Mel Carriere is a Colorado based writer who believes the adage "stick a fork in him, he's done," should be interpreted cautiously.
Manna From Book Heaven
After their precipitous flight from Egyptian slavery, the Israelites were starving in the wilderness, so God sent down bread from the skies to feed them, bread they called manna. When reviewers are starved for something to read on their half-hour postal lunch break, the heavens will sometimes rain books on them too. These tend to plunk you a little harder on the head than the fluffy manna did on Moses and the homeless shepherds of Sinai, but a gift is a gift.
In my last review of Perfume, by Patrick Suskind, I bemoaned the exhaustion of my normal sources for whetting my lunchtime reading appetite. This bare cupboard happened after my own precipitous flight from civilization in California, into the untamed wilderness of Colorado. My current red pin on Google GPS is a spot on the high plains so wild, that I breathe in the aroma of fossilized cow patties when the wind blows west. One would think the vast buffalo herds are still out there. My neighbors tell me that's only Greeley, but I am skeptical there is any human settlement in that direction.
So I stand on my porch breathing in the bovine essence, pining for cultured California, where I would habitually purloin the property of my literary-minded son, who remained amidst the decadent luxuries of the Pharaoh, Gavin Newsom. Besides the absence of my son, another roadblock to my reading pleasure in colorless Colorado is the Goodwill book section in this wilderness of Zin. The selection here cannot begin to duplicate the depth and quality of the shelves of the Chula Vista, California branch I used to frequent. Either Californians read better books, or they give them away more, having no use for such contrivances. Unlike cold Colorado, in the Golden State there is no need for extra paper, to kindle the fireplace.
In order to find something worthy to read, I have had to take other measures, sometimes desperate measures, such as paying full price at Wal Mart, on Amazon, or Barnes and Noble. Only through these draconian means have I been able to dish up the heaping helpings of literary lasagna that keep my book belly full.
One day I decided to try 2nd and Charles, an expanding chain that is a confusing hybrid between your Mom and Pop corner book store, and a soulless national franchise. When you go in there you have to be careful, because you believe you're buying a budget used car, but you might be driving this year's model to the cash register. I picked up Circe, by Madeline Miller, thinking it could be a fun test drive, only to be told at the checkout counter that it would set me back twenty bucks. No thank you, I said, then threw it back and kept fishing, even though the clock was ticking on closing time. From there I grounded my boat on a reef of previously-read works, taking shelter in the shallow harbor of a sign that said literary. None of these titles moved me either, but just as the intercom blared the store would be closing in five minutes (everybody in Northern Colorado beds down early, with their cattle), at last one of them clung to my eyeballs, a shipwrecked castaway sending up a flare on an ocean of storming paper.
The title alone sold me - The Curious Incident of The Dog in The Night-Time. What's in a name? Everything and nothing. A title can fool you into believing a book is good, when it is really bad. On the other hand, some really dynamite books have had some really dull titles, or had dull titles until their publishers said No way, you have to change that. For example, in a rare, uninspired moment, Tolstoy dubbed his classic All's Well That Ends Well, which sounds like something a person who doesn't read much might slap on a story. It's like when my grade-school aged sister was penning her debut novel, with a working title of Westward Journey. She never shared any of her drafts with me, I'm sure it was a great read, but the name itself did not scream innovation in literature. The same must have been true for Tolstoy's book that eventually became War and Peace, - been there, done that. Besides, the count's publisher probably thought All's Well that Ends Well is just too much of a spoiler. There's no way any reader is going to slog through 1,400 pages when the name already says how everything wraps up.
In the same fashion as my sister's entree into the literary world, The Curious Incident of The Dog in The Night-Time sounded like something a third-grader might Elmers-glue onto their cover sheet, a really smart third-grader. At the same time, there was an alluring sophistication to this simplicity. The blurb on the back spoke of a murder investigation, but there is no way best-selling Michael Connelly, for instance, would paste such a silly series of words onto his crime stories. No, he stamps bold, aggressive titles such as FAIR WARNING on his books, because overused cliches won't scare away readers who are afraid of being challenged by the content beneath the cover. They want to read the same book they read last week, with minimal variations. Besides, the name just sounds cool. Damn, with his professional scowl and neatly clipped hair and beard, Michael Connelly just looks cool.
Not much cool about dogs running around in the night though, as if they were cats, but the title grabbed me nonetheless. Anyway, there wasn't any time left to be choosy. I had to grab the book and run with it - after paying first, of course. I might be too cheap to pay full price, but Momma didn't raise no shoplifter.
