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Mark Haddon: indifferent, at best

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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.

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About Gautam Patel

Mumbai-based lawyer and weekly columnist for a local newspaper.
  • cordelia l

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, and thank you again for the first well-reasoned critique I’ve found on this highly overrated book and author!! Particularly your recognition of his broad hypersimplification of a complex family of neural disorders, which Haddon has used as a not-so-clever narrative gimmick.

    Here’s my theory of the strangely glowing response to this book: people of the Neurotypical persuasion like to smugly wipe tears from their eyes as they pretend to see the world through the horribly afflicted reality of some sad non-typical type. (Better yet if this afflicted reality is presented in a stilted, neatly packaged way.) Never mind that the ‘affliction’ – Asperger’s syndrome -the author attempts to describe from a first-person standpoint is completely and utterly misrepresented in this book — the warm-and-fuzzy seekers who love this book apparently prefer simplistically drawn stereotypes.

    As someone who actually HAS Asperger’s syndrome, I find most ironic the fact that this author, in interviews, has no compunction about labeling his protagonist as “asperger”, describing the alleged “symptoms” of this disorder, and then freely admitting he did absolutely no research on the subject prior to the book, but that he felt he ‘knew enough’ because he had done some social work with autistic youth some years back. This cavalier inattention to detail and lack of factual integrity by a person who (by my estimation) thinks ambition and social maneuvering can make up for lack of skill is *exactly* the trait people with Asperger’s find most aggravating — and impossible to understand — in Neurotypicals!

  • Amanda Webb

    I have read both the review and the commentary and frankly I disagree! I have two children with Autism and they couldn’t be more different so to speak of Haddon as sterio typing this disability is a nonsence! Yes of course it is true that some children with ASD will have skills in areas outside of Math’s and the sciences (Art and Music)but it is far from common. And as to the relationaship between the father and his son until you’ve been there how dare you presume to comment on the emotional swings or otherwise that the behavior of these kids is able to create in what are otherwise a normal human beings. It is widely recognised that most parents of kids with ASD end up suffering with anxiety and or depression and I for one both empathised and believed in these characters. For me I didn’t find it as funny as other people I know because it cut too close to the bone but the areas where I did smile was when young Christopher’s reasoning reminded me so much of my sons. Perhaps it is you and not Haddon who is shallow as the only mystery here was the mystery of his mind not who killed the dog or whether his mother is alive or not! Seriously I think you’ve missed the point!

  • Alan

    With regards to the person with Asperger’s (Cordelia)who objects to Haddon’s `cavalier’ approach,I read an interview with him on the eve of winning the Whitbread and he intimated that the association of his protagonist/narrator with the Syndrome has been a double-edged sword. Moreover, he never mentions anywhere in it that his character actually has Asperger’s, and I wonder when and by whom the specificity of the condition was introduced. However, since Christopher Boone comes across as a sympathetic character, and I had never heard of Asperger’s before, I think that Haddon has done people with it some sort of service simply through the public attention. Nevertheless, appropriation of voice is always a concern, I suppose, when somebody who is not part of a minority constituency writes in its voice. Perhaps all novels should only be written by those with personal experience of their characters’ exact experiences and situations. Now, of course, that would leave us with nothing much to read except autobiographical fiction. Mayhap Cordelia would like to write a piece of fiction herself, since she is certainly very articulate.

  • Kathy Jovanovic

    Hi All. I found this site by accident. I was looking for info on Nicolas Cage. I then began to read this blog and to be honest I have never posted in a blog til now.

    I am a 40yr old female with Aspergers. Diagnosed approx. 1yr, ago.

    I am gifted in art. My aspie sister is gifted in science. My aspie nephew is a math genuis. Autism seems to be showing that it runs in family. It runs in mine im sure about that one.

    We have much in common we think very logically we analize everything and we all obsess on our individual topics of interest. Nicolas Cage is one of mine LOL. My nease likes Romeo and Juliet.
    My nephew….computers.

    I am prone to rages and spontanious outburst. When overstimulated. But very calm and easy going when not overstimulated.

    I am just learning to socialize in a somewhat “normal” way not succeeding to well yet. But slowly getting better. I have isolated since the sixth grade due to not knowing how to “mix” in the world.

    I have Discalcia….I cant comprehend math and have no sense of direction. Also suffer from auditory processing disorder…tell me something I wont remember..if I read it I remember all.
    I learn visually…test out as a 100% visual learner. I am also allergic to gluten commen allergy to autistics I removed this from my diet and am now much calmer.

    Acording to what I have learned… Aspergers/Autism is a neurological disorder we dont choose to have it.

    My point is this: In learning about myself I have learned about aspergers/autism and its affects on myself and others. We are all so alike but also so diff. My aspie nease sounds like the child in the book…I have not read this book so cant be sure about this commit its the blog that got my attention. But some people I have met online also sound so diff. from the child in the book.

    To the mother I send you a hug (I am empathetic) My mother raised 2 aspies back when nobody even new the word/condition existed in the US. How overwhelmed and confused she must have been. She died to young…strokes/heartatache. She was so stressed and so were we. Hang in there mom of those boys. I am not just like them but probably have some common traits that they have. Its all shades of
    grey in the Autistic spectrum.

    So sad to me when I try to teach “normal” people about aspergers and they simply dont care. To much effort on there part I presume…I am putting so much effort on my part to understand how to live with them.

    But…THANKS…to the “normal” people who have gone the extra mile to understand my condition…they have been a blessing in my life.

    Just my thoughts. Kathy.

    PS. I love Robert Jordans Wheel of Time Series…one of my obsessions. Wonder if there is a blog on his books here. LOL

  • Jake

    had to read da book at skool it was really strange about a boy aving Aspergers Syndrome i never heard about dem aswell. Bare swearing and and rude words. Overall sck book

  • no name

    I believe that your take on the book “The curious incident of the dog in the nightime” Is quite outrageous. You should feel lucky to read a book writen by such a talented author.Do you actually know how hard it would be to write from the perspective of this child christopher? I guess what i’m saying is that your critique on this book is just giving a wonderful and compelling story a bad reputation.