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Review-a-Day
Powells.com
Saturday, July 5th, 2003


 

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

by Mark Haddon

The Curious Appearance of a Strange New Novel in the Offices of Powells.com

A review by Dave Weich

It's not just the hook, though the hook is peculiar and oddly affecting. "When I was writing," the author allows, "I really thought to myself, Who on Earth is going to want to read about a fifteen-year-old kid with a disability living in Swindon with his father? And I thought, I better make the plot good." The hook the plot is significantly better than good, but it's the irresistible voice of Mark Haddon's fifteen-year-old narrator that elevates this literary debut to fantastic heights. If after the first page of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time you would deny yourself the pleasure of two hundred more in the company of Christopher Boone, this review will likely do little to convince you otherwise.

It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs. Shears' house. Its eyes were closed. It looked as if it was running on its side, the way dogs run when they think they are chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was dead. There was a garden fork sticking out of the dog. The points of the fork must have gone all the way through the dog and into the ground because the fork had not fallen over. I decided that the dog was probably killed with the fork because I could not see any other wounds in the dog and I do not think you would stick a garden fork into a dog after it had died for some other reason, like cancer for example, or a road accident. But I could not be certain about this.

I went through Mrs. Shears' gate, closing it behind me. I walked onto her lawn and knelt beside the dog. I put my hand on the muzzle of the dog. It was still warm.

The dog was called Wellington. It belonged to Mrs. Shears who was our friend. She lived on the opposite side of the road, two houses to the left.

Wellington was a poodle. Not one of the small poodles that have hairstyles but a big poodle. It had curly black fur, but when you got close you could see that the skin underneath the fur was a very pale yellow, like chicken.

I stroked Wellington and wondered who had killed him, and why.

"This is a murder mystery novel," Christopher explains a few pages further on. A fan of Sherlock Holmes stories, this young boy with Behavioral Problems decides to investigate the poodle's murder and turn the story into a book of his own. "In a murder mystery novel someone has to work out who the murderer is and then catch them," he reasons. "It is a puzzle."

Christopher is quite good at puzzles.

***

Christopher is also very good at math, and at remembering. He is, however, entirely incapable of delineating among the various grades of human emotion on the scale between happy and sad, which makes for a curious, if not altogether perplexing narrative perspective. Reporting on the conversations and interactions around him with virtually no understanding of their portent, Christopher surely ranks among the most hard-boiled detectives in all literature. Logic dictates, indisputably. His brain is a one-party political system with no room for checks and balances.

And yet Haddon's novel is an emotional roller coaster. The author's foremost accomplishment, in a book chock full of them, is to deliver a wrenching domestic fiction in such clipped, deductive prose, to pull at the reader's heart repeatedly without even once resorting to overdrawn, hysterical language or cheap melodrama. Christopher may not recognize them, but emotions lurk behind virtually every clue he uncovers. Still, his pitch never varies. Christopher never slips off course. That dissonance, the weighty, shifting space between the story Christopher is telling and the one we are reading, exposes depths of insight and feeling no simple, straightforward narrative could hope to provide in so few pages.

I virtually forced a copy into Georgie's hands as soon as I finished. Georgie, who coordinates our Review-a-Day program, enjoys mysteries, and though The Curious Incident is far from a traditional whodunit we shelve it in Literature, not Mystery I figured she would enjoy it. She read the book front to back in a single night and cried when she was through.

***

Shannon, who works in Returns, stood in front of the microwave in the Powells.com break room waiting for her lunch to cook. "I have something yellow on my finger, something from the microwave, and I don't know what it is," she announced, staring at the mustard-like smudge on her index finger. Apropos of nothing, Jonathan, seated at the opposite end of the room, interjected, "Yellow is bad. Yellow and brown are very, very bad."

Jonathan was exhibiting a symptom common among readers of The Curious Incident: channeling Christopher. "Not liking yellow things or brown things and refusing to touch yellow things or brown things" is, in fact, one of Christopher's Behavioral Problems. He does not like dirt, gravy, wood, or poo, or anything brown for that matter, including Melissa Brown, a girl at his school. And if on the bus ride to school he were to see four yellow cars in a row, to cite one extreme manifestation of his dislike for all things yellow, it would be "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 and Take No Risks." To Christopher, despite sensible arguments to the contrary, this behavior makes perfect sense.

Mrs. Forbes said that hating yellow and brown is just being silly. And Siobhan said that she shouldn't say things like that and everyone has favorite colors. And Siobhan was right. But Mrs. Forbes was a bit right, too. Because it is sort of being silly. But in life you have to take lots of decisions and if you don't take decisions you would never do anything because you would spend all your time choosing between things you could do. So it is good to have a reason why you hate some things and you like others. It is like being in a restaurant like when Father takes me out to a Berni Inn sometimes and you look at the menu and you have to choose what you are going to have. But you don't know if you are going to like something because you haven't tasted it yet, so you have favorite foods and you choose these, and you have foods you don't like and you don't choose these, and then it is simple.

***

"This will not be a funny book," Christopher warns readers. "I cannot tell jokes because I do not understand them." And it's true: Christopher cannot process anything but the most literal statements. Metaphors, to his way of thinking, are lies. Implying that one thing is another it's more than confusing; it's downright dishonest.

