Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Book Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon

This marvelous little book is much more of an accomplished literary work and a fascinating read than might be suggested by comparisons to other works with ostensibly similar subject matter. The narrator of the book, Christopher, is incapable of having true emotional understanding, and in a work of literature that's an incredibly daunting technical problem. (I would caution against reading reviews that might give away too much of the course of the plot; much of the joy and emotional center in this book is in going through the progression of revelation that we see, while Christopher does not.)

The clever way in which Mr. Haddon uses this point of view -- a narrator with no understanding of social cues, lying, metaphor, or context, when all those things are the essence of great fiction (most especially detective and mystery fiction) -- makes for great reading. The book's immediate mystery is a Hitchcockian MacGuffin: who killed the dog is not so much the issue as the circumstances that produced the crime. As Christopher goes through the paces of solving the crime in his own way with his own sense of justice, the layers of circumstance in his life that produced the crime are peeled back onion-like. One can almost take the onion metaphor literally: it becomes more obviously poignant and complex, and the tears may follow with the peeling.

This is not truly a book about autism: to the degree that it is, it speaks powerfully to the difficulties imposed on the familiies of the autistic. Comparisons to the one-note "Rain Man" or the artificial and inaccurate "Flowers for Algernon" do not do "The Curious Incident" justice. It is neither a tear-jerker for the sake of being a tear-jerker, nor a tragedy beyond that of circumstance.

The book's narration becomes a sort of "black box": Christopher is bombarded with irregular incidents in a life where he would be better off ordered, and the way those events are deflected when they come out of his prism move the action along. "Curious Incident" becomes completely engrossing in a way that would be difficult to imagine if one just mentioned there are nearly random digressions into geometrical proofs, logic problems, existential proofs of the lack of a God, and various other puzzle-solving. Each of these diversions becomes a means of surfacing for air, for Christopher and for the reader.

This is a relatively short and easy read given the accomplished literary form, and extremely rewarding; well-recommended.

[review cross-posted to amazon.com on 8/17/04]

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