- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 15, 2003


By Mark Haddon

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Doubleday, $22.95, 226 pages


The genius behind this wonderful little novel is the choice of narrator — a teenage boy with a type of autism, probably Asperger’s syndrome. The novel never identifies his condition, but no reader will be surprised to learn that, as the book jacket notes, author Mark Haddon once “worked with autistic individuals.” “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” (which was short-listed for Britain’s prestigious Man Booker Prize) radiates authenticity.

Christopher is brilliant at quadratic equations and astronomy but socially inept because he cannot comprehend emotion. He determines what sort of day he expects to have by counting passing cars—five red ones in a row make it a Super Good Day, four, a Good Day, and three, a Quite Good Day, whereas four yellow cars in a row make it 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.” (Christopher doesn’t like the colors yellow or brown, in cars, food, or anything else.)

Here’s how he reacts when he sees an advertisement for a vacation in Malaysia: He thinks, not that Malaysia might be an interesting place to visit, but that “Malaysia is in Southeast Asia and it is made up of peninsular Malaysia and Sabah and Sarawak and Labuan and the capital is Kuala Lumpur and the highest mountain is Mount Kinabalu,which is 4,101 meters high, but that wasn’t on the advert.”

Yet Christopher has some typically boyish ambitions. He would like to be an astronaut, and believes he would make a good one: “To be a good astronaut you have to be intelligent and I’m intelligent. You also have to understand how machines work and I’m good at understanding how machines work. You also have to be someone who would like being on their own in a tiny spacecraft thousands and thousands of miles away from the surface of the earth and not panic or get claustrophobia or homesick or insane.

“And I like really little spaces, so long as there is no one else in them with me. Sometimes when I want to be on my own I get into the airing cupboard outside the bathroom and slide in beside the boiler and pull the door closed behind me and sit there and think for hours and it makes me feel very calm.”

The story opens with the mysterious death of a neighbor’s poodle. Upon finding it, Christopher sets out to play Sherlock Holmes, one of his heroes (he is an expert on the clues and red herrings in “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” but he can’t grasp some of Arthur Conan Doyle’s descriptions of people because “I’m not interested in faces”).

Like Holmes, Christopher sees everything, and early in the novel he discovers who killed the dog. Unlike Holmes, however, Christopher understands very little. A much greater human mystery awaits him, one that he cannot unravel by making lists or drawing maps.

Mr. Haddon gives us a ripping adventure as seen through the workings of a literalist mind. His account of how Christopher manages to get himself and his pet rat Toby from Swindon to London via the train and the Underground are alternately heart-stopping and funny (in every sense of that word). The principal theme of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” is the disintegration of a family,caused mainly by the stress of dealing with Christopher’s condition.

Mr. Haddon has empathy for the child and sympathy for people who try hard but don’t have a clue how to deal with someone for whom the normal rules of life don’t apply.

Pity the policeman who comes upon Christopher when he’s been in a trance at the railway station for two and a half hours:

“And he said, ‘What are you doing here?’

“And I said, ‘I needed to sit down and be quiet and think.’

“And he said, ‘OK, let’s keep it simple. What are you doing at the railway station?’

“And I said, ‘I’m going to see Mother.’

“And he said, ‘Mother?’

“And I said, ‘Yes, Mother.’

“And he said, ‘When’s your train?’

“And I said, ‘I don’t know. She lives in London. I don’t know when there’s a train to London.’”

After pages of similar dialogue, and a trip to the cash machine to pay for the ticket, the policeman says:

“Well, I guess I shouldn’t keep you chatting any longer.”

“And I said, ‘Where do I get a ticket for the train from?’ because if you are lost and you need directions you can ask a policeman.

“And he said, ‘You are a prize specimen, aren’t you.’

“And I said, ‘Where do I get a ticket for the train from?’ because he hadn’t answered my question.”

Or consider Christopher’s response to a friendly elderly neighbor, who “was doing what is called chatting, where people say things to each other which aren’t questions and answers and aren’t connected”:

“I was about to turn and walk away when she said, ‘I have a grandson your age.’

“I tried to do chatting by saying, ‘My age is 15 years and 3 months and 5 days.’

“And she said, ‘Well, almost your age.’”

I challenge anyone who picks up this novel to abandon it.

Priscilla S. Taylor is the former editor of Phi Beta Kappa’s Key Reporter. She lives in McLean, Va.

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