While still nursing a substantial New Year hangover at the start of 2015, I was suitably impressed with Simon Stephens’s production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in The Night-Time. It’s an innovative show with excellent casting, powerful scripting choices, and some emotive dialogue and performances.
What’s really curious to me however, is how little I enjoyed reading Mark Haddon’s original 2003 novel… and why that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in The Night-Time is the story of fifteen year old Christopher John Francis Boone, a 15-year-old “with some behavioural difficulties” who finds his neighbour’s dog slain with a garden fork, and resolves to find the killer. It’s a novel about family, maths, being an outsider, cultural institutions, mistakes, and maths.
I hated reading it.
I hated reading it because of Christopher. I hated how long he took to understand the most basic of human communications. I groaned as he added significance and brevity to mundane tasks. I failed to empathise with him as he dawdled his way through the narrative, held back less by tangible fear and more by the sort of overwhelming lack of information and understanding that prevents five year olds from saying hello to friends of their parents.
I’m no stranger to shouting at books that I don’t enjoy, or (in the case of Ulysses) throwing them across the room and attacking them with a stick. I wanted to reach inside The Curious Incident of The Dog In The Night-Time and firmly shake some sense into Christopher, shouting at him to stop being so difficult and ponderous.
Anyone familiar with those on a spectrum are possibly quite uncomfortable with my reaction. Please, bear with me.
Christopher is not a bad character. He is not a villain, a monster or even a well-meaning antagonist. It is a fact of his social behavioural condition that he is one of the most innocent and honest characters you might ever read.
He’s not badly written, either. Nothing about The Curious Incident of The Dog In The Night-Time is particularly badly written, except perhaps the direct specification of Asperger’s on some of its covers, which Haddon himself regrets. This isn’t just evidenced by the slew of awards thrown at it or the two million and counting copies it sold, but by my reaction to it.
Christopher’s character is so real, so well written, that my response was as genuine as if he had been sat beside me. While my reading experience may not have been enjoyable, I responded exactly how I should have done. My frustration with the book belied a lack of understanding on my own part, and an impatience over difficult or problematic social behaviours.
Think about how you feel when there’s a crying baby, an excited puppy, or a dodgy smell in the room with you. Now imagine a book that had the strength of prose to make you feel exactly that way, just by reading.
Given the stressful, driven (and I’ll admit, fairly selfish) point in my life at which I first read The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time, my response doesn’t surprise me. Reacting the way I did was necessary in developing my own understanding of the issues in the text in a safe, fictional environment, and doesn’t make for a wholly negative experience.
When I saw the book performed on stage, it was exactly that, a performance. I could see my own earlier impatience reflected in some of the characters, but I was still merely an observer. Given the more personal nature of reading, especially something with first person narration, I wasn’t observing Christopher, but tackling him directly.
There is an important lesson that not every book has to be a warm, reassuring hug, nor does every negative reading experience have to be down to bad writing. Occasionally a book needs to shake our perceptions a little and tell us a truth about ourselves- not something of which we were already quietly aware, but something hidden, harsh, and surprising. Sometimes a book needs to make us realise the attitudes we had no idea were beneath our surface, and tackle them head on.
Crap Looking or not, those books are worth a read.