Note: This review is part of the Booklist 2005 Project.
Note: This review contains minor spoilers for Curious Incident … but you may enjoy the book more for knowing them.
Do you ever do that thing where you make a to-do list, and you intentionally include a few tasks that you have already completed so you can have the satisfaction of crossing them off immediately?
I do that. In fact, I did it just last week.
When I recently groused that “I can’t say that I read any particularly outstanding fiction books in 2004” and asked for recommendations, so many people mentioned The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon that I felt obligated to add it to the Booklist 2005 Project. This, despite the Curious Incident is one of the books I read last year that left me undazzled, thus inspiring the B2K Project in the first place.
Christopher Boon is a 15-year old boy with a form of autism known as Asperger’s Syndrome. Unable to relate to human beings, Christopher has a special affinity for animals, who don’t baffle him with the subtleties of facial expressions, voice inflections and body language. So when a neighbor’s dog is brutally murdered and he is initially accused of committing the crime, Christopher resolves to apply his (overly) analytic mind to the task of deducing the killer’s identity.
Curious Incident is written in first person — at one point, a teacher suggests to Christopher that he keep a journal of his investigation, and this book is the supposed result. Haddon does a remarkable job of showing us the world through Christopher’s eyes, while still allowing the reader glimpses of how someone without Asperger’s would see the situation. As Christopher interviews his neighbors, for instance, it becomes clear to the reader that many of them know much more than they are telling, even while Christopher — unable to spot or even suspect deception — takes their statements at face value. The author does a masterful job of weaving together these two concurrent two stories — how Christopher sees things and how everyone else sees things — into a single, cohesive narrative.
So I loved this book, right? Well, I did … halfway through. At that point I told The Queen that Curious Incident was the best book I’d read in years, and that I couldn’t wait to finish it so she could have a crack at it. [Spoilers begin] But shortly thereafter Christopher suddenly abandons the mystery and sets off on a journey by himself, thereby eliminating the two things I had been enjoying most: the aforementioned “parallel stories” (once he’s on his own, it’s pretty much all Christopher’s POV all the time), and my curiosity as to how the crime was going to be “solved”. Worse, Christopher’s Asperger’s becomes heightened as he becomes increasingly anxious during his travels, which means that the story becomes ever more packed with trivia and tangents. I appreciate that Haddon was trying to convey to the reader how the autistic mind thinks (Haddon has real-life experience working with autistics, so presumably knows of what he writes), but at one point Christopher laments about his obsession with minutia, and by then I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly. [Spoilers end]
I didn’t dislike Curious Incident, I just felt a little cheated by a perceived bait-and-switch. But if you ignored the spoiler warnings and read the above paragraph, you may be avoid my fate and love the book as much as most other people appear to. (Though, truth be told, I think I would have found the last 50 pages a tad boring under any circumstances.) Recommended, if only because it’s well-written and an interesting experiment.
As as long as I’m damning books that invite comparisons to Catcher In The Rye with faint praise …
Vernon God Little caught my eye because it won the 2003 Man Booker Prize and because a blurb on the cover compared it to the movie Rushmore. It’s not a bad book, but by the end I thought both the award and the comparison were unjustified.
Also written in first person, Little follows the adventures of Vernon, a teen whose best (and perhaps only) friend just went on a Columbineesque shooting rampages and killed 16 classmates before turning the gun on himself. Without a living person to blame for the atrocity, the town starts casting about for a suitable substitute, and much of the story revolves around Vernon’s efforts to avoid becoming the designated scapegoat.
In many ways Vernon is as inept at dealing with people as Christopher, though his anti-social tendencies seem the result of choice rather than biology. Written in Vernon’s voice, Little is full of slang and the obsessions of young males — at one point the word “panties” appears on eight consecutive pages. This makes for some tough reading — it’s no A Clockwork Orange, but turgid nonetheless. And if it has been the same length as A Clockwork Orange (i.e., 100 pages shorter) it might have been worth the effort. Instead, it feels somewhat rambling and unfocused. And author DBC Pierre can’t seem to decide how broad to make his satire, so the book oscillates from subtle social commentary to situations so hyperbolic that they could work as second-half-of-the-show Saturday Night Live sketches.
As with Curious Incident, I didn’t dislike Vernon God Little. But I finished both in 2004, and my assessment that I read no “outstanding fiction” that year stands.