Lunchtime Lit Rules
Unlike The Curious Incident of The Dog in The Nighttime, no animals are harmed in the production of Mel Carriere's Lunchtime Lit reviews. Animals do make an appearance, particularly the squirrels I feed cheetos to on my half hour lunch break - where all Lunchtime Lit books are read, exclusively. But the plastic fork in my lunch bag only tickles the squirrels. Unlike a gardening fork - whatever bizarre, sadistic British tilling instrument that is, it cannot get past their bushy tails to cause injury.
Lunchtime Lit Year to Date Recap * **
|Book||Pages||Word Count||Date Started||Date Finished||Lunchtimes Consumed|
Every Man Dies Alone
The Three Body Problem
The City We Became
The Left Hand of Darkness
The Curious Incident of The Dog in The Nighttime
*Word counts are estimated by hand-counting a statistically significant 23 pages, then extrapolating this average page count across the entire book. When the book is available on a word-count website, I rely on that total if it looks legit.
**Thirty-one other titles, with a total estimated word count of 6,879,084 and 1,088 lunchtimes consumed, have been reviewed under the guidelines of this series.
The Tyranny of Labels
Let's start this review by agreeing to trim The Curious Incident of The Dog in The Night-Time down to just Curious Incident, because I get finger fatigue trying to type out all that mess. I wish I was reviewing Connelly's FAIR WARNING, that's only two easy words. Anyway, once we move past the interminable title and start reading the book, we discover it is not about a murder at all. There are some online pundits who claim it is, but they obviously haven't read it. Yes, there is a murder in Curious Incident, but to say it is a crime thriller is like saying The Grapes of Wrath is about wine-making. It's like saying The Catcher in The Rye is about baseball. You might not always get what you're looking for out of my critiques - something to copy-paste into your essay that your English teacher will find acceptable, but at least I've read the damn book.
So what is Curious Incident really about, if not about the curious incident of a dog discovered dead by foul play? Hard to say - the best books are about different things to different people, but to me Curious Incident was a landscape painted inside the skull of someone we might call special needs, developmentally disabled, dare we say autistic?
There are a lot of soothing words we put on people we deem not to be normal, mostly designed to arouse pity for them, but Curious Incident demonstrates these people don't need pity. A lot of them should pity us, in fact, because our mundane intellects cannot begin to grasp the complexities they find as simple as ABC, 123. This novel is the first thing I have read that dares to posit the source of the debilitating social anxiety experienced by those stashed in this big cupboard. Quite simply, they lack the filter to sift through the overwhelming complexity of the Universe, standard equipment for us normal ones. They are blessed, and cursed, with prodigious powers of perception and momentous memory capacity, engineered to absorb every detail of the surrounding landscape. These nifty features, however, can also be the cause of information overload, especially in public places. Accordingly, certain brilliant individuals, marked with sympathetic name tags that cheapen their brilliance - are forced to retreat within themselves, or within a comfortably small circle of family members, to keep their heads from exploding.
Of course, you require a plot summary to copy-paste into your book report, because it is now 2:15 AM and damn, you really need to get some sleep. Let's just say that the murder of the dog and subsequent investigation are merely the catalyst for a quest that uncovers uncomfortable truths, truths much bigger than the identity of a deceased pooch's killer. 15 year old Christopher John Francis Boone, a math whiz burdened by what those who have assumed the authority to label might call high-functioning autism, begins his adventure when he comes across the corpse of a neighbor's dog, gored with a garden fork. Being a fan of Sherlock Holmes, Christopher decides to play super sleuth and investigate the death, but in the course of his inquiry, he uncovers a deeply disturbing web of deceit that forces him to flee home. He sets out upon an epic odyssey from his protective cocoon in suburban Swindon, into the frightening depths of urban London. During the course of the narrative, the protagonist interjects brain-teasers and math problems that demonstrate what a truly powerful intellect he has, so potent he cannot shut out the noise collected by this supercomputer atop his shoulders.
The lesson I took from Curious Incident is to not oversimplify, to refrain from suppressing individuals through the tyranny of labels. It is quick and easy to dismiss someone as a retard, implying a mentally deficient, useless drain on society, just because they exhibit behavior "normal" people define as odd. Curious Incident provides eye-opening insights into the source of this behavior. Other reviewers who have obviously not read the story demean the book with their own labels, calling it children's literature. Good, I say, let the kiddies read it, maybe it will teach them not to bully those who fall outside the herd-mentality's norm. But to classify Curious Incident as a children's book is like saying To Kill a Mockingbird is a children's book, just because young people are the principal characters. There is plenty here for adults to chew on too, then thoroughly digest, in order to poop out the incorrect stereotypes and ill-conceived notions that have been clogging their bowels since childhood.
