sophie Dahl

The Stone Virgins
- Yvonne Vera

The Murdering
of My Years

- Mickey Z

Vanishing Splendor
- Alain Vircondelet

Skirt and Fiddle
- Tristan Egolf

- Arthur Bradford

Nowhere Man
- Aleksandar Hemon

The Book of Illusions
- Paul Auster

Lightning Field
- Dana Spiotta

It's a Free Country
- Danny Goldberg

Some of the Parts
- T Cooper

- Jonathon Dee

The White
- Deborah Larsen
Into the Buzzsaw
- Kristina Borjesson

- Ian McEwan

The Black Veil
- Rick Moody

Tempting Faith DiNapoli
- Lisa Gabriele

- Lynn Breedlove

Africa Speaks
- Mark Goldblatt

The Shape of a Pocket
- John Berger

Media Unlimited
- Todd Gitlin

Carter Beats the Devil
- Glen David Gold

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…But 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 more so.

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 read timetables?

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

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