Mark Haddon

The Curious Incident of Dog in the Night-Time: How a Hopeless Disability Becomes an Extraordinary Ability

[In this criticism of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of Dog in the Night-Time, K.J. will analyze an extended paradox, where a boy who cannot experience emotions writes a story about his life flooded with every emotion, and its effect on the audience and the protagonist, whose torment and triumph are one in the same.]
"To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time," Sherlock Holmes said to Watson. The narrator of the novel is a fifteen year old boy, who has a huge fascination with math and mysteries, particularly involving Sherlock Holmes. When Christopher John Francis Boone has the opportunity to shake the stigma of his shortcoming and become a novelist, investigator, and an altogether brave boy, he jumps at the chance. He will be Sherlock Holmes. In fact, the title of the novel comes from his all-time favorite Holmes mystery, Silver Blaze. Told from Christopher's first-person perspective, it chronicles a part of his life and the evolution of the writing of the story itself.

Christopher means “carrying Christ,” and it is a metaphor. (Haddon 8) Christopher tells the audience that right away. He tells them every time he uses a metaphor or a simile. He is 15 years 3 months and 2 days at the commencement of the story. He speaks in simple sentences. He speaks like this, and he likes that. He harbors an affinity for black and white answers, just like in math. His love of math resonates throughout his life, because of its simplicity and truth. He knows what a lie is and vows never to break a promise. He has difficulty with feelings. He has trouble describing things other than in their natural, actual state, which makes the novel extremely matter-of-fact. He is an observant being and despises being called clever. He simply sees what others do not. Even so, he lacks an imagination, but his extraordinary smarts prove an equal substitute. All of this came to be because Christopher has a disability. It is never stated in the novel what this disability is, except for the front cover. He has Asperger’s Syndrome. He is autistic. For most, this would undoubtedly be the label of a challenge-filled life. For Christopher, it is literally and symbolically his greatest gift and most difficult obstacle.

The chapters begin with two (2), then three (3), then five (5), seven (7), and so on because they are all prime numbers, and he likes prime numbers. He says, “prime numbers are what is left when you have taken all the patterns away. I think prime numbers are like life. They are very logical but you could never work out the rules, even if you spent all your time thinking about them” (12). This is his philosophy on life. He enjoys patterns and routine; and new places scare him. His views on life, at least to him, are very logical. Everything has a scientific explanation (and even if it does not now, it will someday). This is precisely why he likes investigations. They allow him to be adventurous, formulate a plan, and follow a pattern. When the neighbor’s black poodle, Wellington, is found dead with a garden fork in its side, he is determined to find the murderer. With his inability to really feel feelings, he does not become emotionally attached to the dog, making the process easier. Making the process harder, however, is his fear of strangers and his hatred for chatting. Although this is the basis for the title of the novel, this investigation becomes only the beginning of a series of events that ultimately force him to mature.

He is no different than other people, other than his love of silence, which to him is the same as the white noise between radio stations, his abhorrence for crowds, his love of red, his loathing of yellow, and his odd system for what will be a Good Day, a Quite Good Day, a Super Good Day, and a Black Day. These little eccentricities turn out to be not so little, after all. They actually run his entire life. However, as strange as they are, they make perfect sense for him. He honestly sees the world in an utterly different way than anyone else. The relationship with Christopher develops and deepens so quickly, and soon after, it becomes blaringly obvious that someone like Christopher easily misunderstands and is easily misunderstood.

The author, Mark Haddon, claims to have very little knowledge on the topic of autism, specifically Asperger’s. Ironically, with a protagonist who cannot imagine anything but reality, Haddon says “imagination trumps research,” on his blog, www.markhaddon.com. He gave Christopher rules that he lives by and quirky traits, and through this, he creates a character that is different than most, but yet, oddly relatable to many.

Although Christopher promises not to lie to his father, or anyone else for that matter, it is soon discovered that his father has lied to him. Being an only child, his parents and his aid at school, Siobhan, are the only people he communicates with, other than his rat, Toby. This severely hurts his relationship with both of his divorced parents. The fact that Christopher cannot understand why his father felt the need to lie to him makes the pain and reality of Christopher’s problem that much more tangible. He repeatedly calls anything he does not understand stupid. Anything that requires emotion or belief in the unseen is also stupid, in his opinion. His inability to describe how he is feeling within the novel is visibly detailed by diagrams and pictures that he draws and puts into his writing, along with his incredibly simple syntax. Instead of saying how he feels, he draws a happy face or sad face, because he knows what those represent but he cannot fathom how he feels.

He travels to find his long lost mother, the only person he feels he has left. Metaphorically, as he journeys throughout England, Christopher continues on his own life’s journey. From the beginning of the novel, he has had his sights set on getting an “A” grade on his Math A Level Exam, in addition to, of course, discovering who murdered Wellington. Not only does he accomplish everything within his reach, he also continues to set and attain goal after goal. Christopher never calls himself autistic. In fact, he calls himself “a mathematician with some behavioral problems.” His book is not a story about an autistic boy. It’s a story about a year lived in his life, which for many, would be a life lived in a year.

