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Strange Ways, Here We Come

"This is a murder mystery novel," announces 15-year-old Christopher Boone, the hero of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Since he is neurologically incapable of deceit, this is, like everything else he says, the truth—albeit a peculiarly unshakable and circumscribed form thereof. An autistic savant who responds to overstimulation by assuming the fetal position and making "the noise that Father calls groaning" may seem an unlikely sleuth, but some experts will tell you otherwise. In a 1989 monograph, neuroscientist Uta Frith sketches a pre-history of the condition (identified only in the 1940s) by sifting through myth and literature, and discerns autistic qualities in Grimm fairy tales, Dostoyevsky's Idiot, and Sherlock Holmes—who also happens to be Christopher's favorite fictional character. Talented autistic individuals and the archetypal detectives of popular culture, Frith notes, share a "particular type of oddness . . . clear powers of observation and deduction, unclouded by the everyday emotions of ordinary people."

In a doff of the deerstalker (not actually a feature of the Holmes stories, our persnickety young friend remarks), Christopher's favorite book is The Hound of the Baskervilles; his adventures, which take him from suburban Swindon to the terrifying bustle of London, begin when a neighbor's poodle turns up dead. The investigation benefits from the protagonist's photographic memory and knack for point-blank interrogation. (He compares memory recall to searching through a DVD, much as the autistic professor in Oliver Sacks's "An Anthropologist on Mars" likens her mind to a CD-ROM.) But for Christopher, unmasking the killer also means confronting the unthinkable about his weary, angry father and his mother, who he thinks died two years ago.

Haddon's goal is to filter the confusion of adolescence and family betrayal through an autistic point of view. Or unfilter, as the case may be. "I see everything," Christopher explains, and The Curious Incident (presented as a firsthand account of his detective work, written under a teacher's supervision) imagines the frustrating paradox of an autistic person's world, where sensory intake is heightened but the capacity to process information cruelly diminished. New surroundings are anathema to Christopher. He fears strangers and is uncomfortable in social situations because, "I can't do chatting," a baffling ritual "where people say things to each other which aren't questions and answers and aren't connected."

I can't do chatting: Curious author Mark Haddon.
photo: Diane Collins
I can't do chatting: Curious author Mark Haddon.

Details

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
By Mark Haddon
Doubleday, 224 pp., $22.95
Buy this book

Nalda Said
By Stuart David
Turtle Point, 152 pp., $14.95
Buy this book

Christopher's prose, by contrast, is relentlessly connected—declarative statements snapping together like jigsaw pieces, an assured stream of brusquely causal, if-A-then-B flowcharting: "I said, 'I'm sorry,' because Father had had to come to the police station, which was a bad thing." The cumulative effect is mechanoid and almost incantatory—strings of programming code resolving into found poetry.

Arguably more so than precursors like The Sound and the Fury and Flowers for Algernon, The Curious Incident is a radical experiment in empathy—the mysterious mental state that it so snugly inhabits is one of interpersonal shutdown and emotional illiteracy, characterized precisely by the failure of empathy. It's something of a miracle that Haddon (a children's book author-illustrator) never slips into condescension, given that the novel is premised on the reader's cognitive advantage—it derives much of its meaning from the gap between what Christopher perceives and what we understand based on the details he dispassionately communicates.

He's no conversationalist, but in his obsessive, digressive way, Christopher can be quite the raconteur, pausing to explain why the night sky is dark and how saccadic eye movements facilitate visual perception, and throwing in maps and math equations. Despite the caveat that "this will not be a funny book. I cannot tell jokes because I do not understand them," Christopher's pedantry provides much deadpan humor. Yet the laughs are never at his expense. The boy's superior tone, Haddon suggests, is not entirely unjustified—there's something bracing, even calming, about his fearsomely logical mind. Witness him head-butting the bulwark of religion: "If heaven was on the other side of a black hole dead people would have to be fired into space on rockets to get there, and they aren't, or people would notice." Mulling the biblical origin of his own name: "This makes you wonder what he was called before he carried Christ across the river. But he wasn't called anything because this is an apocryphal story which means that it is a lie."

Christopher's brain chemistry is the best safeguard against cuteness—he's a merciless sap censor. (It's hard to imagine that the upcoming movie version will find an analogous recipe for rigor—blame it on the rain man. The Curious Incident actually suggests the obverse of Bruno Dumont's L'Humanité, an ontological murder mystery as solved by the most sluggishly bumbling of detectives.) The grown-ups aren't excused for their grievous decisions, but Haddon doesn't downplay the enormous challenges involved in raising an autistic child. Prone to violent tantrums, Christopher isn't wired to receive affection, let alone return it. His narration is uniformly uninflected, but it's remarkable how fully the other characters emerge, how palpably their pain registers despite Christopher's obliviousness. The sadness of this fundamental disconnect never dissipates; through the domestic upheavals and tempered optimism of the conclusion, our hero keeps his distance because he has no other option, an unwitting hardass to the end.

Autism comes from the Greek autos for self; Leo Kanner, who coined the term, described the condition as one of extreme self-absorption. So, too, social alienation, as Nalda Said, the debut novel by Looper mastermind and ex-Belle & Sebastian bassist Stuart David, makes clear. David's spoken/sung contributions to B&S were vapor trails of whispery withdrawal; the more gregarious Looper layered on beats and samples, but still in the service of coy melancholia. Nalda Said has the trappings of your average Belle-bottomed yarn—a pensive lad with a go-nowhere job and a catalog of regret (The Loneliness of the Hospital Gardener?). But there's no salve of transporting beauty, nothing to fetishize. The narrator is recessive to the point of debilitation, too diffident and paranoid to even give his name. Pace Morrissey, not only can shyness stop you from doing all the things in life you'd like to, it is often not very nice at all.

Nalda Said is, at heart, a cautionary tale about the terrifying malleability of a young intellect. The protagonist, who shares autistic Christopher's implacable literal-mindedness but not his logical prowess, was told by his aunt Nalda that he has a diamond in his stomach, deposited there by his jewel-thief dad. He takes this floridly metaphorical self-esteem chestnut (there's something special inside) at face value and carries it into adulthood—analgesic security blanket turned toxic faith. Commonsensical readers might wonder how the gem will make itself known upon arrival, and the author responds with a peek into his protagonist's loo, where the commode is accessorized with can, fork, and magnifying glass. It's a surprisingly angry and indelicate joke, hinting at the disgust that lies just beneath the mopey exterior. There's nothing romantic, David seems to be saying, about the solipsistic existence of a shy boy, caught up in his own shit.

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