Generally, I find I like what the book reviewers of The Economist and the New York Times like. Not so with the TLS, which I find thin or the New York Review of Books which is so densely high-brow that I can use it only seldom.
So when Jay McInerney wrote a rave review in the New York Times of Mark Haddon’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”, I rushed out for a hardback. This has got to be good, I thought.
For the first time, I felt wronged. Haddon’s book is nowhere as great as McInerney makes out. He reads far too much into a book so slight. Is it politically incorrect to dislike a book with an autistic child at its centre?
Haddon’s book is gimmicky, repetitive and tedious. Ostensibly a journal by Christopher Boone, an autistic fifteen-year-old in Swindon, England, who starts ‘detecting’ after he finds a neigbour’s dog skewered in the front yard, the book rapidly degenerates into a banal narrative of a child from a broken home. His autism is little more than contrivance to elevate the mundane. Haddon’s ear for dialogue is virtually non-existent and his characters are wooden. Christopher’s father is the most implausible: alternately violent in language (there’s enough use of fuck to make the book inappropriate reading for any teen or pre-teen) and disconcertingly caring (he gently asks Christopher to move to another room while he builds some shelves), he remains throughout quite undefinable. This is a huge weakness because Christopher’s relationship with his father takes a complete U-turn towards the latter third of the book. Since the father is an enigma, this change in their relationship is inexplicable. There’s a repetitiveness to his conduct, too, which makes him robotic.
The other central character in the book is a teacher in Christopher’s school. Of her, we learn nothing. The third major player is, of course, Christopher’s mother, who makes a clumsily contrived entrance towards the end of the book. The plot is so thin that the book is unlikely to be spoiled for anyone who knows it in advance: Christopher’s ‘care-giver’ is his father. His mother is apparently dead, or so Christopher is led to believe. Christopher finds his neighbour’s dog impaled on a pitchfork in front of his house. Whodunnit? Christopher sets off to find out. In the bargain, he makes a solitary trip to London to find his mother and then the book sort of turns in on itself and begins to spill its emotional guts as it moves inexorably towards a conveniently neat conclusion.
The book irritates. Haddon’s attempt to make Christopher awkwardly likeable only makes him precious. Arguably, Haddon is unfair to autistic children. His book bursts with stereotypes: about selfish, violent behaviour (how is that any different from about 99.99% of mankind, I wonder?); an unusual felicity with things scientific and mathematical (quite incorrect, actually; I believe many autistic children tend to high skills in other areas, e.g., fiction); an inability to deal with others; a lack of fear of violent behaviour in others, and so on. This is pretty routine stuff. Haddon covers it well with several devices: Christopher’s endearing character, his seemingly profound insights into books and fiction, his grasp of science and maths and, of course, the feel-good ending. For example, when Christopher writes, he often capitalizes unexpectedly. He begins Detecting. You read this and, instinctively, you say, “how sweet!” You are Charmed. This is just Too Easy.
I am not suggesting that Haddon should have written something more hefty or that the book is bad. It isn’t, at least not in comparison to the endless rubbish in print nowadays. But it’s certainly very, very far from the profundity that it is made out to be by McInerney and others.