But here, again, Haddon twists the cold, hyperlogical voice of his narrator into what you'd least suspect: a brilliant brand of dry, deadpan humor. The story, quite funny to begin with, gets funnier still upon rereading, without the distractions and misdirection imposed by its underlying suspense.

If the book's economical (and spot-on) dialogue allows a reader to see through Christopher's obfuscating narration and straight into the heart of the characters it's only when we hear the characters speak that we gain a proper context for Christopher's severely limited perspective Haddon's dialogue also provides tremendous opportunities for comedy. Christopher's exchange with a policeman in a station of the Underground could well have been lifted directly from the vaudeville stage. Christopher is the straight man, nonpareil.

And I said, "What does single or return mean?"

And he said, "Do you want to go one way, or do you want to go and come back?"

And I said, "I want to stay there when I get there."

And he said, "For how long?"

And I said, "Until I go to university."

And he said, "Single, then," and then he said, "That'll be 32."

Already film rights have been bought by Hey Day, the makers of the Harry Potter movies, together with Brad Grey (The Sopranos) and Brad Pitt. In itself, that's not surprising. Early critical raves (including an oft-cited back cover blurb from Ian McEwan) and word-of-mouth catapulted the novel onto bestseller lists throughout the U.S. and Great Britain within weeks of its publication. The real mystery is, What actor could adequately portray Christopher on the screen? The role will demand a surfeit of physical skills, subtlety and excess in constant balance: stillness and hysteria, silence and screaming.

Late in the narrative, a quick flashback is tucked into a more pressing, pertinent scene. Aboard the train now, Christopher recalls riding home from school one day when the bus had broken down:

There were lots of people on the train, and I didn't like that, because I don't like lots of people I don't know and I hate it even more if I am stuck in a room with lots of people I don't know, and a train is like a room and you can't get out of it when it's moving. And it made me think of when I had to come home in the car from school one day because the bus had broken down and Mother came and picked me up and Mrs. Peters asked Mother if she could take Jack and Polly home because their mothers couldn't come and pick them up, and Mother said yes. But I started screaming in the car because there were too many people in it and Jack and Polly weren't in my class and Jack bangs his head on things and makes a noise like an animal, and I tried to get out of the car, but it was still going along and I fell out onto the road and I had to have stitches in my head and they had to shave the hair off and it took 3 months for it to grow back to the way it was before.

"It's hilarious on one page," a member of our customer service department commented upon returning the company copy to its shelf in the office, "then two pages later you want to cry."

***

A few days after finishing the novel, I spoke to Haddon, who was in New York for its publication. He was at the time enjoying Nicholson Baker's latest novel, A Box of Matches. Which seemed perfect, frankly. Baker's novel-sized contemplation of life's oft-ignored minutia is an excellent reference point for Christopher's detail-dense observations in The Curious Incident. Upon beginning A Box of Matches, the reader discovers that the novels' first lines even echo one another. Haddon: "It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs. Shears' house." Baker: "Good morning, it's January and it's 4:17 a.m., and I'm going to sit here in the dark."

Late in Haddon's debut, when Christopher sets out on his brave but dangerous journey to London, the minutia finally overwhelms him. The swarming crowds, noise raging in every direction, and everywhere signs bearing alien, incomprehensible messages... it's all too unfamiliar, and before long it's too much for him to manage.

Here, not for the first time, Christopher's investigation inadvertently exposes raw, difficult truths about our modern lives. In the bustling train station, Christopher practically collapses from sensory overload; you can almost hear his fuses pop (it sounds like groaning). We don't exactly empathize with Christopher. We can't go that far, quite. There's a border we can't cross, despite Haddon's virtuoso performance. The author mused in conversation, "Here's a character whom if you met him in real life you'd never, ever get inside his head. Yet something magical happens when you write a novel about him. You slip inside his head and it seems like the most natural thing in the world." And it does seem natural. Typical of the novel's ironies, however, when it's over we're left with an artifice in our hands and this lasting revelation: that no tidy capsule could ever make us truly appreciate the unending alienation Christopher suffers.

***

"People have said to me that it's a desperately sad book and they wept most of the way through it," Haddon admits. "Other people say it's charming and they kept laughing all the time."

The novel's center is an empty space. Each reader fills it as they see fit. What's odd among the various impressions of our staff, so far at least, is this: everyone who has started the book has not only finished it, but finished within a day or two. And its texture has lingered with each of us. This morning, April returned to customer service after two days off. "I kept thinking about what Siobhan tells Christopher about most people being so distracted that they don't notice things," she said, "how they're all too busy worrying about whether they've left the gas stove on." I nodded, but I'd forgotten the passage. I laughed when I located it in the book: "This is really true," Christopher tells the reader in a footnote, "because I asked Siobhan what people thought about when they looked at things, and this is what she said."

"Here is a narrator who seems to be hugely ill-equipped for writing a book," the author aptly noted. "He can't understand metaphor; he can't understand other people's emotions; he misses the bigger picture. And yet it makes him incredibly well suited to narrating a book. He never explains too much. He never tries to persuade the reader to feel about things this way or that way. He just kind of paints this picture and says, 'Make of it what you will.'"

Read the Powells.com Interview with Mark Haddon


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