Monday, 17 May 2010

Mark Haddon's Christopher Boone - Uncle Tom for the 21st century?

As someone with Asperger's Syndrome, I felt uneasy when Mark Haddon's novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time came out in 2003 - partly because the great Asperger's novel should be written by me, and partly for reasons set out in the following piece which I wrote after reading and rereading the book. It doesn't deny the book's merits, but simply argues that Haddon's book is not the account of life with Asperger's it's often claimed to be. If you haven't read The Remains of the Day (do, by the way) be warned it contains severe spoilers regarding that book's ending.

None of the regrettable effects of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and the misconceptions of Asperger’s Syndrome it has spread, are really Haddon’s fault. In some ways, the adoration of the novel can be linked to the public’s current appetite for tragic memoirs. Dave Pelzer’s books, with their mixture of gruelling descriptions of abuse and torture and self-help sentimentality, have been so lucrative that they have inspired a whole market of books with identically-designed covers, attempting to outdo each other in excruciating detail. They even have their own section in WH Smith’s, thoughtfully labelled “Tragic Life Stories”. As with more upmarket versions like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, the pleasure for casual readers comes from observing people with lives much worse than their own. It’s not too different from what Brian Aldiss called the “cosy catastrophe” of John Wyndham’s novels: all the excitement of watching frightening things happen while knowing they won’t happen to you. Readers and reviewers of Curious Incident seeking a label for Christopher’s condition have settled upon Asperger’s Syndrome, which is even used in the blurb, something which Haddon himself has expressed misgivings over. The phrase “you must read it, it’s very moving, it’s about a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome” is more likely to catch on than “it’s about a boy who’s obsessive-compulsive, emotionally-dissociated and frightened of colours, crowds and strangers and unable to understand sarcasm, lies, metaphor or humour”.
Indeed, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is not a novel about a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome. It is a novel about a severely autistic boy. The difference is crucial. People with Asperger’s are not likely to spend the day refusing to talk to anyone because they saw the wrong colour car on the way to school, or lie down on the floor and groan in the middle of a shop because there are too many people around, or attend a school with children that can’t speak and run amok with faeces. What is most important to remember, though, is that Christopher is in many ways dangerous. In one scene, after learning that his father has killed the neighbour’s dog during an argument, he is convinced that he may be next, and arms himself with a Swiss army knife which he is quite prepared to use if his father comes near him. He also threatens first a man and then a woman with the knife simply because they approach him on the train station. He once knocked a girl at his school unconscious, and it is clear that he has no sense of regret or shame about this – he accepts that he must not do this again simply because he is told not to, but doesn’t seem to understand why. One of the symptoms of Christopher’s condition is that he cannot change his ways - from his fear of being touched to his refusal to eat anything yellow or brown - and by the end of the novel he is as likely to hurt someone as he was at the start.
Haddon himself acknowledges this. In an Online Q and A session on the Guardian Unlimited website, he casts a significant light on his novel:

I wish Curious Incident could be seen simply as a novel like any other novel. Christopher never uses the words 'Asperger's' or 'autism' in the book and if I could turn back time I would prefer that we'd never used the words on the cover either. […] I have read criticism of the novel from a couple of people with Asperger's (you can find some on Amazon), mostly on the grounds that they don't recognise themselves, or other people they know with Asperger's, in Christopher. To which there are several answers... The first is that other people with Asperger's have found Christopher very convincing. The second is that Asperger's is a very broad definition and I don't think there's such a thing as 'true' picture of someone with Asperger's, any more than there is a 'true' picture of a musician or a Norwegian. The third was put most succinctly by a good friend of mine who said, "It's not a novel about a boy with Asperger's, is it. It's a book about a young mathematician with some behavioural issues.

