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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Ignorance may not be bliss, but it certainly makes life manageable. We now know that children who suffer from autism and its milder cousin, Asperger's Syndrome, are the very opposite of 'slow': Their remoteness is protection from the barrage of stimuli to which their unhampered senses expose them. Asperger's is a disease of surabundant intelligence. When Christopher Boone, the fifteen year-old hero of Mark Haddon's brief but powerful novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time (Jonathan Cape, 2003) - it is only a shade longer than a novella, and a very quick read - looks at a field in the countryside, he sees not cows and grass but fifteen black-and-white cows, four brown-and-white cows, and three kinds of grass that flower in two different colors. His vision enumerates everything else in the view as well. No wonder he's overwhelmed by unfamiliar surroundings! The price of his hypertrophic perception is a fear of ambiguous emotion - and most emotions are ambiguous. Fifteen cows and three kind of grass involve one order of complexity, and human interaction quite another. Christopher's life is painful literal, condemning him to a world in which people only rarely mean exactly what they say. Much of what they say, whether it be poetry or humor, makes no sense at all. 

This isn't to say that Christopher doesn't like a good mystery. When he discovers his neighbor's dog pinned to the lawn with a pitchfork, he resolves to discover the pet's killer. Encouraged by a teacher/social worker, he keeps a log of his progress. Both activities violate his father's orders. Putting his nose into other people's business, his father tells him, will lead only to trouble. If it does lead to a lot of trouble for the father, that's largely the father's fault. When he grabs Christopher's log in a fury and disposes of it, he sets his son on a course of detection that in addition to solving the curious incident of the title will alter Christopher's world out of recognition. It will also send Christopher on a heroic solo trip to London from his native Swindon. 

The journey to London - to his destination in London - takes up most of the novel's final quarter, and it's as exciting to read as any thriller. I can think of a few thrillers that owe their edge to some impairment of the hero's faculties - in Farewell, My Lovely, Philip Marlowe has to make his way through a drug-induced nightmare out of a hellish clinic, and Roger O. Thornhill, in North By Northwest, almost drives into Long Island Sound after a force-feeding of bourbon. When Christopher finally works his way to one of the Tube stations at Paddington, the echoing racket of the trains and the tidal flow of passengers keeps him frozen in his seat for hours; his overloaded brain cannot reach the logical solution to his desire to escape, which is, of course, to get on a train and go where he's going. 

And I kept my eyes closed and I didn't look at my watch at all. And the trains coming in and out of the station were in a rhythm, like music or drumming. And it was like counting and saying 'Left, right, left, right, left, right ...' which Siobhan taught me to do to make myself calm. And I was saying in my head, 'Train coming. Train stopped. Train going. Silence. Train coming. Train stopped. Train going ...' as if the trains were only in muy mind. And normally I don't imagine things that aren't happening because it is a lie and it makes me feel scared, but it was better than watching the trains coming in and out of the station because that made me feel even more scared. 

Most of us are free to imagine things because we can ignore, however briefly, the world that is actually around us; ignoring the facts is something that Christopher cannot dare to do. It's not quite true, however, to say that he can't imagine things. Blessed with a robust ego, Christopher has big dreams for his future. Knowing that he's a maths whiz - the novel's chapters are numbered in primes - he expects, when he grows up, to have a good job at a university. He likes to read the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. And he has ideas about what the perfect world would be; among other things, it would be a world without other people. Without being at all sociopathic, Christopher longs to be free of human connection, even from the memory of his late mother. He cannot bear to be embraced; one imagines that it is no more tolerable for him than being pressed by a hot mangle would be for us. Too much information! 

Christopher is not a character with whom you'd willingly spend any quality time. But he makes an arresting companion in this well-constructed, perfectly-pitched fiction. Mark Haddon portrays a boy who isn't so much 'sick' as afflicted with more perception than anyone needs and a corresponding dread of affect. Perhaps all disease of the mind are similarly quantifiable. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time makes us realize how dependent sanity is upon the setting of the internal clock. To see everything is to risk comprehending nothing. (January 2004)

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