Doing Chatting

Eleanor Birne

  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon
    Cape, 272 pp, £10.99, May 2003, ISBN 0 224 06378 2

When my grandmother found out my mother was going to marry my father, she asked my mother to reconsider. ‘What about David?’ she said. ‘Wouldn’t you like to marry David instead?’ David is my father’s brother. He still lives alone in the council house my grandmother died in. He used to hear voices; schizophrenia was suspected until it turned out that he was hearing the neighbours talking through the wall. My father has been inside the house only once in the 23 years since she died, and then only because he forced his way in after finding blood on the doorstep (a cycling accident, David claimed). The same chequered lino is there, the same brown curtains; the jigsaw my grandmother was in the middle of when she died is still out on the table, dusty and half-assembled. On the wall in the corridor hangs the granddaughter clock she left me and that I’ve never seen. David has trouble looking you in the eye, has a stutter and hasn’t yet got the hang of speaking on the phone. For the past forty-five years he’s held down a job assembling TVs and radios on a factory production line. It’s fiddly, detailed work. Most of the people he used to work with have been made redundant, but David has been kept on because he’s brilliant at his job. He’s also brilliant at remembering people’s birthdays. He never fails to show up on his bike (he’s not allowed to drive) the evening before, with a card stencilled in his immaculate and incongruous calligraphy. My grandmother, like the rest of the family, always knew there was something different and difficult about David. When my mother was asked if she wouldn’t rather marry him, she smiled and said it was his brother she wanted. My grandmother pursed her lips, told her my father was a miserable bastard, and predicted they’d be divorced in two years.

If David were at school today he would be said to have Asperger’s Syndrome, a condition originally described in Vienna in 1944, but not widely diagnosed until the late 1990s in Britain and North America. Asperger’s is a development disorder characterised by impairment in social interaction and by restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviour and interests. Boys with Asperger’s like routine and don’t like change; they are acutely sensitive to certain sounds, smells and tastes. In contrast with autism, there are no significant delays in language or cognition. It’s rare to be given an idea of what Asperger’s or autism might be like from the inside, given the communication problem, and given the evident attraction of the carer’s story. There are newspaper columns about coping with autistic children, and there’s the lovable Rain Man: one man’s magical discovery of what it means to be good, through the medium of his impossible brother. The looking-after is supposed to do terrible and wonderful things to the responsible few, and whether or not this is generally the case, it makes excellent copy.

Mark Haddon’s fictional inside story is told through the medium of 15-year-old Christopher Boone, who lives in Swindon with his father and his pet rat, Toby. His mother, he tells us, died of a heart attack two years ago. He hates brown and yellow, France, his foodstuffs touching on the plate, and the sight of four yellow cars in a row (an experience presumably so rare that it suggests some calculation on his part to avoid having a bad day). Christopher’s candour is winning: I made my own list in response to his, and, it has to be said, mine is longer. It includes open spaces, small spaces, avocados, tall escalators, flying, social kissing and the Blue Peter theme music. But reviewing Christopher’s List of Behavioural Problems, I decided he’d probably be even worse to live with than I am (Christopher, among other things, likes not to talk to people for a long time, not to eat or drink anything for a long time, likes groaning and hitting people and gets angry when someone has moved the furniture).

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time takes the form of a murder mystery, and murder mysteries are Christopher’s favourite books. He is a big Conan Doyle fan and his very favourite book is The Hound of the Baskervilles, which features a painted dog; ‘the curious incident of the dog in the night time’ is a quote from the Sherl0ck Holmes story ‘Silver Blaze’, which features a painted horse and a dog that doesn’t bark. In ‘Silver Blaze’ the horse is missing and a man is dead; in The Curious Incident the dog is dead and a woman is missing – a calculatedly engaging twist (as you read on, it becomes clear how much of the engagingness is calculated).

The first paragraph is a dashing introduction to Christopher’s strange world:

It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs Shears’s house. Its eyes were closed. It looked as if it was running on its side, the way dogs run when they think they are chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was dead. There was a garden fork sticking out of the dog. The points of the fork must have gone all the way through the dog and into the ground because the fork had not fallen over. I decided that the dog was probably killed with the fork because I could not see any other wounds in the dog and I do not think you would stick a garden fork into a dog after it had died for some other reason, like cancer for example, or a road accident. But I could not be certain about this.

Christopher’s mathematical literalism makes him an ideal detective: there’s no getting away from that dog. You wonder only why a pronoun creeps presumptively into a few of the sentences.

Haddon has given himself an unusual set of challenges and opportunities. Challenges because he is writing from the viewpoint of a teenager who can’t lie, tell jokes or ‘do chatting’, doesn’t understand facial expressions or body language and doesn’t believe in metaphor: ‘I think it should be called a lie because a pig is not like a day and people do not have skeletons in their cupboards.’ Christopher is allowed similes, however, and uses plenty of them. One of the policemen he meets after finding the dead dog has ‘a very hairy nose. It looked as if there were two very small mice hiding in his nostrils.’ (Mice are the next best thing to rats.) The choice of narrator also gives Haddon an arresting and efficient way of dealing with character and situation. All Christopher tells us about Mr Jeavons, his unhelpful and inflexible psychologist, is that he ‘wears brown shoes that have approximately 60 tiny circular holes in each of them’. Christopher, naturally, doesn’t do eye contact, and the adult world as he sees it – like the world of the Peanuts cartoons – cuts off at the knee. Christopher’s strange perspectives can be useful. When he is locked up after hitting the policeman who finds him crouched over the murdered dog, he reports: ‘It was nice in the police cell. It was almost a perfect cube, 2 metres wide by 2 metres high. It contained approximately 8 cubic metres of air’ – such measured reactions make him an unbeatable detective.

