What we have in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a fun book about Christopher Boone, an Aspie kid who doesn’t understand the world around him, struggling to write a murder-mystery novel, a true one, from his own perspective; this is the world as he sees it, fresh and unfiltered. Unfortunately for us as his readers, as interpreters of the world he presents, we can’t necessarily understand what it means for him to see that world. This is an issue of vital importance, because, if we have even the barest intention of gleaning meaning from these two-hundred and twenty-one pages, we have to be able to grasp him and his being, even if on a visceral level, and I’m not sure we can through the standard methods of fiction reading; on a closer look, it seems exceedingly difficult to just take his world and experiences on their own credit. Indeed, the very nature of the text insists upon the idea that we’re reading a curiously self-oriented document, produced in the world it purports to describe by a writer who, despite lacking goals and motives beyond simply telling us how he solved the mystery of the brutal death of the dog named Wellington, manages to reveal extensive detail regarding the nature of the world he inhabits. I believe this is the key to the entire novel.
The text is part of a long tradition of self-narratives, novels claiming to be primary source documents, stretching back to the earliest long-form English prose, including Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko or Daniel Dafoe’s Moll Flanders, both of which I studied in Dr. Catherine Ingrassia’s “Eighteenth Century British Novel” class here at VCU. It was those studies that led me to notice this peculiarity in Haddon’s book. It’s really quite the metatext, seeming to claim from the outset a fictive nature: “This is a murder-mystery novel,” Christopher tells us, before immediately claiming truthfulness, saying he “wanted to write about something real,” (Haddon 4, 6), leaving little doubt to the text’s supposed veracity. Without doubt, this book is a product of the story it tells. At least, that’s Haddon’s big conceit. The question is what that means for us as interpreters. What are we supposed to do with a book that straddles so oddly the line between its own world, the false world it creates, and ours, the room in which we’re reading, cuddled under two blankets with a desk lamp reflecting its light against the wall?
Christopher is a fairly unfiltered kid. His writing is simple and fairly clear, full of exacting details, often resorting to full-on charts and illustrations in an attempt to be perfectly literal, in one instance rattling off elaborate depictions of the dozens of flashing neon signs around him in an attempt to show us both his meticulous perception and the ease with which he becomes confused, as the signs rapidly shift into nonsense, “because there were too many and my brain wasn’t working properly and this frightened me” (Haddon 169-170). This sort of deliberate over-reporting is notable, also, because it allows us, based on the information Christopher provides, to draw intuitive conclusions of the sort Christopher is incapable of making, as in the conversation with Mrs. Alexander, which immediately establishes both that Christopher’s father is not being truthful and that his mother was likely engaged in an affair (Haddon 58, 59).
In the same passage, we get a firsthand (secondhand?) recounting of Christopher’s rationalization process, as the kid who early proclaimed himself incapable of dealing with fiction because it’s all just lies manages to master the art of omission. He had been forced by his father to cease an investigation (i.e. “who killed Wellington?”) which was proving fairly socially disruptive, but couldn’t resist, or rather choose not to resist, the urge to surreptitiously continue. Reasoning to himself that he only promised his father specific thing (such as “Not to go asking people who killed that bloody dog”), he worked through to find what he was allowed to do. This sort of sophisticated moral equivocation demonstrates that Christopher is, in fact, an intensely bright kid. For most of the book to this point, I’d been treating him, in my mind, like he was a child, even having difficulty picturing him at his proper fifteen years. But here I was forced to reevaluate how I understood him.
This alarmed me.
There are consequences for underestimating someone. Christopher’s father learned this firsthand, having underestimated his son’s inventiveness and curiosity, never suspecting he would find his mother’s letters and subsequently deceives him about it (Haddon 114). This is a clever kid, if not emotionally developed, and his ability to dissemble is masked by his being otherwise quite forthright, if not in fact overly so. Oh, but treat him like a child at your own risk; you’ll miss the bulk of the story.
It was here that I became much more aware of the nature of the book, as a metatext chronicling its own creation, even explaining in the narrative the placement and purpose of an appendix dealing with a math problem he solved while taking his A-levels (Haddon 214). This level of self-reference – a fiction book that knows it’s a book – is quite rare and quite remarkable. While never going as far as some metatexts, which openly acknowledge their being fiction, Haddon’s has a brilliantly naïve unawareness of its nature as a fictional work, an unawareness that again reflects on the nature of our narrator as someone unable to see the full depths of the world, to understand or appreciate fiction. It only makes sense to me that a metatext by such a character would fail to fully appreciate the nature of his world.
It is precisely this inability that renders him unreliable. As I discussed earlier with regard to his encounters with Mrs. Alexander, Christopher cannot appreciate any real degree of nuance and is incapable of reading between the lines. The notions of lies and fiction overwhelm him, paralyzing him in their impossibility. “This is another reason I don’t like proper novels,” Christopher bravely proceeds, “because they are lies about things which didn’t happen and they make me feel shaky and scared.” And then the kicker: “This is why everything I have written is true” (Haddon 19,20; emphasis added).
This is a very philosophical point. A text is not an immutable thing. Any number of different texts can tell a single story. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, or rather the events it concerns, could have been approached from innumerable angles, each one casting a separate light in a new manner, revealing different angels and different angles. Some narrators, be they first-person limited or third-person omniscient, will reveal different details according to their awareness and the point they’re trying to make. Some, like Christopher in the book with which I am now concerned, are lacking in certain areas of perception, or are deliberately false and misleading. This last part, however, rests on the enormous assumption that there is, behind the text, a story that is fundamentally true.
The thing is, though, that there isn’t.
This very same Christopher who professes to not liking fiction is ultimately nothing more, and his claim that he only tells us a true story is profoundly inaccurate. The events quite simply did not take place. It’s like the homunculus he ridicules as a “someone in their head sitting there looking at a screen, like Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation…” The whole “homunculus sequence” in the text strikes me as a big case of lantern-hanging, that technique in so much fiction wherein the writer acknowledges the false nature of the story. Here, Christopher is discussing in particular the falseness of most people’s self-identity, the “I” of their own narrative, who the person in the driver’s seat is, just what exactly is propelling them through their lives. He concludes that most people (irrationally as they may be wont to do) that there is, at least metaphysically, a self in there controlling their actions and receiving their experiences through the mediation of the body. He dismisses this as incorrect; that the image of that person is seeing through the screen is itself just an image on the screen, nothing more, and lacks self (Haddon 118). Ultimately, neither does Christopher. He is a homunculus himself.
It’s a curious question to ponder. To what extent does any fictional character have life? We certainly have a vivid person in Christopher Boone, who is intelligent, insightful, oddly obsessive-compulsive, prone to fits of memory loss and blackouts, naïve enough to think that the letters in the shirt-box were addressed to some other Christopher – I could quite easily continue for some time. But even he cannot avoid describing himself as similar to a movie reel (Haddon 76). Christopher is part of a fairly small group of imagined folks, though, who have managed to produce an object that exists in reality. Alongside Bilbo Baggins and Moll Flanders stands this Aspie kid as having a touch more life than the others. He has managed to crack through the fourth wall and push a book out the other side.
I think that, in the final analysis, this is a book about understanding the world, and curiously, it deals with a wholly fictional one in a way that telegraphs that fiction. In thinking through Christopher’s mind, we are given a secret tour through the limits of fiction storytelling and the writers’ ability to construct and understand his own characters.