Aspergers Syndrome, Autism, Book review., Books, Christopher John Francis Boone, Detective fiction, Disability, Education, Family, Father, Genius, Health, Healthcare, Learning Disability, Logic, Love, Mark Haddon, Memory, Morality, Teenager, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
[The following was originally written as a contribution to MANSIZE - Tychy’s English Literature support series for GCSE and Higher students - but it could not seem to stick together, and it is here boiled down to a more modest book review. This review contains plot spoilers. Ed]
Like such bourgeois fads as Sudoku and worrying about “global warming,” Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003) was all the rage at a certain point in the middle of the last decade. Curious Incident would be the first thing that you saw when entering Tesco. If you visited the houses of friends who had never previously shown the slightest interest in reading books, you would be greeted by the sight of Curious Incident perched on their coffee tables, and looking quite at home there. On the Tube, you would occasionally find yourself seated opposite entire rows of its cover, as if it was a mask connected with a somewhat dreary new cult. The novel sold over two million copies and it ended up as a set text on GCSE English syllabuses, but the world is more mature now and surely Curious Incident can be treated to a bit of revisionist manhandling.
Upon inspection, Curious Incident turns out to be not a wholly sound novel, and – perhaps inevitably from an author who comes from Northampton and writes children’s books – not a literary novel, or a novel which results from the ambition to contribute decisively to a literary tradition. The ironies and complexities which should enhance the power of Curious Incident seem to be only secondary to its very straightforward business of pleading for an understanding and acceptance of Christopher, the story’s autistic fifteen-year old narrator and hero.
Aside from fear, Christopher can express only the most inconsequential of emotions – such as contentment with watching a particular television programme – whilst greater feelings, such as love for his family, are absent or else his consciousness is disconnected from them. This does not imply that he should be knocked on the back of the head and then boiled down to make glue, for there are places in society for people who lack the full range of available faculties; but rather than addressing the deeply uneasy questions about human subjectivity which it raises, Curious Incident seems to be more concerned with putting a positive spin on this bad news.
Christopher himself regales us with the uplifting message that, “… everyone has learning difficulties… everyone has special needs.” On his website, Haddon insists (despite being unable to find his Shift key) that, “if anything it’s a novel about difference, about being an outsider, about seeing the world in a surprising and revealing way. it’s as much a novel about us as it is about christopher.” He told the BBC that, “I hope the book is… a celebration of eccentricity and strangeness – and of one of a million ways of looking at the world.”
Christopher is not expressly autistic, in the same sense that we never learn which pills would best treat King Lear, and on the crucial question of “aspergers & autism,” Haddon has claimed that “i know very little about the subject” and that “i did no research… imagination always trumps research.” He has even admitted that “i slightly regret that fact that the word “aspergers” was used on the cover.” Haddon recalls that, when building his robot boy, “i gave him some rules to live by and some character traits and opinions, all of which i borrowed from people i know, none of whom would be labelled as having a disability.” Haddon was not completely uninformed, however, having worked with disabled children after graduating from university.
If Haddon has not laboured to achieve the exact likeness of an autistic subject, then the creation of Christopher is in danger of resembling a sort of a morbid experiment in which a character undergoes the psychological equivalent of disembowelment, having various faculties such as imagination and emotion removed, to see whether he can still function without them. The results are certainly exhilarating. When Christopher finally meets his mother, whom he had hitherto believed was dead, he pushes her away when she tries to hug him and he is suddenly more interested in his pet rat. When his mother later tries to “hold your hand. Just for once,” Christopher points out that “I don’t like people holding my hand.” Christopher’s father is a character of immense goodness, the angel at the top of the tree, and he is only able to tell Christopher that his mother is dead because he knows that this will have no effect on him.
But Christopher’s father equally cannot expect to be loved. Christopher is so disconnected from the reality of his father that he can even seriously imagine being murdered at his hands. One of Christopher’s “favourite dreams” is not of electric sheep, but a scenario in which most human beings are apparently destroyed by an emotionally-transmitted virus and the autistic inherit the Earth. This dream does not inspire faith in Christopher’s logic, because somebody who is completely dependent upon society could hardly survive its destruction, but this fantasy’s most chilling detail is that after the genocide his home is “not Father’s house any more, it’s mine.”
Perhaps we should not get sentimental about these things. It has been lately fashionable to claim that autism it is not a disadvantage or an illness, but a decisive leap out of the confines of established human subjectivity. Whereas depression or schizophrenia are generally viewed as forces alien to one’s identity, autism is at times imagined as an identity in itself. Christopher’s dream of apocalypse – in which autism is revealed to be an evolutionary superiority rather than a deficiency – playfully indulges this perspective.
Christopher regards troublesome people as the only irrational element in an otherwise perfect universe, because they “sometimes… want to be stupid and they do not want to know the truth.” He is particularly at odds with authority, which is invariably an agent of confusion: “I do not always do what I am told… this is because when people tell you what to do it is usually confusing and does not make sense.” It is hard to avoid a comparison between this straightforward autistic youth and the massively complicated mess which his poor parents have made for themselves. No wonder that Christopher prefers the company of dogs, who are admittedly mindless, but whom remain “faithful and honest, and some… cleverer and more interesting than some people.” When Christopher’s father appeals for forgiveness by insisting that, “We’re only human,” his choice of words seems to be in this respect particularly unfortunate.
