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Unimportant Musings

Where an amateur attempts at divining somewhat passable insights.

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War and Peace: Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Larissa Volokhonsky, Richard Pevear, Leo Tolstoy
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Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

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

I may not have been born autistic, but I was born short of my hearing, so reading about Christopher's living with his autism, his parents's struggling to raise him, and his coming to terms with a world that didn't understand him gave me that tingling sense of having spotted two same black cats pass by seconds apart (only there wasn't a cool gunfight afterwards). A lot of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time bordered on the eerie to read: arguments at home, incidents at school, outbursts in public, and awkwardness with strangers, which were common in my early years when I was being a perennial headache and pain in the ass, bringing home live spiders, dressing up as Batman and Power Rangers villains after bedtime, and staying out late to play marbles (which I later paid for dearly with mosquito bites). But most of that was par for the course for every other kid. In Christopher's case, however, things aren't nearly so rosy. I don't push people off swings when I want my turn. I don't discriminate against food based on what color it is. I don't explode in a flurry of punches and screams after being touched even slightly. Facial expressions don't baffle me. The number and color of cars I pass on my way to school don't determine whether I will have Good Days, Super Good Days, or Black Days. My first instinct after stumbling upon a neighbor's dead dog isn't to stick around and look fishy. I'm not in the habit of being someone's potential heart attack by hiding inside cupboards and shelves. It wouldn't have taken much for Mark Haddon to trip over his good intentions and end up with an offensive, mediocre, or offensively mediocre book.

 

Fortunately, the opposite happened. The Curious Incident is as entertaining as it is enlightening. Given his penchant for telling the truth and extreme literal-mindedness, Christopher is the role model would-be reliable narrators dream of themselves being. Books written in the first person are risky, but Haddon pulls it off more than passably in the book. Christopher's is an intriguing mind to live in, his thought processes refreshing in its straightforwardness. Because the powers of description as found in your typical novel are often beyond him, the writing naturally doesn't waste any time in getting to the point. For example, when anyone cries, their waterworks is coolly noted in a sentence, and then the book (or Christopher, to be accurate) spares no further thought on the matter before moving on, so the pacing is such that I'm confused by how, even accounting for life's obligations, it's taken some people up to a month to finish when I myself couldn't not put the book aside until two sittings later. The constant, and I mean constant, "And then he said..." and "And then she said..." should be infuriating, yet because it feels so natural here, there's no cause for complaint. Christopher's random digressions and debates, especially those on evolution ("[human beings] think human beings are the best animal, but human beings are just an animal and they will evolve into another animal, and that animal will be cleverer and it will put human beings into a zoo]") and life after death ("... if heaven was on the other side of a black hole, dead people would have to be fired into space on rockets to get there, and they aren't or people would notice..."), are so whimsical and reasonable it's hard to oppose him with a straight face. Some of his conversations with strangers, if they could even be called that because he's not very conversational, are even more priceless. That may be politically incorrect to say, yet I feel Christopher would be forgiving, considering how much he dislikes lies and liars.

 

The Curious Incident gets a lot of flak, mostly for its perceived gimmicky shtick, sometimes for how condescending and exploitative some say it is, and for being, I was somewhat stunned to read in one review, "literary [blackface]," the latter of which warrants no further attention. The only elements in the book I could think of that could be perceived as being even remotely gimmicky are 1) the chapter numbers, 2) the first-person narrative, and 3) the flow-charts, emoticons, star constellations, mathematical diagrams and trees, brand signs, dinosaur drawings, maps, orangutan doodles, and various doodads. I try to picture an alternative reality in which Haddon chooses to number his chapters the conventional way, write as everyone else writes, and omit anything else that doesn't belong in the English alphabet. How dull! Using the primes to number the chapters fits with Christopher's interest in mathematics. The first-person narrative is more immersive and insightful than I imagine the other two alternatives could ever be (though my poor imagination could just be that lacking). The assorted images, because Christopher thinks visually, are only to be expected. Take these out and you have another book altogether. When it suits some, the word "gimmick" gets tossed around as casually as "pretentious," and it's not a little insulting to those who have read and enjoyed the book.

 

Haddon intended for The Curious Incident to show a life most people find limiting ("horribly constrained," he said) that, if looked at with enough consideration, would "seem infinite." Autism, or anything else similar, is admittedly not the most advantageous thing to have, at least to outsiders, but with the right mindset and attitude, it doesn't have to mean the end of the world. Haddon shows with Christopher that while his condition can be restricting in some ways, it can be, if only he and everyone else let it, freeing in others as well, maybe more so than some of even those in better shape. It's almost too predictable to paste this quote here, but anything else I can say along the same lines is pathetic in comparison: "Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you," said Tyrion Lannister from a little-known fantasy series. Moreover, Haddon takes care not to let autism define Christopher completely. It may be his most obvious trait, but it's not his only one or his most important: his enjoyment of science and mathematics, his love for animals, his courage to do what he thinks is right, and his hatred of France. He's also more well-read than me despite his distaste for novels, seeing as he doesn't hesitate at one point before revealing apparently everything that happens in The Hounds of Baskerville. Thanks for that! Joking aside, I was wrong to be apprehensive of the possibility The Curious Incident was an overrated fad doubling as delicious sheep food. Then again, that's exactly what I would say if I were bandwagoning and trying to convince everyone otherwise. Another thing in the book's favor is that it's short and well-paced enough it can be burned through in a day or less, so anyone could check the book themselves and either confirm or revise their suspicions. For being so quick a read alone, it deserves at least half a thumb up, rounded up to one thumb up to avoid a mess.