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Christopher Boone is a fifteen-year-old high-functioning autistic who sets out to solve the murder of his neighbor’s dog. He bites off a lot more than he anticipated, though, and things get more complicated as Christopher discovers there are a lot of mysteries around him, even within his own fractured family.

This is a first-person narrative. It’s arrhythmic and off-kilter and peppered with Christopher’s odd side-trips and mathematical puzzles. There are a lot of things this book does very well, not the least of which is successfully selling me the fictional autobiography form – I pretty much never like that, but here it works quite well. The book also does an incredibly good job with layered narratives: the straight factual line of Christopher’s narrative, layered with the reader’s wider perception of the social cues and emotional undercurrents which Christopher misinterprets or misses entirely. It’s an incredibly difficult trick to manage throughout the whole book, particularly when trying to foster narrator-reader empathy, but Haddon does it very well. He also draws complicated, deeply flawed characters all around Christopher, and he never once balks at compassionately showing us just how much we can all screw up sometimes.

This is not a comfortable book, mostly for that double-narrative. It’s a messy story, full of overwhelmed people and wrenching situations. Christopher finds himself in the middle of many emotionally charged scenes, and I really admire the way Haddon preserves Christopher’s symptomatic emotional disconnection while also doing some fast and subtle footwork to show just how much is going on in Christopher’s head that he simply doesn’t have the vocabulary or normally functioning circuits to talk about.

There was controversy about this book, as you might expect. Some autistic readers were simply unconvinced by Christopher’s purported self-awareness – a necessary device to educate the uninformed reader about his various symptoms and fears. I’m not about to cast judgment on this book’s worthiness as a representative of autism, except that I view with instant skepticism any community response which basically boils down to, “but your character’s experiences aren’t exactly like mine.” I will grant that Christopher is a much stronger communicator than you’d expect for his age and the severity of his symptoms, and that he displays far too many normative logical thought patterns. But you know, I’ve also spent a lot of time talking to people in the neurodiversity movement, and I’m just not interested in coming down hard on a book for ‘not doing it right,’ particularly when the words “autism” or “Asperger’s” never appear in the text. Because that would just be too ironic.

It’s a great book, really. It made me uncomfortable a lot, but it was supposed to. It avoided the pitfalls of this kind of story – ‘autistic boy overcomes the obstacles and fears of his condition to solve a mystery! Hugs and warm hearts for all!’ and I’m honestly still marveling a bit over the smoothness of the doubled narratives. Neat trick, that. I think the book suffers by its own unusual nature – because of what he is, Christopher is incapable of completing the sort of emotional journey arc we expect in modern fiction. But that’s not so much a failing as another facet of an unusual, well-crafted story. Highly recommended.

Mark Haddon

Date: 2007-04-14 02:01 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mcewen.livejournal.com
I really enjoyed that too. I read in on the flight home to England just after both my boys had been diagnosed with Autism, a red eye flight in more ways than one.
Thanks for posting this now [Autism Awareness Month]. I'm currently reading another of his 'a spot of bother,' which is very funny, although so far I've only read the first couple of chapters.
Best wishes
http://whitterer-autism.blogspot.com

Re: Mark Haddon

Date: 2007-04-16 01:51 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lightreads.livejournal.com
Your post on "Clarity of Speech" just made my morning. Hee!

Best of luck to you and your boys.

Date: 2007-04-14 10:09 am (UTC)
nomadicwriter: [Doctor Doom] Victor Von Crankypants (rambling)
From: [personal profile] nomadicwriter
I must admit that this is one of those books I thought was brilliant but didn't actually like that much. (Much like my relationship with The Sopranos on TV.) I thought it was very, very cleverly done and I loved being in Christopher's head, but the uniform unpleasantness of the other characters eventually soured it for me. And I know that was in the name of being emotionally messy and gritty and uncomfortable et cetera, but it's just a school of fiction that I've never really got along with. (I like the occasional ray of hope for humanity in with my downbeat.)

A book I'm really glad I read, but I wouldn't want to read again.

Date: 2007-04-16 01:54 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lightreads.livejournal.com
I had a very similar reaction, actually. I finished it, flipped back through the electronic bookmarks I'd left, then promptly deleted it. And it's funny, because there are definitely grittier books which I revisit, even though that's really not my scene. In this case, I think it's part of what I referred to above -- we don't get the emotional arc like we expect. I mean, there's a nice ending with the puppy and dad reaching out in a mature, useful way, but it doesn't touch Christopher the way we anticipate, and so the impact is muted for us. And we don't get that pleasant little end cap which can really help a book with rougher emotional edges.

But yeah, that's exactly it: really glad I read it, never will again. Ah well. That's a sort of success in a book, I suppose, even if its not one I'd hope for as a writer.

Date: 2007-04-16 08:43 pm (UTC)
nomadicwriter: [Doctor Doom] Victor Von Crankypants (rambling)
From: [personal profile] nomadicwriter
I think on reflection it's down to the fact that usually, even when the characters and their actions are outwardly unpleasant, the POV character provides some kind of emotional balance to it all. It doesn't necessarily have to be hope or a sense of humour or anything positive; if they even get angry or disgusted, it's at least some kind of recognition that these people are doing really horrible things.

With an emotionally blank narrator you're just left with a succession of people doing shitty things and hey, that's life apparently. Christopher can't provide any condemnation of their behaviour, and so it passes unremarked as if it's a normal way for people to act. Which is why I think the book really needed something objectively positive in it to balance out all the nastiness.

Date: 2007-04-17 02:00 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lightreads.livejournal.com
He's not emotionally blank, though. I mean, there's a lot going on there, some really high swells. He just can't either regulate or rationalize it. Or articulate it, really. Whenever Christopher starts to describe how he's feeling, he either just says, "I felt x" and you just sort of know he's filling in the blank there because someone's told him that's what x feeling must be, or he starts describing how his body reacted. And it just doesn't close the circuit for me as a reader -- I'm left observing him, because empathy only goes so far in this book, for obvious reasons. Which is fitting, really, but still frustrating.

Date: 2007-04-17 05:28 pm (UTC)
nomadicwriter: [Doctor Doom] Victor Von Crankypants (rambling)
From: [personal profile] nomadicwriter
Yeah, you're right; "emotionally inarticulate" is probably more what I was aiming for. It's all there, but we're at just as much of a disconnect from it as Christopher is.

Date: 2007-04-14 03:13 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] minnaleigh.livejournal.com
I was thoroughly impressed with this book, too. The layered narrative was so well done. Have you read Elizabeth Moon's Speed of Dark? It was rec'd to me after I finished The Curious Incident and it is extremely good.

Haddon's Spot of Bother was also pretty good. The problem with it was that it was so successful at putting me in the head of someone with an anxiety problem that sometimes I got anxious reading it!

Date: 2007-04-16 01:55 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lightreads.livejournal.com
I have Speed of Dark in the ever-expanding magical file of books to be read. *quakes in fear*. I'm on a bit of an autism/abnormal psych kick though, so we shall see.

Oh right, he has another book. I'd forgotten. Thanks for the reminder. I'll brace myself, though.

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