I just wrapped up reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Mark Haddon); the narrator and protagonist is an autistic teenaged boy living in Swindon, England. There’s been tragedies piled on top of his life, and the plot revolves around everyone struggling to cope — with life, with school, and the central mystery of who killed the neighbor’s standard poodle, Wellington. It’s a dry description, but with a scrupulously reliable narrator (he cannot tell a lie) the story is uniquely told, unfolding to reveal the killer and the consequences. Plot chapters are interleaved with glimpses into the thought processes inside the narrator’s mind, fascinating as a conceit (how accurate?) and world we rarely experience (the author must have done research). The writing becomes lyrical at times and I never pass up those chances.
But Mother was cremated. This means that she was put into a coffin and burned and ground up and turned into ash and smoke. I do not know what happens to the ash and I couldn’t ask at the crematorium because I didn’t go to the funeral. But the smoke goes out of the chimney and into the air and sometimes I look up into the sky and I think that there are molecules of Mother up there, or in clouds over Africa or the Antarctic, or coming down as rain in the rain forests in Brazil, or in snow somewhere.
I hate reviews because most of them pad out their content with plot spoilers so that you might as well not even bother seeing the subject for yourself, so I’ll stop there. If we accept that his story is an accurate portrayal of autistic behavior (and saying that is like saying a certain shade of red represents color in general; both fail to capture the broad spectrum), then it’s a curious mix of logical rationality (science and math trump religion) and superstition (yellow and brown). I quite enjoyed it, in fact, and saw echoes — not of Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man — of me.
There is a movement afoot to link childhood vaccines with autism, as widespread vaccination and a rise in diagnosed autistic behavior have both shown up in recent years. Some of it may be misdiagnoses — perhaps the threshold is lowering; there are any number of obsessive actions, from repeating words to insistence on a place for everything and everythng in its place that figgy shows. It’s not said to take away from actual issues, just that tying it to vaccines doesn’t make much sense — there are any number of things, from the number of two-job parents to the rise of TV and Hannah Montana that have happened at the same time, and those links haven’t been explored fully, either. It’s the same kind of lazy logic that infects Internet forums; wanting to believe makes us jump to conclusions well beyond what’s supported.
What struck a chord in me in the novel was the narrator’s social phobias, brought on by sensory overload: he notices everything, which must then be processed and rationalized, and his mind just doesn’t keep up. We so-called normals have some kind of automatic filter to help us gloss over certain details instead, but I insist that everyone has some detail they obsess over. Again, accepting the premise of accuracy, the novel provides a vehicle for understanding, ultimately, our lives.