Books

A BOY'S LIFE IN SOLITARY

Narrated by an autistic youth, a new novel is comical, deeply sad— and utterly superb

Brian Bethune August 11 2003
Books

A BOY'S LIFE IN SOLITARY

Narrated by an autistic youth, a new novel is comical, deeply sad— and utterly superb

Brian Bethune August 11 2003

A BOY'S LIFE IN SOLITARY

Books

Narrated by an autistic youth, a new novel is comical, deeply sad— and utterly superb

BRIAN BETHUNE

CHRISTOPHER BOONE is a math genius with an astonishing memory. He knows every prime number up to 7,057, as well as all the countries of the world and their capitals. He hates anything new—and quite a lot of familiar things, too. Jokes, figures of speech and most fiction are among the worst, because they are, in his terms, lies—strings of words that are not literally true. He screams or hits when he’s touched and groans loudly, making a kind of white noise to cut off outside stimuli, whenever too much information is coming at him. Chris is 15 years old, profoundly autistic and the central figure of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the NightTime, one of the finest English-language novels of recent years.

In his first adult book, British author Mark Haddon, 40, a veteran children’s writer and playwright, has created a narrator like no other. Chris is a living irony-free zone who describes the most emotional scenes with deadpan literalism. He often leaves his family’s home in the small hours, the better to be alone, and one night he discovers his neighbour’s poodle run through by a garden fork. Chris decides to solve this crime, partly because he likes dogs—unlike humans, they’re predictable—but mainly because he loves puzzles. The only fiction he reads is mysteries, and he admires the coldly logical Sherlock Holmes. (The novel’s title comes from a Holmes utterance in the story “Silver Blaze.”) Puzzles offer him a safe route out of the chaos caused by other people, with thenmystifying facial expressions and lying, metaphoric words. “If something is a puzzle,” runs his poignant mantra, “then there is always a way of solving it.”

The death of Wellington the poodle is soon almost forgotten as Chris unearths

facts about his family that shatter his sense of domestic order. He responds courageously, summoning all his willpower to travel from his hometown of Swindon to London, a 150-km journey by rail and subway that’s as harrowing for him as Frodo’s trek to Mordor. His narrative of all that befalls him is wonderfully funny and deeply sad, even though he wouldn’t recognize either effect.

The humour arises from Chris’s interaction with suspects and strangers, and the surreal disconnect—for most of us—between his experiences and his reactions. When fellow passengers bump against him, he barks like a dog to warn them off. When a woman at a tube station offers to help him, he says he’ll saw offher fingers with his Swiss Army knife if she doesn’t stay away. “OK, buddy,” she replies, “I’m going to take that as a no.”

The sorrow is something else again, an effect that is Haddon’s crowning achievement. Ordinary people may be intolerable enigmas to Chris, but no more so than he is to readers, many of whom will feel com-

pelled to ascribe to him a consciousness he doesn’t actually possess. Like a dry sense of humour: Chris finishes unfavourably comparing a special needs classmate to a dog by noting that his teacher “asked me not to say this to Steve’s mother.” Or, more poignantly, a flash of empathy that would allow him to reconnect to his parents, two decent people whose marriage and lives have become unhinged after 15 years of caring for their son. But Chris can’t imagine other people’s lives. He can solve problems but he can’t restore relationships.

In one key scene, Chris’s father tries to explain his own rages, saying, “When that red mist comes down... Christ, you know how it is. I mean we’re not that different, me and you.” Ed Boone is both right and profoundly wrong, because the similarity is lost on Chris. Yet in Haddon’s skilful hands, Chris is no robot. And that’s what makes The Curious Incident not just a superb story, but one that goes to the heart of the eternal question: what does it mean to be human? lifl