"Seeing The World in a Surprising and Revealing Way"
After reading Curious Incident, one might conclude that author Mark Haddon must be an expert in conditions like Asperger's syndrome, high-functioning autism, or savant syndrome - precise and orderly labels psychologists slap on mystifying and wildly variable "disorders," in order to justify their paychecks. But Haddon claims he did not write the story with any of these deviations from the behavioral norm in mind. He is quoted as saying that Curious Incident is "...about difference, about being an outsider, about seeing the world in a surprising and revealing way."
Curious Incident succeeds in doing just that. In dishing out a lesson about seeing the world through the eyes of someone we consider inferior, Haddon also delivers an enthralling adventure story, one that traces Joseph Campbell's hero's journey down to the pits of hell and up to the heights of Olympus, through the eyes of a hero who lacks the glitter and glamour of the typical Hollywood model.
Haddon enlightens with sublime observations while keeping us thoroughly entertained, pretty much the definition of a great storyteller. Although he gives the impression of being a trained psychologist, or at least someone who worked extensively with special-needs people, the Curious Incident author is actually an Oxford graduate in English literature. He began his writing career with children's books, such as Agent Z And The Penguin from Mars, and Fungus The Bogeyman. Although I have not read any of these works, the titles themselves do not hint at the very adult issues Curious Incident later tackled. I could be wrong about that.
When Haddon published his best known work in 2003, Curious Incident won mainstream fiction and children's awards, indicating its appeal across the age spectrum. Proof of its universal popularity is the 5.5 million copies it has sold to date. Even so, many don't get it. The American Library Association ranks it number 51 on its list of banned books, due to offensive language, unsuitably for its age group, and religious viewpoint. Obviously, those clueless, stuffed-shirt prudes didn't read the book either. In their eyes, the book's obviously Christian message - that of acceptance and benevolence for the outcasts among God's children, is blurred over by the theological hair-splitting of four letter words. If my kids were still kids, I wouldn't let them read this book either, I would require them to.
What's In A Name?
The so-called autism spectrum of behavioral disorders have most likely affected someone that you know, or even someone in your own family. This is certainly the case in my experience. I have a nephew who has been diagnosed as such, and I have coworkers with kids who have this mark of Cain on their foreheads. The word autism is everywhere these days, even though when I was growing up, it was almost unheard of. Yeah, there were those oddball kids we laughed off with the unfortunate tag of retard, as infantile minds will do, but in doing so we were only aping what society taught us. We were conditioned to believe these individuals lacked the brains to be of any value, except in pointing out the grace of God, in not so cursing us normal ones.
Curious Incident is the first work of art I have come across, in literature or film, that suggests our unfair treatment of these often gifted individuals needs to be expunged from society, with the same level of seriousness taken against discrimination based on race, sexual orientation and gender.
Only a few works of art have attempted to expose the plight of the autistic - the most notable being Rainman, a movie that attempted the theme without advocating for any changes. The outcome for the extremely-gifted, yet socially-challenged character portrayed by Dustin Hoffman, pretty much conformed to society's antiquated expectations. After going off on a wild spree with the brother who sprung him from captivity, Raymond Babbitt once again was institutionalized, for his own good. At the end of the movie he is returned to the place where he could eat his fish sticks and watch Judge Wapner on time, but could never utilize his mathematical talents - for his own benefit, and that of mankind. The 1988 film only reinforced the notion that socially dysfunctional people should be punished with pity, rather than lauded and rewarded for the fruits of their intellects.
The Curious Incident of The Dog In The Night-time thumbs its nose at that fossilized standard. Like Hoffman's Rainman character, uninspired administrators try to gently direct Christopher away from taking the advanced tests that will get him into a university, but he refuses to be stupefied into submission. Despite his debilitating limitations in the sphere of social interaction, he is possessed by the single-minded purpose of pursuing his abilities. Unlike Rainman, the moral of the story here is that people deemed different should not be buried, they should be given wings and allowed to fly.
What's in a name? Autism is a vague, nebulous, frightening name that can be a lifetime prison sentence for those swept beneath its big banner. Names such as this can damn, but names can also be a life-raft for the damned. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was an uncharacteristic, uncool name for a book that seized my curiosity. With that name it hooked me with a superb story, then opened my eyes to the injustice perpetuated against those who have debilitating names applied to them, to the detriment of we who label ourselves normal, as if scorn could be called a norm.