Deciding to write a novel from the perspective of an autistic child is daring. Deciding to write a first full-length novel from the perspective of an austic child writing about the neighbor's murdered poodle could have been a disaster. However, Mark Haddon handles the story deftly and tastefully, drawing on his experience as a teacher of people with special needs and previous efforts as a children's author. He navigates around and through areas—parental abuse, extra-marital affairs, running away from home—that could easily turn maudlin, trite, or insulting. Haddon gives Christopher's experiences a touch of warmth and poignancy that is often missing when authors step inside of the head of a character who can be so logical and concrete.
It is no wonder, then, that The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has received nothing but positive praise from most of its readers and critics. The novel is a Whitbread Book of the Year, a New York Times Notable Book, and a national best seller in the United States.
The New York Times calls the book "'The Sound and the Fury' crossed with 'The Catcher in the Rye' and one of Oliver Sacks's real-life stories." Indeed, a reader will find a puzzle of a narrative to put together, much like in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. Christopher brings to mind a more sophisticated and articulate, albeit it somewhat chilling, Benjy. Christopher's detachment and inability to romanticize things may appeal also to fans of Holden from The Catcher in the Rye.
Everything in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is seen through the eyes of Christopher, the fifteen-year-old genius narrator with Asperger’s syndrome. All events are processed through his remarkable mind. Very early on we are made aware that the novel Christopher starts writing is the novel we have in our hands. For that reason we always feel close to Christopher: we are not only looking out on the world from his perspective but we are literally positioned in his shoes, holding the very novel that he is holding as he writes. We are effectively written into his story. For this reason we become more and more tuned into the way in which Christopher views the world. The emotional outbursts of those around Christopher are told in a matter-of-fact way that makes episodes of rage somehow distant and often even more chilling. We are let into his world in a way that other characters in the novel seem not to have access. Haddon endows us with the necessary equipment (this novel) to be able to understand Christopher and to share his life and as a result we are introduced into the world of this young man in a way that no other character in the novel can fully do. It is a gift that Haddon has given us and it is a testament to the power of writing and communicating.
The way in which Christopher uncovers perhaps the greatest secret of the novel is no accident – there is a reason why he finds out that his mother is alive by reading letters from her. Christopher uncovers the truth by reading. Through reading his mother's letters he is able to digest the information in his own way and in his own time. This is exactly what Haddon gifts us with: Christopher’s narrative is so simple and yet uncovers a world of complex truths. His logic and matter-of-fact attitude allow us to see the world fresh. The unique perspective of Christopher’s logic colors everything in the narrative. Mark Haddon is writing a story about Christopher writing a story, and Christopher is writing a story that forces us to re-write our own stories.
Christopher tells us in Chapter 199 that 'people believe in God because the world is very complicated and they think it is very unlikely that anything as complicated as a flying squirrel or the human eye or a brain could happen by chance. But they should think logically and if they thought logically they would see that they can only ask this question because it has already happened and they exist.'
Christopher's sense of stability and order comes from understanding science and logic - he does not feel comforted by holding on to the idea that there is a greater power controlling what we do and what will happen. In Christopher's world, if there were a greater power controlling things then he would not have the free will that he is confident he has. This endows Christopher, and each character, with their own individuality.
Christopher's sense of order is constructed by himself and not dictated to him. For instance when Christopher sees lots of red cars in a row, he knows it is going to be a good day. He explains in Chapter 47 that 'Mr Jeavons, the psychologist at the school, once asked me why 4 red cars in a row made it a Good Day, and 3 red cars in a row made it a Quite Good Day, and 5 red cars in a row made it a Super Good Day and why 4 yellow cars in a row made it a Black Day, which is a day when I don't speak to anyone and sit on my own reading books and don't eat my lunch...I said that I liked things to be in a nice order...And I said that some people who worked in an office came out of their house in the morning and saw that the sun was shining and it made them feel happy, or they saw that it was raining and it made them feel sad [but]...in an office the weather didn't have anything to do with whether they had a good day or a bad day.'
Christopher acknowledges that he needs order in his life and acknowledges that the order we each chose for ourselves is comforting but not logical.
Although the word is not mentioned in the novel, Christopher does suffer from Asperger's syndrome, which is an autistic spectrum disorder. This means that Christopher expresses himself in a simple and straightforward way and cannot understand commonly accepted modes of signaling. For instance, he says 'I find people confusing. This is for two main reasons. The first main reason is that people do a lot of talking without using any words...The second main reason is that people often talk using metaphors.' Christopher does not accept the typical 'signals' that people use to communicate, for instance 'raising an eyebrow' which Siobhan explains to him 'can mean 'I want to do sex with you' and it can also mean 'I think that what you just said was very stupid.'
The fact that Christopher has a form of autism allows Haddon to take away the baggage that language has adopted over the years and to strip it bare once again to a pure form; we have to interact directly with the words that are spoken and not with the implications of these words according to the society we live in. In this way, Christopher's account allows us to see the world in a new and fresh light without taking anything for granted. He says himself 'My name...means carrying Christ...Mother used to say that it meant Christopher was a nice name because it was a story about being kind and helpful, but I do not want my name to mean a story about being kind and helpful. I want my name to mean me.' Christopher's father fans out his fingers and touches Christopher 'and it means that he loves me' .
