Having seen this title grace nearly every Modern Library or Time’s list of Top 100 Novels, I was surprised that it took so long for me to finally get around to reading it. I am, of course, very glad that I finally found an afternoon to devour the thing.
Haddon’s first-person protagonist Christopher is autistic and brilliant. He prefers the insulated worlds of home and school, adores maths and sums because they represent mankind’s highest achievement of rational decision-making. Likewise, he cannot understand the vicissitudes of other people: why they ask questions if they don’t want the answers (rhetoric); why they prefer the company of others instead of the company of themselves (society); why they believe in an irrational God (spirituality).
A reviewer has compared Christopher’s character with a mesh of Holden Caulfield and Benjy, from the Sound and the Fury, and I find this to be particularly apt. Like Holden, Christopher is self-aware; too self-aware, a psychiatrist might tell him (generally, it’s the self-aware characters who write books starring themselves). He knows what he likes and he doesn’t like and how he’ll react in a situation in which he’s not comfortable.
When he is inevitably placed in such a situation in which he is uncomfortable, his Benjy emerges. Christopher’s hypersensitivity to the world around him makes every advertisement, stranger, and bad colour as threatening as a mugger’s knife. Overwhelmed, Christopher can only do what all of us would do in his situation: cradle your head and scream until the bad things go away.
But the bad thing is the world, metro stations, and parents, and none of these are going away. Christopher already knows all of this by the time we meet him, 7 minutes past midnight, scrutinizing the dead dog Wellington. The dead Wellington could be all that is wrong with the world, or everything that Christopher wishes were changed. No one, except Wellington’s owner’s ex-husband, hated the dog. Wellington could even be God: a blatant irrationality thrust into all of our lives that we cannot simply ignore because the mystery is too great. Or it could just be a dead dog.
Either way, Christopher knows exactly what to do. He references his hero Sherlock Holmes’s murder mystery techniques: first by collecting any evidence that can be collected, and then proceeding to make a list of possible culprits. The investigation earns the dissatisfaction of Christopher’s father, with whom the reader can share a great amount of sympathy. He cannot understand Christopher’s world but by God, he tries. Haddon draws his character: an aging man with tooth-chipped nails and an unfaithful wife, in masterfully poignant images.
I won’t ruin the of novel by telling you where Christopher’s search leads him, but the reader can be assured that it is an adventure of epic scope.
Haddon’s book has enjoyable moments but it is far from being enjoyable. Christopher’s inability to regulate emotional complexities combined with the seemingly innocuous daily events that threaten him have the astounding affect of making the world grow both larger and more dangerous in our own eyes. If you thought navigating the metro was difficult before, just wait until Christopher tries his hand at it.
Very few pieces of literature have treated a character’s disability with Haddon’s poise. What we all might call autistic ‘madness’ is actually a greater rationality than our own. If Haddon has done nothing else, he’s shown how ‘mad’ we all are.