Friday, December 14, 2012

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time - book review

My rating: 4/5

This book is a revelation on multiple levels.

The premise is that the narrator is autistic and is relating a narrative in the first person, telling his tale as a murder mystery novel. The victim of the murder is a dog, to which the main character is initially challenged by the school official overseeing his writing as a real murder victim, but he stubbornly insists that a dog can indeed constitute a proper murder victim.

Autism obliging, the style of writing is extremely clear and direct. No long sentences, no adverbs, very few scene descriptions, almost all matter-of-fact stuff. Also, the autism obliging again, the style is completely emotionally detached, only barely touching on emotions, and even then never going into depth on them. At certain points, Christopher will be “frightened”. At others, he will have a “weight on his chest” or a sensation like a “thumb pressed against a radiator that continues to hurt after being removed from the radiator”. Yet, with these simplified building blocks, the novel never fails to transmit a sense of the narrator’s self, his troubles, the intense way he reacts to people and objects that intrude into his perception (“I screamed”).

While reading it, I was wondering how the book was managing to keep me so rapt using such simple language, and it’s not in spite of it but very much because of it. At certain points, there will be some dramatic event unfolding and Christopher will relate the writing on a poster on the wall, or the exact words spoken by another character with no relation to the event unfolding: I felt Christopher’s systemic mind latching onto tangible facts to avoid the intangible implications of other ones. He is apprehending reality as close as bearable to him, which is of course much more distantly than the reader would, and forces the reader to contend with an unwilling agent.

The narrative upholds its immediacy, often by explicitly subverting an expected reaction and putting that reaction in a one-sentence paragraph by itself. This kind of broke the illusion sometimes, because the importance of the subverted expectations is known to the author but shouldn’t be to the narrator, so it creates a false disingenuosity.

All in all, though, the book is gripping, and demonstrates just how very powerful and inspiring the show-don’t-tell ethic can be.

As concerns the plot, it’s not a murder mystery, really. One realizes early on that Christopher’s investigative capabilities are so severely limited (incidentally, it highlights how real-life detectives must rely on their intuitive capabilities in a way that a purely logical detective cannot) that he never really stands a chance to make any headway. But that’s not what the book is about, of course. It’s about an autistic teen, his relationship to his parents, his attempt to take control of his destiny, and the myriad difficulties that beset the autistic in a world in which we heavily so very much on our empathic mind that it’s impossible to navigate without simple empathic abilities: read facial expressions, understand innuendo, react to subtext.

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