Christopher’s story is Haddon’s novel - a novel which is as much “about us as it is about Christopher” (www.markhaddon.com). For Haddon, the novel attempts to strip those labels off of Christopher. It attempts to show a person that would be categorized, diagnosed, and treated for mental help in the same light as every other human being. For Christopher, the story shows his struggle with love, understanding emotions, and ultimate vindication. As unsure of a person as Christopher is, he has the utmost faith in his abilities – in his ability to block out the outside, to be independent, and to show his vision of the world in a completely raw and incredibly observant way.
Christopher’s disability is as much a tragedy as it is a blessing. This paradox is the vital thread of his life, sewn throughout the novel. Basically, fear for his safety, because of his uncertainty and lack of full comprehension of emotions and situations, creates doubt in his ability to become successful. However, his brutally honest reflection, on his life and those in it, and triumph over everything this world has pitted against him not only proves his extraordinary abilities, but also, compels every “normal” person to see the world through his simple, truthful eyes.
After a laundry list of all he has accomplished and desires to in the near future, he confidently and ever so matter-of-factly says, “And I know I can do this because I went to London on my own, and because I solved the mystery of Who Killed Wellington?, and I found my mother, and I was brave, and I wrote a book, and that means I can do anything.” (222) Some would look down upon his presumed fragile being; others would admire him. Some would call him naïve; others would call him brilliant. That is the paradox.

(K.J. 2012)




A Spot of Bother: When Humor, Insanity, and Family Go Hand-in-Hand

[In this scholarly criticism, K. J. analyzes a consistent theme of insanity, marked by large doses of comedy, in Mark Haddon’s A Spot of Bother.]

“A Spot of Bother” has a triple meaning for Haddon’s novel. Firstly, it serves as the title of the story. Secondly, it rather obviously describes George’s, one of the main characters, eczema on his hip. And thirdly, it is a British phrase used when an event is undesirable. Together, the last two meanings combine to make the title an understandable choice. The novel is told from the perspectives of George, the patriarch of the family, his wife, his son, and his daughter. They are the world’s average, every day dysfunctional family. A summary of the novel would say George is a hypochondriac and chronic worrier, his wife, Jean, is having an extra-marital affair, his daughter, Katie, is messing up her life by marrying the wrong man, and his son, Jamie, is gay. Surely any family could be summed up so easily; surely any family could be tied up neatly and decorated with a pretty bow; and surely any family does not fit within a perfect mold.

In addition to the very real “problems” the family faces, Haddon also employs humor throughout the entire novel, giving lightheartedness to even somewhat serious situations. Despite the multifaceted introduction, the rest of the novel follows a much more simplistic tone. By switching between the four narrators, but maintaining a third person perspective, each circumstance is presented in four different lights. Therefore, a relationship, like with most protagonists and audiences, is not developed with merely one person.

In a serious atmosphere, George is understood to exaggerate most occurrences (or lack thereof) and be a distant soul within his family. Jean is seen to be someone who desires happiness. Katie hopes for the best for her son, but also, for herself. Lastly, Jamie yearns to be understood by his family. Each person is coping with honest, human struggles. The longing to be accepted by other people is a natural, innate feeling. No one can escape that. Families, of all people, should typically be the ones supporting and understanding their members. Often times, though, they are not. Haddon, however, attempts to infuse comedy into these all too common misfortunes. George, then, becomes the comical, unaware father. He is convinced his eczema is cancer and that he is bound to die at a moment’s notice. Because of this distraction, he is oblivious to most of the other issues within his problem-stricken family. The opposite is also true. Each person leads his/her own life, taking him/herself all too seriously, which for the audience, provides empathy and comic relief.

As the novel unravels, the purpose becomes clear. After all that happens, the family realizes “it was time to stop all this nonsense” (Haddon 354). Taking each moment in life too seriously is every person’s Achilles’ heel, each person’s downfall. Without humor, without easygoingness, without letting hold of the reign’s on life, and without family (whether helpful or not), every time a troubling instance presents itself, it becomes the weakest pressure point, often causing the whole system to fail. In turn, since something is only as strong as its weakest point, that person fails. Although it is a modest concept, most, if not all, find it abnormally arduous to conceive, let alone overcome.

“[George] said, ‘I’m not going to leave you… And I’m not going to ask you to leave,’…
‘Good,’ said Jean” (353).

That is precisely Haddon’s point. By allowing one’s self to approach each “difficulty,” although that is merely a word to describe the unknown, with humor, humility, and foundation of faith in family, all those “spots of bother” become nothingness, if not stepping stones. As cliché as his argument is, it is the separating and coming together, as a familial unit, that illustrates the significance of it all. Although the novel is not a social commentary on a corrupt political system, nor the even the reflective piece that Haddon’s previous novel is, it is a portrait that portrays the life of every family and the importance of humor, insanity, and of course, ohana.

(K.J. 2012)