This is a reasonable point: Haddon’s book is a well-written, compelling and moving account of a severely autistic mind. It has little in common with the problems faced by anyone with less than the most severe kind of Asperger’s syndrome.
Despite this, the Sunday Times profile of Mark Haddon referred to Christopher’s condition as a “mild form of Asperger’s Syndrome”, a baffling statement that leaves one wondering what the author of the profile considers severe. It doesn’t help that Asperger’s itself is often defined as mild. The Daily Telegraph’s review of the novel, The Spectator’s review of Haddon’s follow-up novel A Spot of Bother, the Independent’s profile of Haddon and Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die all referred to Christopher’s condition as “a mild form of autism”. The nadir was reached with John Mullan’s weekly guide to Curious Incident for book groups in the Guardian. Mullan is Professor of English at University College London and a regular media pundit. It was stunning to see a man of such learning open a chapter of the guide with the sentence:

“I am told that a teenager with Asperger's Syndrome might very well have a sense of humour, even if it might seem odd to most of us.”

It’s hard to convey the lack of knowledge and understanding embedded within those words. Certainly, it is unlikely other minorities would put up with such a gross generalisation. My sense of humour has always been an essential part of my make-up, and while it’s been judged as banal or convoluted at times and my timing isn’t always perfect, I think I’m probably funnier than John Mullan.
Anyone with Asperger’s who is expected to behave like Christopher may well come to see the character as the Asperger’s equivalent of Uncle Tom. I’ve started to notice people, upon being asked if they are familiar with Asperger’s, responding that they’ve read Curious Incident of the Dog at the Night-Time - at a lecture on Asperger’s I attended during university, for example. The novel is no more representative of people with Asperger’s than Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is of black people, and like Stowe’s novel, there’s something queasy about Haddon’s book despite the good intentions. Both are in their own ways deeply sentimental novels. The difference is that while Stowe’s sentimentality is obviously free of irony and wit, Haddon’s is far more knowing and wry. And yet his book still feels sentimental to me. The emotion in Haddon’s novel comes from the gap between Christopher’s view of things and the knowledge of the reader and author. Rereading Curious Incident recently sent me back to Daniel Keyes’s novel Flowers for Algernon, which I had similarly admired rather than actually liked. It wasn’t until reading Curious Incident, though, that it occurred to me what an obvious, manipulative trick it plays upon the reader. Both novels use stylised language to convey their narrator’s mental abnormalities. Charlie’s words are written in almost unreadable spelling and grammar, which poignantly improves and returns to normal as his intelligence is temporarily lifted. Every time the reader comes across something that they understand but that Christopher or Charlie don’t, the cumulative effect as this irony hits home starts to feel like a voice repeatedly saying “aaah, poor thing”; the irony doesn’t entirely disguise the sentimentality.
No bad spelling is used for Christopher’s account, but his tendency to add clause after clause linked by “and” soon makes itself apparent , and he always uses the phrase “do sex” instead of “have sex”. This second point may seem minor, but it struck me as both patronising (on Haddon’s rather than Christopher’s part) and inconsistent. Nowhere else does Christopher use such jarring grammar, and his language is otherwise formal, always telling us calmly what happened and how he felt rather than breaking down in reaction, so why does his language deteriorate when mentioning sex? At these moments the character feels less like an elegantly and confidently described portrait of an autistic mind, and more like a pathos-drenched Poor Dumb Boy. The trouble with using such formalistic tricks to evoke pathos is that the novelist’s technique in writing these words overshadows the character speaking them, so that Charlie and Christopher feel more like the authors’ constructions then human beings. Reading these novels, I longed for Charlie and Christopher to escape from the designs the authors had on them, but Keyes makes it clear that Charlie cannot succeed either as an intellectual or when restored to his original IQ, while Christopher’s role as a detective is not a fantasy we are allowed to share.
The problem of making these characters three-dimensional is one of language, and one shared by white American 19th-century writers attempting to evoke black characters – Jim from Twain’s Huckleberry Finn being a notorious example - and by 19th-century English writers’ attempts at working-class characters – numerous DH Lawrence characters, for example, or Stephen Blackpool from Dickens’s Hard Times. Archaic or phonetic spelling can be difficult to decode and ugly to look at, and it can be a barrier between the reader and the character, reminding us that we are looking at writing rather than engaging or sympathising with a human being. Ralph Ellison argued that Jim was inescapably “a white man’s inadequate portrait of a slave” – not for one second is he three-dimensional - and Christopher Boone, while less crudely drawn, has a similarly artificial quality that holds the reader back. The best analysis of Curious Incident I’ve encountered has come from Hari Kunzru, who suggested on BBC2’s Newsnight Review:

