Review Of The
Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time, by Mark Haddon
Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 6/21/08
It is always frustrating to begin a book that has some potential but ultimately just doesn’t deliver. Such is the case with Mark Haddon’s debut novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. It is not so much that this is a bad book, just one that could have been so much better than what it was. Allow me to explain.
The story is told from the point of view of Christopher Francis Boone, a 15 year old who is great at math, obsesses over prime numbers, hates being touched and despises certain colors like yellow and brown. In reading some online reviews, many have claimed Christopher to be ‘autistic’. Perhaps that is what his problem is, or he could just have a severe case of OCD. In any event, what his problem is doesn’t really matter as far as the narrative goes—we just know he’s a little odd.
The novel centers around the death of his neighbor’s dog, Wellington. Christopher finds the dog dead one night with a fork sticking out of it, and from then on is determined to solve the mystery of who killed it, all the while writing a book about it. And we’re actually reading the book he is writing. Likewise, readers are given glimpses into Christopher’s odd world, as he explains his logic for why he hates the colors yellow and brown despite there being no ‘real’ logic for his reasons. The problem is that after a while his little ‘quirks’ simply become annoying and tired. Sort of in the way Tim Burton does with his films, when Burton overdoes all the strangeness—somehow having too much lessens the power of the insight that could be there, and it makes those moments that could be unique seem gimmicky. (As a contrast just look at Kubrick’s film The Shining where he does not overdo the ‘scary’ moments, but merely drops hints—which are far scarier because of the eeriness about it). While the axiom might be trite to say, in the case of this book, less definitely would have been more.
Now having said that, the reason I found this character tiring is because he occasionally does have moments of depth and unique observations, albeit they seem to be drowned out by all his obsessions. Sure, one could say that since this is a character study about a character who is not really ‘all there’ that Haddon achieved success by creating a character that is also annoying to listen to and continually repeats himself. But the only problem is that weirdness in and of itself is not interesting. Nor is autism or depression or suicide or people with OCDs or anorexia or alcoholism. It’s sort of like saying that if one were to write a book about a nutty guy who cuts off his ear and mails it to his girlfriend, that this is in and of itself ‘interesting.’ Sorry, but that’s not what made Van Gogh (a nutty guy who did the above) interesting. It was the fact that he was a great painter. But for every Van Gogh there are 99,999 other people with mental problems. And from what I can tell, Christopher doesn’t really have anything all that interesting about him. He’s just weird.
But as for those moments of insight I mentioned, here is one:
“Also I don’t know what Father means when he says “Stay out of other people’s business” because I do not know what he means by “other people’s business” because I do lots of things with other people, at school and in the shop and on the bus, and his job is going into other people’s houses and fixing their boilers and their heating. And all of these things are other people’s business.”
This is an honest, child-like observation. Another is when the character notes the silliness of the PC term ‘special needs’ that has been applied to him. He notes how anyone can have ‘special needs’ even if one needs glasses or a hearing aid or his father who uses artificial sweetening tablets as a means for watching his calories. Christopher argues that all of these could be considered ‘special needs’ and yet they are not called such. He wonders why.
Moments and observations as these are far more interesting than listening to him prattle on for pages and pages on why he hates the color yellow or why seeing several red cars on the highway make it a ‘super good day’. In fact, as one reads this book, it is the endless prattling that ends up weighing the narrative down, and as I mentioned, drowning out these insightful moments with layers upon layers of strange, agonizing minutiae.
And just what ends up happening to the dog isn’t really the interesting part of the book—it’s just a mere plot device to pull the narrative forward. Sort of like if Holden Caulfield ends up with the girl at the end, ultimately that fact does not matter. (This book was actually compared to Catcher in the Rye in a NYT review. Unfortunately, the only thing these two books have in common is that their narrators are unreliable. That is where the similarity ends, I’m afraid).
The narrative would have actually benefited from having more development of the secondary characters than what was given. As is, I can say that I’ve read books like this before, some of them better and some of them worse. The key to a great character is great insight, and I’m afraid there just wasn’t enough of that to make Christopher Boone all that memorable and worth my recommendation.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Moderate Voice website.]
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