Summer Reading, Part The First
Donna, who recommended The Curious Incident to me (or, assigned it to me, semantics, semantics) commented “I like books about crazy,” when I was about 50 pages in. At 50 pages in, the reader is aware that Christopher, the protagonist, is autistic. He’s 15 years old, goes to a special school, and is obsessed with patterns and “maths.” But I resisted “crazy,” because I thought the special thing about the book was the way Haddon turned the concept of the unreliable narrator on its head, providing the reader instead with a narrator so literal and reliable as to be hard to believe. Christopher tells no lies; he observes and catalogs everything (numbers and colors of cars; patterns of black spots on a white cow), and he understands conversation on only the most literal terms.
Christopher also resembles, to a degree, creatures out of fairy tales. He’s an odd duck, for one, and he lives alone with his father. His mother, he believes, is dead. Like Pinocchio or Thumbkin, Christopher leaves his father’s home to find what is out there in the wide, wide world for him. He goes in search of his mother, and in search of himself.
When Christopher runs away from home, the crazy totally takes over. For a boy who is most proud of his ability to detach his mind from his body, a la Sherlock Holmes, his body must accompany him on a long and dangerous journey. He is afraid, he gets sick, he is hungry, tired, and overwhelmed by all the “input” provided by the world outside the confines of his comfortable home-neighborhood-school triangle. Police are after him, his father is searching for him, his pet rat tries to throw itself on the tracks of the London Underground, and his mother has no idea he is on his way. To combat coming completely unglued, Christopher does math problems in his head–he counts to 50 and does the cubes of each number. It quiets the mind, evidently. He holds on to numbers as his salvation, as that which will help him understand the confusion around him.
And he’s right. Christopher, who cannot read faces but does differential equations in his head, is fine. He dreams of a world where a virus spread by looking at other people kills off everyone on the planet save him and his “special needs” cohort of autistics, yet he has plans for succeeding in the world. After getting an A grade on his A-level math exam, Christopher says: “I can do anything.” And though he is an uncommon hero, and one who does not invite reader identification, Christopher’s journey is a re-telling of the classic children’s tale. We worry, as kids and teenagers, what life on our own might look like. We hate and distrust our parents, yet we feel somehow that separation from them will mean the end of us. Christopher’s journey and his plight bring his parents down to human size, revealing their weaknesses and pain, as well as his own.