He feels constructed to me, at times. There is a necessary simplicity about his language, and he is interested in facts. He is interested in greater clarity of statement. But at times, this seems to kind of dissipate the character into a kind of formalism which seems to be more to do with the writer's research about Asperger's syndrome.

Kunzru’s point encapsulates both the extent to which one admires rather than thoroughly enjoys the book, and also the questions that can be raised when a writer immerses themselves in the viewpoint of a minority to which he does not belong or have significant experience with. Christopher’s condition overshadows his personality – is there anything we know about him from the novel that is not connected to his autism? – so that that they are one and the same. To create a human being, the novelist must endow a character with more than just a distinctive style of language.
For a more rounded, three-dimensional and emotionally satisfying account of an autistic mind, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day can be recommended to anyone with Asperger’s. The tale of Stevens, an emotionally repressed butler setting off to meet up with a housekeeper and looking back on his time in the household in which they both worked may not be literally concerned with Asperger’s, but it exquisitely dramatises the same problems faced by people with the condition without ever feeling patronising or emotionally predictable. An example that really struck a chord with me was the following moment where Stevens attempts to make small talk while staying overnight at an inn. The landlord and his friends are amiably enquiring whether Stevens slept well:

‘You won’t get much of a sleep up there, sir. Not unless you’re fond of the sound of old Bob’ – he indicated the landlord – ‘banging away down here right the way into the night. And then you’ll get woken by his missus shouting at him right from the crack of dawn’.
Despite the landlord’s protests, this caused loud laughter all round. […] I was struck by the thought […] that some sort of witty retort was required of me. Indeed, the local people were now observing a polite silence, awaiting my next remark. I thus searched my imagination and eventually declared:
‘A local variation on the cock crow, no doubt.’
At first the silence continued, as though the local persons thought I intended to elaborate further. But then noticing the mirthful expression on my face, they broke into a laugh, though in a somewhat bemused fashion. […]
I had been rather pleased with my witticism when it had first come into my head, and I must confess I was slightly disappointed it had not been better received than it was.

This witty, subtle moment captures many of the problems and frustrations that Asperger’s can cause in communication, and beautifully demonstrates that there is no more complex form of communication than small-talk, or “banter” as Stevens calls it. As someone who finds any social situation difficult to fathom, frequently wonders whether he’s said the wrong thing, and often suspects that his attempts to be humorous may not have succeeded, I found Stevens’s attempts at small-talk highly familiar, and delighted in identifying with his attempts to grasp the art of “bantering”. It’s funnier and more inspiring than anything in Curious Incident, demonstrating how the problems caused by Asperger’s are part of the human condition rather than limited to those who have the syndrome.
The strength of Remains of the Day is that it is more concerned with Stevens as a human being than anything he might have been diagnosed with, and explores the problems and contradictions in his personality through subtle and affecting moments and literary techniques rather than having him avoid the colour yellow or lie down on the floor and scream. When Stevens is asked about his former employer Lord Darlington, he unexpectedly denies meeting him, and while he admits to being baffled at his own denial of someone he respected, he does not at first tell the reader why he did so. It eventually becomes apparent that Lord Darlington was a Nazi sympathiser, but the gradual way Ishiguro reveals this and demonstrates Stevens’s ambiguous reaction to it is precisely the kind of subtlety and insight into an autistic consciousness that Curious Incident lacks. After Miss Kenton takes leave of Stevens for the final time and admits that she often wonders how much happier her life would have been had she married him, Stevens’s narration undergoes a shift:

I do not think I responded immediately, for it took me a moment or two to fully digest these words of Miss Kenton. Moreover, as you might appreciate, their implications were such as to provoke a certain degree of sorrow within me. Indeed - why should I not admit it? – at that moment, my heart was breaking.

