Sunday, April 25, 2010

Book a Week Project: Book Four--The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

This week I wanted to shift gears again. I poked through a few friend's shelves and found Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Seeing that I'll be (gulp) teaching in the fall, I recognized that this book was part of the "Western Reads" program a few years back (where all of the incoming freshmen "read" the same book, and the 101 classes incorporate it into their lessons). Because of this, I knew it would probably be good, as the head of the Western Reads selection committee is kind of a mentor of mine, and a very intelligent woman. She has impeccable book taste. 

The book centers on the experiences of an autistic teenager shocked by the murder of a neighborhood dog, and spurred by that murder into an investigation that leads him to many new understandings. (Not going to give anything away here). This book was quite the page-turner. I realized on Thursday that I was barely fifty pages into my weekly book, and for awhile worried I wouldn't be able to finish. Picking it up yesterday, I couldn't put it back down, and finished it in a marathon reading session. 

The Curious Incident struck me first and foremost with the power and originality of its voice. The protagonist, Christopher, has difficulty perceiving and understanding emotions, subtleties, and figures of speech (among other things). This struggle between what is said and what is intimated (or hidden) becomes a key feature of the text. Haddon uses pictographs (ostensibly drawn by Christopher) throughout the text to connote this feeling of ambiguity:

While most of us could probably say with some certainty the emotions on each face, Christopher doesn't understand and is made uncomfortable by such things. The immersive quality of Haddon's writing also prompted me to question this ambiguity--how can we really know what others are thinking or feeling? More often than not, what we show on our faces is guarded or constructed, and may even be the opposite of what we are truly feeling. Being able to read emotions and understand nuanced situations seems like such an innate part of our existence, leaving us free to question "loftier" issues; but this book forced me to imagine (and inhabit) a situation where one cannot distinguish between baseline emotion and anger unless a person is shouting. Christopher seems trapped in a liminal space in which fundamental aspects of being human and communicating with humans is inhibited and, at times, impossible. 

Haddon's prose is also undeniably striking and original. Here's a shot of a particularly powerful page:

And the text from that page:

173. Between the roof of the shed and the big plant that hangs over the fence from the house next door I could see the constellation Orion. People say that Orion is called Orion because Orion was a hunter and the constellation looks like a hunter with a club and a bow and arrow, like this (see image).
But this is really silly because it is just stars, and you could join up the dots in any way you wanted, and you could make it look like a lady with an umbrella who is waving, or the coffeemaker which Mrs. Shears has, which is from Italy, with a handle and steam coming out, or like a dinosaur (see image).
And there aren't any lines in space, so you could join bits of Orion to bits of Lepus or Taurus or Gemini and say that they were a constellation called the Bunch of Grapes or Jesus or the Bicycle (except that they didn't have bicycles in Roman and Greek times, which was when they called Orion Orion).
And anyway, Orion is not a hunter or a coffeemaker or a dinosaur. It is just Betelgeuse and Bellatrix and Alnilam and Rigel and 17 other stars I don't know the names of. And they are nuclear explosions billions of miles away. 
And that is the truth.
The theme of space, and stars and scientific exploration/discovery are also prominent in the text, as these fields are where Christopher really shines. He loves nature programs and "maths" and physics. He can solve complicated equations that I can't even begin to understand (all of which Haddon carefully includes via diagrams and replicas of documents). This too seems like a relationship between what is uncertain (emotions, behaviors, strangers) and what is quantifiable and definite (and comfortable). I think we all have something in our lives we rely on when all else is up in the air, but the distinction between the concrete world of science and the more...flexible...realm of humanity is made explicit in The Curious Incident

I suppose to end, though I could go on and on about this book, I'll include one more passage, and a few bits of fan art relating to the text.

From the same section quoted above:

179. ...I felt safer in the garden because I was hidden.
I looked at the sky a lot. I like looking up at the sky in the garden at night. In summer I sometimes come outside at night with my torch and my planisphere, which is two circles of plastic with a pin through the middle...
And when you look at the sky you know you are looking at stars which are hundreds of thousands of light-years away from you. And some of the stars don't even exist anymore because their light has taken so long to get to us that they are already dead, or they have exploded and collapsed into red dwarfs. And that makes you seem very small, and if you have difficult things in your life it is nice to think that they are what is called negligible, which means that they are so small you don't have to take them into account when you are calculating something.

And the artwork:

Edit: Adding a new feature to my Book a Week posts: recommendations!

Recommendation: Read if you want a page-turning, sometimes sad, sometimes frustrating book. Quick, poignant read.

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