Christopher’s story needs to be sweetened to make it pleasant enough for us to swallow. He comes equipped with the potential to contribute to society with his amazing memory and mathematical acumen. If he had not been dealt such a good hand, in this regard, as in fact many autistic people are not, then his story would be much darker, and, indeed, unbearably hopeless. Moreover, Christopher inhabits a world which seems to be almost completely populated by kindly and considerate adults – whose transgressions against him are always followed by fulsome and profuse apologies – and he is consequently sheltered from a lot of the aggravation which is endured by autistic adolescents. We only stare into the abyss when Christopher is lost in London, and it becomes apparent that if he does not locate his mother, he will be left homeless and on the brink of implosion.
Something which resembles a happy ending is contrived and this is an overall weakness of the novel: we often bump into its machinery and, wincing, we are reminded of the artificiality of the fiction. When Christopher declares that “there are no jokes in this book,” and that “everything I have written here is true,” we may discern Haddon winking at us over his shoulder. We are supposed to go along with the idea that we are holding a novel which has been somehow created by Christopher, with his teacher Siobhan merely sprucing up “the spelling and the grammar and the footnotes,” but this only leaves us with the rather corny impression of an otherwise realistic narrator being used as a glove puppet. And not merely a glove puppet, for Haddon seems to be altogether infatuated with his autistic hero’s gorgeous quirks and mannerisms. Perhaps Christopher is as realistic an autistic as a pouting transvestite is a true woman.
Reviews of the novel by autistic readers seem to be mixed, with roughly half appreciative and a significant minority remaining deeply hostile (for many it is the first novel that they have ever read). Iautistic testifies that the book fails to evoke the true loneliness and disorientation of his own autism:
I noted that Christopher is highly self-aware, and could articulate his thoughts so clearly. This was very different from my own experience. At his age, I was still mostly in a state of sleepwalking. I was unaware of my own emotions, body and situational awareness…. [Haddon’s] depictions of Christopher’s inner state are used to advance his story and interest viewers. They are not meant to represent autistic consciousness.
To champion the benefits and opportunities of autism seems here to be as helpful as pointing out that the blind make great lovers, but whatever the merits of the autistic mind, one gets into treacherous water when accepting it as a permanent and predetermined characteristic. Christopher may demonstrate courage and resourcefulness, but these things are not the same as free will, and he explains that even his daring trip to London remains as determined by “logic” as the rest of his behaviour. He elsewhere notes that “most people” are able to merely “glance” at a field of cows and then reflect imaginatively upon that scene, or upon something else entirely, whilst Christopher is forced to “notice everything.” He is anchored both in the material world and within his own determined response to it.
To paraphrase Mark Haddon, this is ultimately more about “christopher” than about us. It may be difficult to withstand the soaring optimism of the novel’s final words that “I can do anything,” to remember that they are actually untrue. Christopher still cannot do very much. He attempts to overcome his inability to empathise, perhaps demonstrating that he should fight his own mind rather than simply accept it, but his conclusion that “the mind is just a complicated machine” actually tenders an autistic explanation of humanity. If the human mind is a “computer,” it is the most powerful and wondrous computer on Earth, and Christopher’s unflattering summary of the human condition – which establishes more certainty than truth – is typical of the same need for security which imposes arbitrary systems on to chaos by, say, refusing to eat foods of certain colours.
Haddon, of course, tries to have it both ways. Christopher is launched with a distinct and separate category of psyche, but he remains an “unlabelled” person like one of us. Likewise, the model of an “autistic spectrum” renders diagnosis a lot easier and includes many more sufferers, but its flipside is the implication that all manner of quirky and atypical behaviour is physiologically determined. Christopher’s father, for example, almost diagnoses his neighbour Mrs Shears as autistic, when reasoning that “maybe it is easier living on your own looking after some stupid mutt, than sharing your life with other actual human beings.” Christopher’s detective investigation displays a sort of solidarity with this prospective autistic, as the bayoneting of her poodle, Wellington, represents an attack upon his own lifestyle and values.
Many readers of this novel will have at some point dared to wonder whether Christopher can recover from his autism with a bit of effort. Why can’t he just snap out of it? We may question why Christopher equates emotion with chaos: his father’s reaction to Mrs Shears’ betrayal, for example, is not “intuitive” but completely logical and explicable. Through the immediate success of making us identify with Christopher, the novel leaves us wondering why he cannot behave as we would do. We may resort to the comforting idea that Christopher really has an imagination and a sense of humour and the capacity to love, and that he has just not discovered yet how to use them. In reality, however, we would struggle to identify with a disorientated autistic youth, and we would probably see immediately that they could not snap out of it.
Curious Incident is a playful, feel-good fantasy about human horror, and its game is to transform a broken psyche with little or very limited free will into somebody whom we can understand, identify with, and relate to. This may fulfil the admirable educational mission of introducing autism to the general reader, but it actually reconciles one with as much determinism as disability. Haddon himself holds that, “I don’t actually believe in mind as separate from matter and I don’t even believe in free will.” With its gripping storyline and some fine jokes, Curious Incident is not a bad book, but it only sheds an artificial and a potentially distorting light upon the human condition. Haddon does not require us to pity Christopher, or to regard him as a victim, but to accept him as an equal and this is impossible. We simply have to believe that Christopher can be better.