Monday, September 04, 2006

As promised, I have now finished The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon and I want to write something about it and how much it reminded me of The Pleasure of My Company by Steve Martin.

If you’re not familiar with these books, here is a very brief synopsis. Haddon’s book is the first-person account of a 15-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome. He finds the neighbor’s dog dead one night, and sets out to investigate who killed it. Along the way he uncovers a number of interesting truths about his own life and has quite an adventure. Martin’s book is the first-person account of a 31-year-old man with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. In spite of his well-ordered life, he becomes involved in helping his therapist protect her toddler from a kidnap attempt by the boy’s father and uncharacteristically goes on a road trip, which leads to quite an adventure as well.

The two books have a great deal in common. Both written in the first person, they show us a person with a profound social disability and get us inside his head to help understand why he reacts as he does and lives as he does. In both cases, forces largely outside the protagonist’s control draw him into adventures that are a great challenge for him, and each experiences tremendous personal growth as he survives his adventures. In the end, each protagonist’s life is in better shape than when we met him.

They are both very good books, and I would recommend them both. But since I read Martin’s book first, I was amazed as I read Haddon’s at how different it made me feel. The Pleasure of My Company was generally uplifting to me. The poor protagonist faced a lot of struggles and was portrayed very sympathetically, so I never laughed AT him in the pejorative sense, but I did laugh a lot.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, on the other hand, didn’t really uplift me until the very end. As I read it, I often felt a knot in my stomach comparable to the main character’s. I get that this reflects the strength of the writing, but it made it hard to stay with.

I have to confess that I think my reaction was partly because I know several kids with Asperger’s. None of the ones I know are as profoundly autistic as Christopher, the boy in the book, but a lot of his explanation of how the world looks to him rang true of the behaviors I’ve seen. So I think in part it was that this affliction hit too close to home. Also, those with Asperger’s aren’t going to outgrow it or “get well.” They may learn to function successfully within society and lead what looks like a fairly “normal life”, but their difficulty in relating to other human beings will always be there. So the book made me a little heartsick in that regard.

Another thing about The Curious Incident that made it more disturbing to me was that Christopher lives in a working class world, where most of the people he meets have little patience for this “weird” kid and little desire to understand him. He gets cussed out a lot, and treated with a lot of disdain and minor cruelty. I believe it is an accurate depiction of how this character would be treated in the society in which he lives, but it breaks my heart. The Asperger kids I know all come from families with the means to get them special help and put them in schools where they are nurtured and can shelter them with the ugliest parts of the world.

So in the end, I recommend both books. If you’ve never read any of Steve Martin’s writing I especially recommend his. It will wipe away any vestigial image you may have of him as a guy with an arrow through his head doing broad comedy on Saturday Night Live. I have found all his writing to be smart, insightful, and warmly human. But Haddon’s book is really effective, too. His plot may in fact be the more complex, and it made my heart ache at times. If he hadn’t managed to pull things together for Christopher by the end, I would have had to give it thumbs down. Instead, the upbeat ending that did, in fact, grow organically from all that went before, felt like a satisfying payoff for the pain I had endured during the journey.

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