To remove the foul aftertaste that Cleaving left in my mouth, I needed a palate cleanser, so I chose a spritely little morsel off my to be read shelf: Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The plot is simple - a neighbor’s dog is killed, and the boy who narrates, Christopher, decides to “do some detecting” and find the culprit, inspired by the eminently logical Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of Baskervilles.
The magic of any story is in the telling, and Curious Incident is all about the telling. Christopher is a math genius who cannot relate to other people, recoils from their touch, and cannot comprehend their points of view. He’s like Mr. Spock times ten: He’s all about the logic; he finds math comforting, as it gives order to the world.
Christopher takes this to unimaginable extremes. The world around him is overwhelming: he is so brilliant that he needs to take in, but cannot process, an incredible amount of detail about everything around him. “… there are so many things in one house that it would take years to think about them all properly.” A trip down an unfamiliar street through his eyes, is a terrifying experience – there is too much information for him to process. He uses math to soothe himself, focusing on computations in his head while the world races by around him.
He attempts to impose a mathematical order on the world, deploying simple logic across the range of decisions that most of us make without thinking. For example, he hates the colors yellow and brown, and refuses to eat yellow food (he even keeps a bottle of food dye to get around his own rule on occasion). He explains, “In life you have to make lots of decisions … so it is good to have a reason why you like some things and hate others.”
Many years ago, when selecting a new couch with my ex-husband, he kept nixing my color choices and could not explain why, only that he didn’t like any of it. This drove me crazy, of course - I wanted to know why, what was wrong with it? The salesman finally took me aside and asked, “Was he in the army?” Yes, he was. “He doesn’t like green, and that’s why,” the salesman explained. I kept gravitating to shades of green, for whatever reason, and he couldn’t bear the thought of it. Neither of us could have explained it, if asked. (We ended up going with compromise colors - bright red for him, with green trim to appease me. It was my Christmas couch, I hated it as soon as it arrived and every spring, I wanted to replace it with something Easterish.)
In a similar fashion, Christopher knows whether or not he is going to have a Good Day based on what he sees out of the school bus window: four yellow cars in a row mean it will be a Very Bad Day, while three red cars in a row mean it is going to be a quite Good Day. In the end, the logic that seems so simple makes life unimaginably complex for Christopher – although math can be used to describe the world, it doesn’t work as a guiding principle for individual behavior.
One of the characters observes to Christopher that there are “some very good books which are short, like Heart of Darkness.” A Curious Incident is just such a book – a small, precisely drawn, engaging and moving look at the world from a perspective I could not myself have imagined.
When you read this book, look for the bright red cover. It means it is going to be a Quite Good Book. I am also having good luck with yellow-cover books right now. I don’t recommend blue-cover books, though.
16 down, 34 to go.