Christopher does not like to be hugged. He does not understand what different facial expressions are. He needs to relate directly and individually to language; through his writing, language is reborn in less encumbered way. Most of us would understand what 'I laughed my socks off' meant but few of us would know where the expression originated, and so we have lost the impact of the metaphor because we don't know why it is used in this way. Christopher forces us to reassess our relationship with language so that it speaks directly to us and so that the only tool we use to communicate is a direct reflection of what we think and feel, not a borrowed or inherited means of expression.
The novel is set up as a detective story from the outset. Christopher wants to work out who killed Mrs. Shears’ dog, Wellington. He sets out to find out about The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time but instead finds out much more about his own life and family. The title represents what Christopher hopes to find out but within the title itself is another world of mystery that is uncovered as we go through the novel.
This detective novel is multi-layered. Christopher believes he is in control of his narrative and of the investigation because he believes he is an outsider who will go ‘inside’ this story, investigate, and find out the truth. In actual fact, as Christopher starts to write and to find out more information, the narrative runs away with itself and it is no longer Christopher who is in control. As he documents his findings, we realize that in actual fact Christopher is not an outside to this investigation at all: the mystery lies in his own house. Christopher calls his novel a ‘murder mystery novel’ but he will not have known how poignant a description that is. Wellington’s murderer is of course Ed, his father, but Ed could also be accused of another murder: that of his mother. Although not really dead, Ed murdered Christopher’s mother when he lied and told his son that she had died. When we realize this, Ed’s explanation that she had ‘a problem with her heart’ becomes all the more unsettling.
This is not the only ‘detecting’ that goes on in the novel. At the outset, Christopher’s view of the world and his reaction to it may seem unusual. However, Christopher’s consistent logic and mathematical reason educate the reader, and as we read the novel we go on a journey and learn more and more about Christopher. By the end we empathize more with Christopher than we do with his parents, or Mr. Shears. We understand his impulses and there is security in his inability to tell a lie. As we have followed him on this journey of investigation, we have uncovered much more than just who killed Wellington: we have learned all about a very gifted boy who has Asperger's syndrome. This surely must alter what we usually take for granted about our own perspective on life.
It is interesting to think of this novel in terms of a 'tragedy'. After all, in his search for truth, Christopher uncovers a mystery that not only implicates him and his family but also causes a major shift in his family: he moves out and lives with his mother.
The structure of the novel could be compared to that of a tragedy. but it does not end in misery. By the end of the novel, Christopher has made the journey to the other side and essentially brought his mother back from the dead. It is almost as though Christopher, by adhering strictly to his own criteria of behavior, has escaped the trap of literature and has escaped the tragedy. As Polonius says in Hamlet, 'to thine own self be true/And it must follow, as the night the day/Thou canst not then be false to any man.' Unlike Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear or Othello, Christopher lives his life by his own standards, is not poisoned by what other people think, does not shy away from what he thinks is right, does not try to get ahead by being unfair and does not regard his own status at all. It is perhaps for this reason that despite the horrifying information he uncovers about his family, he is able to rise out of the misery and redeem all of the characters in the novel.
Christopher writes the novel because he wants to record his experience of ‘detecting’. He adheres to his own rules about structure and form and only occasionally nods to more typical ways of writing – for instance when Siobhan tells him to include more description in his writing. When he decides to include more description, he does so in a way that interests him, for instance when he describes the sky. Christopher breaks the mold and instinctively expresses what comes to him as he writes. Haddon of course has constructed a very tight narrative in order for it to feel as instinctive and fresh as it does.
Haddon’s mathematical structure in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is carefully constructed. Haddon knew that in order to be able to communicate the thoughts of a boy like Christopher he must find a realistic reason for him to write a book. And so Christopher is made to love detective novels. Haddon sets up an almost scientific set of circumstances in order to enable him to create this work of art.
This is mirrored throughout the novel – Christopher wants to be a scientist and is actually a novelist. Christopher believes in logic and in science and interestingly it is his imagination that takes him on this ‘detecting’ journey that enables him to uncover more than he could ever have thought possible. He would never have imagined the twist that takes place, and yet it is his imagination as he is searching for Wellington’s killer that brings him to the realization. Of course it is Haddon’s imagination that constructs such a mathematically brilliant structure, which means that when we discover that Christopher’s mother is indeed alive, it is a huge shock.
Christopher's inability to express his feelings of love and closeness in a typical manner can feel alienating. If you did not understand Christopher you might not believe he was capable of feelings of love in the way in which most people understand. However, Christopher once again teaches us the importance of reassessing our own definitions. Even though he does not like to be hugged by his father and even though he shows no obvious signs of missing his mother, Haddon manages to construct a world in which we are genuinely touched by Christopher's honesty about his feelings. Remembering his mother, he explains that she smelt nice which is such a specific memory that it conjures up a whole image of Christopher being physically close to his mother and feeling comforted by her familiar smell.
The big mistake that Christopher's father makes is to hide the information from Christopher that his mother is leaving them because he wants to 'protect' his son. Presumably worrying that Christopher will feel rejected, he hides this vital information from him. Christopher's response to this, however, is not as one might expect - when he eventually finds his mother he is not angry that she left him. His relationships are conducted differently than ours.
Christopher shows that he is more caring that most people who express their love in the usual ways. When he notices that Toby is missing, he puts his own life in danger in order to save him.
Once again, Christopher makes us reassess how we view relationships. Since the traditional marital relationships of the novel are not very successful, it is clear that the way in which the rest of us deal with love and relationships is not necessarily ideal.