Haddon has decorated his novel with charts, tables, diagrams and a few equations to illustrate the mathematical and scientific problems that Christopher turns to for distraction and relief at moments of stress. There’s a table to help you work out prime numbers, Christopher’s favourites (he knows all the primes up to 7507 and makes sure each chapter is numbered with one). There’s a diagram of the solar system, a hand-drawn map of Randolph Street in Swindon, a British Rail sign, a sample of the patterned material used on the seats in the Tube. These flourishes resemble those in another account by a child with Asperger’s, Kenneth Hall’s non-fictional Asperger Syndrome, the Universe and Everything. Hall is only ten, which excuses his accounts of how much he likes lying inside his sleeping bag and how he likes to eat cheese grated with his own grater, but may not excuse confessions such as ‘I also love leaping around the furniture. I like to do this approximately every half hour, or even every fifteen minutes if I can manage it. I also enjoy making noises like “Zzzhhh Zzzhhh” quite a lot.’ Christopher might share similar delights; he would certainly share Kenneth’s demanding standards when it comes to time, but, for all that he’s fictional, he is a more plausible narrator, or a more independent one.

Hall’s book is organised around themes decided on in collaboration with his Asperger-conversant mentor – ‘What is different about me’, ‘My strengths’, ‘My beliefs’ – and he’s a (fairly preachy) convert to something called Applied Behaviour Analysis, a system of rewards and minor penalties designed to bring him out of his shell. Christopher’s book is encouraged by Siobhan, his one understanding teacher, as a record of his search for the dog’s killer. Christopher doesn’t like ‘proper novels’ because ‘they are lies about things which didn’t happen and they make me shaky and scared.’ He can’t lie, but has to negotiate a noisy world in which adults tell lies all the time. The first adult voice that intrudes into Christopher’s space is swearing at him: ‘I had been hugging the dog for 4 minutes when I heard screaming. I looked up and saw Mrs Shears running towards me from the patio. She was wearing pyjamas and a housecoat. Her toenails were painted bright pink and she had no shoes on. She was shouting: “What in fuck’s name have you done to my dog?”’ Adults say ‘fuck’ a lot in this book.

Christopher interviews Mrs Alexander, an elderly neighbour who tells him more than he bargained for about his mother and the affair she had with Mr Shears next door. It all goes into the book, which his father finds and confiscates with an angry warning that noses shouldn’t be poked into other people’s business. Christopher, however, is enjoying life as a detective. The hunt for the dog’s killer becomes a hunt for the notebook we’re reading. Eventually, Christopher reclaims the book from the bottom of his father’s wardrobe, along with a stack of letters written to him by his mother, who turns out not to be dead but living unhappily in Willesden with Mr Shears. The letters, and his father’s lies, send him on a whole new search and he heads off to London, braving the cacophony and British Rail.

Christopher had been told that his mother was cremated:

I do not know what happens to the ash and I couldn’t ask because I didn’t go to the crematorium because I didn’t go to the funeral. But the smoke goes out of the chimney and into the air and sometimes I look up into the sky and I think that there are molecules of mother up there, or clouds over Africa or the Antarctic, or coming down as rain in the rainforests in Brazil, or in snow somewhere.

Christopher likes space, but finds it entertainingly eccentric that people choose to think of the stars in terms of arbitrary constellations; there’s no good reason, he explains, why Orion shouldn’t be read as a dinosaur rather than a hunter: the truth is that ‘it is just Betelgeuse and Bellatrix and Alnilam and Rigel and 17 other stars I don’t know the names of. And they are nuclear explosions billions of miles away.’ Molecules and transgalactic reactions are reassuringly concrete. Christopher, who records dialogue without registering people’s reactions, deals primarily in things. After rescuing him from the police cell, his father sits on the sofa watching snooker ‘with tears coming out of his eyes’ – an observation that is (just) rescued from sentimentality by its precision.

Christopher’s patient father also deals in things. He comes home from his work installing boilers to make tea for his son before putting up shelves in the living-room and watching TV. Christopher’s search for his notebook reveals plenty about the pathos of a single father’s life: ‘I started by looking under the bed. There were 7 shoes and a comb with lots of hair in it and a piece of copper pipe and a chocolate biscuit and a porn magazine called Fiesta and a dead bee and a Homer Simpson pattern tie and a wooden spoon, but not my book.’ But the main thing Christopher’s father deals with is Christopher, and Christopher is the main thing his mother struggled to deal with. This is the parents’ story – it’s always the parents’ story.