Trying to write from a different perspective is never an easy thing. Tolkien admitted that he had trouble writing women, for example. I’d have trouble writing from the perspective of someone who was Russian or South African without them coming off like a stereotype. So imagine how hard it is to write about someone with autism.
Mark Haddon’s book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time does exactly that, being written in a first-person perspective of a 15-year-old boy on the spectrum.
It’s important to note that the boy’s condition is never stated in the book, and the author wrote on his blog that, “Curious Incident is not a book about Asperger’s….if anything it’s a novel about difference, about being an outsider, about seeing the world in a surprising and revealing way. The book is not specifically about any specific disorder.”
He has a valid point—the book is definitely about seeing the world in a surprising and revealing way. The protagonist, Christopher John Francis Boone, describes himself as “a mathematician with some behavioural difficulties” and lives in Swindon with his father. After his neighbor’s dog is found dead with a garden fork stuck in him, Christopher’s initially under police suspicion, and when a policeman touches him, Christopher lashes out and ends up arrested and later released with a caution.
Despite his father’s warnings not to, Christopher undertakes the task of solving the dog’s murder. What happens next is unravelling an even greater mystery—what really happened to his mother. But that means leaving Swindon and travelling to London on his own, something he’s never done before, and something he might not be equipped to handle…
What makes this story so compelling and entertaining is perspective. The way Christopher sees the world is nothing at all like how most of us do. He doesn’t understand metaphors or how to read people’s body language. He often inserts charts, graphs and maps and equations while explaining things. In one edition of the novel they cleverly used a sans-serif font, not unlike what you’re seeing right now. Believe me, in a novel, that is a slightly disconcerting thing to see, and helped convey the clinical detachment Haddon was writing.
The story itself is full of digressions, everything from The Monty Hall Problem to why he likes timetables to why the constellation of Orion could just as easily be a dinosaur to just about anything else that pops in his head. One could argue it’s filler because it doesn’t fit with the story, but it’s anything but, because the story is about Christopher—the mysteries are of secondary importance. In fact, they’re rather mundane if you were look at it from an everyday perspective. We figure things out long before Christopher does. We’re reading the story not because we want to see the mystery solved, but because we want to see him solve it.
Curious Incident is surprisingly funny and poignant. Although Christopher writes in a completely detached and clinical fashion, it’s easy to see the struggles Christopher’s father has trying to raise his teenage son, and just as easily the difficulty Christopher has in understanding it. You can’t help but feel for the father, and at the same time need to realize that Christopher sees the situation on a completely different level.
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Even if you were to remove the idea of autism entirely, seeing through the eyes of someone who interacts with the world on a different set of rules from the rest of us is enlightening. I think we all know people who do things that just won’t compute from our own perspective, though probably not to the same degree.
Take phobias, for example. Why would one person only see an eight-legged arachnid on the floor while another sees something that terrifies them to the soul and make them jump onto a chair? They’re looking at the exact same thing. It’s not as simple as just saying “fear” because there is more going on under the hood than that. If you asked both people to write about the experience in as much detail as possible, and what was going on inside their heads at the time, what they were imagining, you’d have two very different paragraphs.
I suspect that Haddon distancing himself from saying Christopher is on the spectrum is more of a cover-your-ass statement to fend off those that would love to argue he got it “wrong” or point out he’s not an expert on autism so what right does he have to… you know, typical internet stuff. Better to focus on the real message of the story instead.
The fact is autism is referred to as a spectrum for a reason. There is no one “right” way that autism exists or can be represented. And while Haddon admitted that he spent more time researching the London underground than he did autism, that doesn’t mean he got it wrong.