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Thursday, 28 August 2014

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.


Diane off the Great British Bake-Off is the worst criminal the United Kingdom has ever seen, according to an official statement by the London Met this week.

So, you know. There's that.


The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
By Mark Haddon.



Oh, my stars.

I read this book ages ago, and had not returned to it for a reread since, until my Book Club (yes, I am a one-hundred-and-two year old man from Sussex, what of it) put it down as a book to read. Which probably means that someone there really likes it. I predict making an enemy very soon, because the reason I hadn't reread it is because I hate this book.

Not as much as Ender's Game. Not as much now as I did in the past, as the intervening ninety years has done much to soften my reactions to things. But I still find it rather distasteful.

It has always carried a certain pall of the fetish to me, the kind of rather breathy, rapturous view of the autistic spectrum that teenagers who self-diagnose themselves with Asperger's because they think it makes them look cool or smart seem to also hold. As someone actually on the autistic spectrum, this recurring pop culture idea of the autistic savant – and make no mistake, that pop culture idea is the bread and butter of this novel – has always been a disquieting and unpleasant one. I'm not a genius, by any wild and fanciful stretch of the imagination. Most autistic people are not geniuses, by any wild and fanciful stretch of the imagination. What this meme of 'lulz super-smart Aspies' does is imply with the subtlety of an anvil to the left eye that if you're autistic, you must be a genius savant, and that if you're not, you're worthless.

Dog.


So, how is the book despite that?

Well, to be honest, there's not much 'despite that' in the book. Like I said before, that stereotype, that cliché, that meme, is the substance of the book. It is the main character, for he has no personality beyond it. It is the plot, because the various conflicts that arise in the book are all vehicles with which to demonstrate it. It is the setting, because the loosely sketched out view of Swindon revolves around places where that cliché might most aptly be demonstrated.

That's not unusual for a character study, and this is a character study, in possibly its purest form. But that becomes a massive problem if the premise on which your character study is built is inherently flawed, because those flaws will poison everything else.

But let's try to talk about the book detached from that gaping issue anyway.

Dooog.

It is well-written. My distaste for this book aside, Mark Haddon is an enormously talented writer, and there's no way to honestly deny that. His writing is the kind of concise, no ruffles, expert style that I think just about every writer should aspire to on a technical level. It is ruthlessly devoid of fluff, pomp and dead weight, leaving it very streamlined and engaging. He's also very consistent with writing in the voice of a character who is probably genuinely difficult to write in – I don't like that character, but I can recognise the technical difficulty of writing a whole book in that voice, and doing so in a manner that is consistent and, I admit despite myself, entertaining.

The plot, also, is well-paced right up until the end, and perfectly coherent, and even makes very good use of foreshadowing. Haddon's foreshadowing game is A++, would be foreshadowed at again. My biggest issue with the plot is that the Father is forgiven for his crimes at the end, when I would personally find both of his crimes, especially the second one, to be absolutely unforgivable, and if someone did them in real life – or just the second one, which is an act so nauseatingly monstrous that I am filled with revulsion at it – then I would never speak a kind word to them again.

Dogs, man. Dogs are better than people.

Dooooog.

The thing I'm getting at is, by any meter by which you might judge it, Curious Incident is a very technically strong novel. It is. But no matter how technically strong something is, it's still worthy of a degree of revulsion if it has carved out its fame by, in essence, exploiting and spreading stereotypes about an already exploited group of people. It's one character, obviously – but it's the main character, in a book all about that main character, in a market saturated with autistic spectrum characters who are all exactly the same, and it's not helping. As an iconic and much-loved book, what it's really doing is making things much worse.


Which is not something I'll ever look favourably on. Something unpleasant can be delivered with more elegance and grace than you thought possible, and it will still be unpleasant.  

2 comments:

  1. You're definitely right about the character, but I'm a little baffled by what you see as good in the writing. The pacing is the worst in any novel I've seen and the writing style reads like a six-year-old wrote it.

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    1. Well, in the case of the prose, that's clearly a stylistic choice -- it's first person and from the perspective of a child, and a child who's meant to be linguistically underdeveloped at that. It fits the narrative. As far as pacing goes: What standard are we judging it by? Pacing varies by genre and audience. For the mystery novel Haddon sometimes tries to claim it is, it's lacking, but for a children's slice-of-life novel, which is what it actually is sorry Haddon, it's easily on the better end of the scale.

      I do rather hate this book, and in fact my feelings towards it have only intensified since I wrote this review, so defending it leaves something of a sour taste in my mouth, but I think the fact that it is technically strong and well-pitched towards its target market is an important factor in why it has such a negative effect: A bad or even mediocre book with the same exploitative slant would have vanished into obscurity, but its critical success has allowed it to become embedded in the cultural consciousness regarding autism.

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