He’s Obsessed with Order

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

We readers spend an awful lot of time inside our own heads, don’tcha think? At least that seems to be the case for me, although I have long been loath to admit it.

When I’ve taken those typology batteries, you know, the ones like Myers-Briggs, the results almost always suggest that I prefer solitude. This book, now 15 years old, which makes it almost contemporary for me, offered a glimpse of an even more solitary world.

Christopher Boone, the young  man at the heart of it is, probably, autistic. I am not a clinician and my sister, who is, would rightfully scold me for making a diagnosis from a novel. Perhaps it is more correct to say he appears to be autistic.

That makes Christopher a fascinating narrator because he is both hyper-observant and blissfully unaware, at least when it comes to other people. More than once while reading this book I found myself groaning, “Oh, no” and setting it aside, so clearly could I see what was about to happen even as Christopher proceeded without a blessed clue as to what was about to ensue.

In form, Haddon has appropriated the detective story. At its best, that form rises to literature. Don’t take my word for it. Just read Poe and Hammett. Or read the literary Gods who have borrowed it. I’m thinking Pynchon and DeLillo here.

Edgar Allan Poe, 1809-1849
Inventor of the detective story (and not our author).

At the outset, at least, it’s a simple mystery and the motive for solving it is clear. On a starry night in Swindon, Christopher finds his neighbor’s dog dead,  impaled on a pitchfork in its front yard. Guileless in the way that only someone who doesn’t understand human emotions can be, he examines the corpse, removes the fork and picks up the dog only to be confronted by its owner who draws an erroneous conclusion.

What follows is our first introduction to Christopher in an uncontrolled, which is to say perfectly ordinary, environment. When the police are called, Christopher’s responses to questions and physical contact quickly descend to violence and arrest. When we meet his father we begin to understand the challenges.

No one should underestimate those difficulties. Raising children isn’t easy. A child who does not recognize or respond to social cues and emotion, whose special requirements include an adherence to routine that would challenge most people, a child who appears silent and withdrawn, perhaps easily mislabeled as stupid even though he is hyper-intelligent, presents unique demands.

Haddon is masterful in drawing this portrait. Though told from Christopher’s point of view I, at least, understood what the people he comes into contact with must be feeling. It’s quite a neat trick, in the best sense of that word, to have a character devoid of emotional sense convey the emotional states of others.

I went looking for photos of Swindon and kept finding roundabouts. Could the setting itself be a metaphor lost on a Yank?

Christopher almost immediately sets about solving the mystery of the dead dog. His initial investigative forays bring him into contact with the neighbors and even the dog’s owner. Most of these interactions are strained.

Christopher follows a lot of rules, some of which are rigid readings of everyday manners and some of which are strictly defined rules of his own making. The homemade rules are all over the map. Some are simple and childlike: my foods can only be certain colors and must not touch on my plate. Some are idiosyncratic: the number and colors of cars I pass on the way to school dictate whether it will be a good or bad day, each of which has an associated behavioral response.

And some are just plain problematic. That’s most apparent when the second mystery arises. When Christopher’s father catches him investigating the dog’s death he responds angrily, confiscating the record, in fact the book we are reading, of that investigation. In searching for the book he’s written it in Christopher stumbles across a second mystery which we instantly understand but he does not.

I’d actually heard of Swindon. One of my favorite bands hails from there.

This second mystery takes him afield, by which I mean to London. I looked it up and Swindon to London is about the same distance as Poughkeepsie to New York. It’s a trek for anyone, let alone a young boy overwhelmed by sensory stimuli.

Along the way he’s found by a police officer and, in reaction to over stimulation, secretes himself in a quiet spot which allows him to slip the officer and get to his destination.

The rest of the plot moves along briskly and it’s less a mystery at this point than a what’s-going-to-happen. Like all modern novels that’s left somewhat ambiguously. What I’m most struck by, though, is the character of Christopher.

As many people have, I’ve encountered people with varying degrees of autism. Christopher is more locked away than many, though he’s quite verbal, although perhaps not orally, and is attracted naturally to math (maths, really, because this is a British novel). This is probably the only book you’ll ever read in which the chapters are numbered as successive prime numbers at the narrator’s insistence.

That shows a bit of what those who encounter Christopher deal with. A sub-plot is that he wants to take his A-level exams in maths, something never before done at his special school.

A train station may be the best setting to communicate sensory overload. Airports seems more orderly somehow.

He gets lost in the world of math, loving the certainty, the right and wrong of it, with none of the messy, interpretative doings most of life requires. This is certainly the only novel I’ve ever read that contains the narrator’s geometry proof in an appendix.

I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge a passing degree of familiarity with some of Christopher’s behaviors. I’ve no idea whether Haddon researched autism or this book is just a work of intense imagination. But when I seek my solitude I withdraw to quiet places or submerge myself in a pool for an hour or more, rotely swimming laps and doing math in my head.

I don’t think I’m on the spectrum, as they say. As a rule, I am prone to self-diagnosis. As someone who skews toward introversion, I understand the sense of control that spending time in your own head trying to make sense of it all provides. As a reader, I’m happy to have again enjoyed the experience of better understanding someone not like me.

Which is, always, why I read.







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