Stevens has unexpectedly broken free from the shackles of his carefully modulated language and hyper-rational mindset, and the effect is profoundly moving. A similarly devastating effect is created when, as Stevens talks with a stranger about his feelings of failure as a butler, the old man replies: “Oh dear, mate. Here, you want a hankie?”. We realise that our protagonist has finally broken down for a moment, even though as the narrator he cannot bring himself to tell us. There is a psychological depth here and a delicate brilliance of technique, as Ishiguro reveals emotions by peeling away the language they cloak themselves in, that dwarfs anything in Curious Incident.
Another point frequently held in its favour is Curious Incident’s “crossover” appeal - that is, its marketing potential as both a children’s and an adult’s novel due to the simplicity of the language. Those that would not normally read children’s literature have felt comfortable praising the book. On the same Newsnight Review discussion, Germaine Greer – a champion of Haddon’s book – responded to a question about the book’s suitability for both readerships:

I only read books written for adults. I see children playing with toys. They are decoy objects and they are boring and stupid and ugly, so I always wanted what the grown-ups had.

It would be a shame to limit one’s reading of children’s literature to Curious Incident, as that genre has provided some of the richest and most subversive fiction available, from Kenneth Grahame, Lewis Carroll and E. Nesbit through to Phillip Pullman, Terry Pratchett and Alan Garner. Similarly, in a programme for Teachers TV on the greatest books as nominated by teachers in which Curious Incident came in at number 2, Andrea Goodall of the Red House Children’s Book Award remarked that it was the first serious children’s book she had read, but serious children’s books have been with us for the past two centuries. Indeed, for a genuinely profound insight into what it means to be human, richly imagined characters and extraordinary depths of emotion, it is to Pullman’s His Dark Materials that one would be better advised to turn than Curious Incident, while Richmal Crompton’s William and Nesbit’s Bastable children seem to me far more original and rewarding creations than Christopher Boone.
Indeed, Curious Incident feels less original and less anarchic than children’s fiction at its best in its second half, once Christopher has embarked upon an epic train journey to find his mother, and the sentimental nature of the book becomes more apparent. Prior to this the novel reads as a quirky and witty achievement, with some engaging digressions on mathematics and Sherlock Holmes. At this point, however, it starts to feel old-hat, resembling numerous children’s books of the kind by Betsy Byars and Judy Blume. Two familiar tropes in particular are used. The novel’s joyous denouement - and Christopher’s reconciliation with his father - is brought about by a delighted Christopher receiving a puppy as a gift. It’s a device familiar from books such as Blume’s Superfudge, and seems to fulfil the same purpose in the world of children’s fiction as weddings do at the end of Jane Austen’s novels.
The second trope comes in the form of Christopher’s beloved pet rat Toby, something familiar to readers of children’s fiction from Jumble the mongrel in Richmal Crompton’s William stories through to Ron’s pet Scabbers in the Harry Potter books. Charlie from Flowers for Algernon also has a pet rodent: Algernon the mouse, who undergoes the same intellect-enhancing operation as Charlie, and like Toby becomes the protagonist’s fellow fugitive as they flee from untrustworthy adults. The connection between the innocent and the animal is obvious: animals are rational, animals are easy to understand and animals are honest. Like the phrase “do sex”, it gives Christopher something of an “idiot boy” quality, rather than merely a different way of perceiving the world to others. A lazier stereotype is used in the form of Christopher’s interest in Star Trek. It’s commonly assumed that autistic children will be obsessed with Star Trek, but while it is true that autism tends to give one very specific interests and passions, it’s a shame Haddon couldn’t have given Christopher a less predictable one.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, then, is not quite the modern classic it is being made out to be. The tricks it plays upon the reader result in some powerful and poignant moments – its portrayal of the foolishness of adults, its witty use of swearing and its believable portrayal of Christopher’s parents. These tricks also feel predictable and one-note at times. The book heralded the arrival of an exciting new writing talent, but it is by no means a seminal work on autism. And it isn’t about a boy with Asperger’s.


