Monday, November 10, 2008

Another Intriguing Protagonist

I just finished the hot book of 2003, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, by Mark Haddon. I'm late to the party, I know, but I enjoyed the read anyway.

Like Wallflower, the real driving force of the story is its narrator, 15-year-old Christopher Boone. Christopher is autistic and a mathematical savant. While it's not specified in the book, his condition seems remarkably similar to they way John Elder Robison described Asperger's Syndrome in his memoir that I read a few weeks ago. Like Robison, Christopher has a very hard time understanding emotions and tries to apply logic to situations where logic doesn't really apply. Robison talked about how many people with Asperger's learn to blend in. Christopher hasn't really learned that yet. He's prone to start screaming or groaning when he's upset and has extreme reactions to being crowded or touched in any way.

And there's a lot to upset him in this book. It starts off very badly, when he finds the neighbor's dog impaled on a garden fork. He gets blamed for it at first, but then decides he is going to solve the mystery of who killed the dog, Sherlock Holmes-style (he likes the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, as well as math and science). His investigation ultimately winds up leading to his own doorstep, however, and into many basic assumptions about his family that he'd never questioned.

This is another relatively short book, but it's also well-decorated, having won two major awards shortly after its publication. It's both fascinating and heartbreaking to watch Christopher try to negotiate the world of the neurotypical. He has a lot of trouble just understanding people, and common turns of phrase like "I've had a bear of a day" baffle him. He also can't lie, which puts him at a great disadvantage in certain situations.

It made me sad how often people called him a freak. It also saddened me to see that his local school system apparently had no way to deal with him: his father had to fight hard in order for him to be allowed to take his A-levels (college qualifying exams; I think I forgot to mention that the story is set in England) and he was placed in a Special Needs class with kids who played with their own poo.

But despite the often cruel ways of the world and even of his own family, the book is not a sad book. Christopher ultimately prevails, and emerges feeling more confident about how far his abilites will take him. Another thing that John Elder Robison talked about was the importance of focusing on what kids with Asperger's can do, and how crucial it was not to shove can't can't can't in their faces all the time. As awful as the results of Christopher's investigation are (and it is a mystery, so I can't reveal too much about them), the fact that he solved the mystery, took his maths A-level and already accomplished more than he expected made him feel optimistic about the future, and about the day when he finds his place in the world.

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