Book review: The curious incident of the dog in the night-time

The curious incident of the dog in the night-time.
M. Haddon. New York: Vintage.226 pp. $12.95.Paperback

In this mystery novel the protagonist narrates through his journey into awareness of adult relationships. The story is at times engrossingly accurate and at times painfully pedantic. Ironically, in a story about a protagonist who perhaps has Asperger’s Syndrome or some other form of high functioning autism I imagine that is supposed to be the point. Unfortunately, the story ultimately fails because the author can’t resolve the fact that the real ending is already known, despite the ‘mystery’ being revealed on page 120.

Christopher is an interesting character and his quirkiness is probably what drew critics to praise the book. I don’t imagine that the critics have ever met someone like the protagonist, so his ‘differences’ are captivating enough to keep an uninformed reader glued to the pages long enough to finish reading. Sadly, the author reinforces the disability-as-magic-power myth in order to achieve his goals. For the informed, the character typing, or perhaps stereotyping, underscores the real tragedy that the author never really explores.

This is not a coming-of-age story in any sense, despite some mimicry of the bildungsroman genre. The basic formula of a bildungsroman is that it is easily understood by people within that culture and time, where the kinds of opportunities presented to the protagonist were the same as the actual experiences of common people. In some sense the events are common – but the protagonist is uncommon. Christopher can never grow through the experience in the classic bildungsroman way; his disability impedes his growth. The author doesn’t provide a contrived ending – he just expresses Christopher’s tragically constricted perception that the world will right itself. I imagine that the collective readership is more than willing to accept Christopher’s fantasies, despite the previously asserted facts of his requirement for guardianship and supervision.

One could argue that an artist simply paints a picture and can’t be held responsible for how others can come to view the work. I still think that Haddon should have been more responsible. Christopher is not a super-hero in this novel, although I understand how he has been misunderstood as one. The reality of this story does not lend itself to the comic-book ending that Christopher perceives and the reader wants to believe. I am a little disappointed that the author didn’t see how that might happen.

Haddon’s error, then, is in sin of omission. The story doesn’t really end so happily. The real story is that the family is broken, and the imperfect adults in the novel are left struggling to define and redefine their relationships and roles in the wake of raising a child who has a disability. The real story is also that given the nature and degree of the portrayal of Christopher’s disability, it is not so certain that he will be able to accomplish his dreams. Art does not imitate life in this book. This omitted fact is the real tragedy.

Comments

Julie Alterio said…
Hi Chris,

As someone without expertise in dealing with people with disabilities, I came to this story as merely an interested reader who had listened to an interview with the author on "Fresh Air."

My experience was the opposite of yours. I loved this book and recommended it to other people.

I didn't feel, personally, that the author minimized the protagonist's disabilities. In fact, I think as a reader you are pretty well aware of his limitations.

What I loved was sharing his brain for a while and seeing the way he approached the world. I think the descriptions of his problems interacting with "normal" people who are apt to say what they don't mean and use confusing metaphors was particularly well done.

I also enjoyed the way he influenced the actions of those around him without completely understanding the different layers of communications everyone was experiencing.

What also got me was the engaging story and the author's use of language. It was also funny.

I'll have to re-read it and keep your comments in mind!

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