Fifteen-year-old Christopher John Francis Boone is not an unreliable narrator, exactly. As he tells it, and credibly so, he never lies; in fact, he doesn’t seem capable of it. But he’s an imperfect narrator, to say the least. An autistic savant who can list all the prime numbers up to 7,057, he’s not so good with emotion, and since the story he relates in Mark Haddon’s delightful first novel, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” concerns the dissolution of his parents’ marriage and the precarious nature of the care he needs to survive, we have to read between his lines.
As far as Christopher is concerned, this is a murder mystery, the kind solved by his hero, Sherlock Holmes. (“Curious Incident” is meant to be Christopher’s account of the case, a project suggested by his teacher.) The victim? Wellington, the dog that lives — make that “lived” — across the street from Christopher’s home in an English suburb. Wellington turns up dead, by “garden fork” (which is, I’m guessing, British for “pitchfork”), shortly after midnight. Christopher discovers the body because he’s a night owl, favoring the hours of “3 am or 4 am in the morning [when] I can walk up and down the street and pretend that I am the only person in the world.” He also fantasizes about becoming an astronaut, “because I’d be surrounded by lots of the things I like, which are machines and computers and outer space. And I would be able to look out of a little window in the spacecraft and know that there was no one else near me for thousands and thousands of miles.”
Christopher can tolerate people he knows well and who don’t therefore overwhelm his psyche with unfamiliar and inassimilable sensations, people like his father and his teacher, Siobhan, but he doesn’t like to be touched by anyone. Given this, and the fact that he considers picturesque figures of speech such as “He was the apple of my eye” to be “metaphors” and thus “lies,” he makes for a daunting prospect as a narrator, emotionally detached and doggedly literal-minded. Yet Haddon manages to create in Christopher a character of great charm and appeal; once you slip into the world as he sees it, you feel surprisingly comfortable.
Christopher’s situation is in many ways pitiable, and it certainly offers ripe pickings for the sentimentally inclined; viewed from the outside, this story could have been a sap-fest. But because Christopher himself can’t wallow in bathos, we, his readers, are kept clear of it, too. He’s being raised by a single father, under the impression — perhaps erroneous? — that his mother is dead. From what he remembers of her, she clearly lacked the patience to care for him. He never entirely understands what’s going on around him, where everyone else is tuned to a frequency he can’t receive.
Yet, like anyone else, really, Christopher believes that his way of interpreting the world is superior. For example, remembering a particularly excruciating vacation in France, he writes, “people go on holidays to see new things and relax, but it wouldn’t make me relaxed and you can see new things by looking at the earth under a microscope or drawing the shape of the solid made when 3 circular rods of equal thickness intersect at right angles.” He reserves particular contempt for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle “because he wasn’t like Sherlock Holmes and he believed in the supernatural.” In fact, people’s inability to grasp that their feelings “are just having a picture on the screen in your head of what is going to happen tomorrow or next year, or what might have happened instead of what did happen,” remains a source of ongoing frustration.
In tracking down the truth about Wellington’s untimely death, Christopher discovers more than he bargained for. The truth sends him on a truly valiant journey to London; though any other 15-year-old would have found the train trip manageable enough, for Christopher it’s a nearly incapacitating gauntlet of terrifying sensations — Mordor itself couldn’t seem more threatening. Throughout, Haddon depicts his hero with expansive sympathy and an irresistible humor. As befits Christopher’s way of experiencing the world, the novel is studded with little illustrations and diagrams — floor plans, patterns he likes, the maps he needs to get around because the visual field of new streets is too confusing. All of this makes “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” feel light, but that’s deceiving. There are vast reservoirs of human suffering and courage beneath its sprightly, peculiar surface.
Our next pick: A debut novel about a New York pornographer that owes as much to “Ulysses” as it does to “Boogie Nights”