Meet Christopher John Francis Boone
by Vincent Cuddihy
“It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs. Shears’s house. Its eyes were closed. It looked as if it was running on its side, the way dogs run they think they are chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was dead. There was a garden fork sticking out of the dog.”
Thus begins Chapter 2 of Mark Haddon’s 2003 Whitbread Book of the Year: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The putative author of this work is 15-year old Swindon, Wiltshire resident Christopher Boone. Christopher has a form of autism and the book is an assignment at the school for special needs students that he attends. Not all the students are autistic: most of them have other types of handicaps. This means few of the students understand the problems that the others have to struggle with.
The book is an attempt to get the reader inside Christopher’s head, to try to visualize the world the way Christopher has to see it. Christopher is a literalist. Nuance and subtlety are foreign to him. That’s why he likes numbers. You can trust numbers. 3 always means 3 and nothing else. He is particularly fond of prime numbers, because they can’t be recombined. 20 might be 4×5 or 2×10 or 2x2x5. But 19 is always and only 19. That is why he has numbered the chapters using prime numbers, in sequence but not consecutive. This explains why a 221-page book ends at Chapter 233.
Words, on the other hand, are slippery and treacherous. Not only (there’s a dangerous customer) does the same word mean different things in different contexts, but words are sometimes pronounced differently and act as different parts of speech, e.g. blessed, desert, frequent. Figures of speech are a major minefield. Christopher can cope with similes, because words generally mean the same thing as when they are not in similes. “Red” still means a colour and “beet” still means a root vegetable. But metaphors are completely baffling. If you describe someone as a “pistol”, does that mean he is dangerous and possibly lethal, or does he just like to make a lot of noise without doing any real harm?
Christopher is highly vulnerable to information overload. He not only sees and hears everything around him: he also remembers it. He does not have the internal screens that block out most of the details of our sensory environment, enabling most of us to concentrate on the things we are most interested in. Christopher takes in all these details and assigns them to their proper place in his memory bank. But if there are many things in view, some of which are moving, accompanied at the same time by many sounds, Christopher becomes overwhelmed and can’t think straight. One of the most interesting parts of the book is the different mechanisms that he uses to cope (or not cope) with these crises. For instance, he does not like to be touched because that adds more sensations that he has to keep track of. He usually responds to being grabbed or hugged by punching the person who makes that mistake.
Christopher has decided to make the death of Wellington, the unfortunate poodle referred to above, a murder mystery that he will solve using the techniques of science and math employed by his hero, Sherlock Holmes. The book he is writing details how this investigation is being carried out and the results that it is producing. Christopher has to employ stealth to do this because his father has forbidden him to bother the neighbours with his inquiries. His detective techniques lead him down a blind alley. But he still finds out who killed Wellington when the culprit confesses.
In the meantime, Christopher’s explorations have led him to learn things about his own family that he had never suspected. These frighten him so much that he feels compelled to run away to London to seek shelter with other family members. The only problem with this plan is that he has never been to London, never travelled on a train, and he is completely unprepared for the nightmare of riding the Tube.
One of the fun things about the book is that one of Christopher’s coping mechanisms is to try to solve math problems in his head as a means of blocking out the outside world. He is very good at Math and is planning to write his A level (university entrance) exams, which no one from his school has ever attempted. These problems are sketched out and solved in the text, which adds an interesting element to the story.
I really enjoyed this tale about a different kind of hero battling against problems the rest of us don’t really have. There are times when it appears we are getting more Haddon than Christopher: he seems to have some awfully complex views about astronomy for a fifteen year old, even a mathematically gifted fifteen year old.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is available at the Lennoxville Library as both a regular book and an audio book.