Whitbread Winner

After reading Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time on my three-leg flight from Baltimore to San Francisco this past Saturday, I returned to the blogosphere to find everyone (TEV, Return of the Reluctant, Maud, etc.) pointing to its recent receipt of the Whitbread prize for best novel of the year. I’m glad to see it getting recognition, and I’m sure that it will indeed turn into the “huge bestseller” they’re predicting it will become (I was under the impression it was already there).

Mark’s astute review at The Elegant Variation convinced me to bump it up in the queue, and I was glad I did. Two of Mark’s excerpts from the book sealed my interest. Here’s one:

This is what Siobahn says is called a rhetorical question. It has a question mark at the end, but you are not meant to answer it because the person answering it already knows the answer. It is difficult to spot a rhetorical question.

And here’s the other:

I think [metaphor] should be called lie because a pig is not like a day and people do not have skeletons in their cupboards. And when I try and make a picture of the phrase in my head it just confuses me because imagining an apple in someone’s eye doesn’t have anything to do with liking someone a lot and it makes you forget what the person was talking about.

The autistic narrator’s struggles with any nonliteral use of language (including metaphor, irony, sarcasm, etc.) reminded me much of Jonathan Safran Foer’s narrator in Everything Is Illuminated, who simply can’t seem to grasp the nuance of idiom in English, his second language. This risky style makes both books incredibly compelling, but, for me, it also makes both books ultimately a little disappointing, perhaps inevitably.

In all, Haddon does a remarkable job of maintaining this difficult device without it becoming too forced or tiresome. (However, I was glad that the book was short. I’m not sure how much longer it could stay fresh and interesting.) This unique voice and perspective provides an interesting access to the story and naturally highlights significant developments in the plot, which might otherwise have slipped right by unnoticed.

The downside of this perspective is that it is heartbreaking to spend a whole book with a character who can’t actually feel (or at least express) the emotions that I, as a reader, require for a completely satisfying story. Though there is some resolution at the end of the book, I couldn’t help feel the disconcerting paradox that a) the narrator never authentically feels or understands the motivations of the people who love him (or even what love itself is, aside from protection and providing food) or his own emotional response to problems that befall him and his family, and yet b) he is obviously affected by these complex issues, yet he never really comes to terms with them.

In the end, I felt the most empathy for the boy’s father, who feels the weight of everything enough for both him and his son. I’m sure I’m not explaining this well at all. As I say, perhaps this dissatisfaction is inevitable, given the structure of the book. Perhaps it’s built into the book to show how hard autism is on the families. I guess I just wanted, just once, to hear the narrator be able to say, “That made me feel sad.” That would have been enough resolution for me.

A final aside: after the narrator states early on in the book that “this is a murder mystery novel,” I was mildly disappointed a few pages later to discover that it actually was not a murder mystery novel. Of course, my reaction isn’t really a criticism of the book. For the most part, after I realized what was going on, I liked the precedent that this deception set and was happy to be led by the narrator throughout the rest of the book, even if (perhaps especially because) he couldn’t be trusted to give me the whole story.