Thursday, July 22, 2010

Curious Incidents, Autism and Murder

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Many murder mysteries have narrators with interesting quirks (Columbo and Monk come to mind immediately). Perhaps one of the most original narrators is the star of Mark Haddon’s bestseller The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, Christopher Boone. Christopher is a highly functioning autistic 15 year-old boy with a passion for animals and a desire to solve the mystery of the murder of his neighbor’s dog Wellington. Encouraged by his teacher, Shibboleth, Christopher decides to write a novel with a hat tip toward his favorite mystery hero, Sherlock Holmes. The book describes Christopher’s life in methodic detail as he tries to uncover the mystery of the murdered dog.
At first, the narration of the book is a bit jarring: non-sequential chapter numbers, run on sentences, absent punctuation and irrelevant tangential information. Once you realize that you are reading through the eyes of an autistic who prefers structure and logical methodology, the reading becomes easier. Later you discover that the chapter numbers are prime numbers, which, like all “maths”, Christopher has an affinity for. Though Christopher exhibits exceptional aptitudes in science and math, his development is hindered by a complete lack of emotion and social skills. Ironically, this is quite a touching book where the emotion comes through other characters, though Christopher seems oblivious to it.
Christopher shows many characteristics of Asperger’s, such as:
• Deficiencies in social skills. Christopher has tremendous difficulty showing emotion, accepting it in other people and even recognizing other people’s emotions, particularly when he is the cause. His relationships with other people are strained and people find him difficult. This is apparent when Mr. Shears decides to leave his mother after she decided to take Christopher in. Christopher doesn’t appear to have any friends or interpersonal relationships beyond the small circle of people in his life.
• Inflexible to a changing environment: Christopher has a defined schedule and gets overwhelmed when things change (ie, he has to “do moaning) or have too much new stimulation. When difficulties with his living situation arise, Christopher’s primary preoccupation is whether he will be able to do his “A level maths” in his new school.
• Preferences for certain foods, tastes, colours or sounds: Christopher has an aversion to the colors yellow and brown and only eats food of other colours. He gives a multitude of reasons for disliking yellow and brown foods, drawing on his photographic memory for random facts.
• High cognitive ability, interest and talent in a specific area: Christopher is exceptional at mathematics and science and aspires to be an astronaut. He has also an extraordinary photographic memory and often creates maps or symbolic representations.
• Behavioural problems: Christopher creates a lengthy list of all his behavioural problems he knows of in one scene (Often children with autism are not as self aware as Christopher, but likely this is a plot devise as much as brining the readers into Christopher’s mind.):

“A. Not talking to people for a long time.
B. Not eating or drinking anything for a long time.
C. Not liking being touched.
D. Screaming when I am angry or confused.
E. Not liking being in really small places with other people.
F. Smashing things when I am angry or confused.
G. Groaning.
H. Not liking yellow things or brown things and refusing to touch yellow things or brown things.” (Etc.)

Though I suspect most readers figured out who killed Wellington before Christopher, the story continued to entrance me and became yet another example of how Christopher’s lack of social skills hurt his ability to function in the world. The book is less of the mystery we were expecting and takes on more of a story of life about building trust, challenges in family life and growing up. That is a story theme we can all empathize with, regardless of our situations.

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