  1. I hope you wouldn't mind me citing your well-written, insightful and critical essay as a basis for my students' exam. Since even teacher's manuals and the like don't go beyond the point of making it an "Asperger's' Story", the very same you're arguing against, I was rather surprised by your critique. However, I am convinced that this will be interesting and helpful to pupils as well, and I'd like to see how they cope with that.

    1. Yes, that would be absolutely fine. I'm delighted you found it useful.

  2. (The above is not my name; the comment box only asks for the name of your blog...)

    Thank you for this. I can't profess to know much about autism - there isn't that much experience I can cite: I have a couple of good friends with Asperger's; an acquaintance and one of my parents briefly theorised that I might be on the spectrum myself, though that idea was halted in its tracks very quickly by a doctor.

    However, I did enjoy Haddon's book, and I'll say that, even having read this (and you make many excellent points) I still think of it as a pretty good piece of literature, if not an utterly accurate one. I couldn't by any stretch call Christopher's autism "mild" (I have to wonder where analysts and critics got that idea from) - it seems that he would have severe trouble living independently and without guidance. I read it as severe autism rather than Asperger's, and I think it's a huge mistake to use the two terms interchangeably. I would have to agree with you on this: many of the problems with people's perception of the book stem from its advocates, rather than Haddon himself.

    "I’ve started to notice people, upon being asked if they are familiar with Asperger’s, responding that they’ve read Curious Incident of the Dog at the Night-Time - at a lecture on Asperger’s I attended during university, for example."

    I think the problem here is people assuming that there is one "typical" portrayal of any condition, not just autism and Asperger's. I don't see much of any of my friends with Asperger's in Christopher. Perhaps one could respond that the book made them aware of the issue, or presented an interesting viewpoint on it, but the book is not a substitute for knowing an actual person with Asperger's or doing one's research. I can't say reading Curious Incident would make one "familiar with Asperger's".

    Anyway, thanks again. This was well thought-out and an interesting read.

  3. I’d like to echo the sentiments of the previous commenters; this is a great piece that helped me think in more critical ways about Curious Incident. I’m a college teacher in the US, and I teach a course called Studies in Narrative (a student brought your post to my attention). I’ve taught Curious Incident a number of times; I was initially drawn to it because of the virtuosic narrative trick the author pulls off, whereby the narrator gives the reader information that he himself doesn’t have, or doesn’t understand. I taught Remains of the Day for the first time this semester, just before Curious Incident, and I hadn’t realized until I taught it how many connections there are between the two narrators, though I agree with you that Ishiguro pulls it off with considerably more subtlety. Of course, this was Mark Haddon’s first novel, and Ishiguro is a brilliant writer and a past master at conveying gaps, lacunae, misunderstandings, and blind spots (often related to culture and/or class).
    Remains of the Day was so deservedly popular in part because it perfectly conveys the culture of service as an ideology. Mr Stevens, the butler, is also the son of a butler, and he has been so thoroughly acculturated to the idea of serving others that if you’re trying to find his emotional center, it’s hard to know if there’s a “there there”; the glimpses we get of his emotions leaking out (as in the passage you quote where “my heart was breaking”) are fleeting, and ultimately submerged again by his attempts to construct a social/service persona. At the very end of the novel, after crying in front of a stranger, Stevens is confidently looking forward to mastering the art of “bantering” with his American employer, which he is convinced will make him a more effective butler. [Mr Stevens can’t master “bantering” just as Christopher can’t “do chatting.”] We had some interesting discussions about this: I agree that Mr Stevens is probably on the spectrum, but the great thing about the novel is the way in which his autism is also an autism of background and class: he can’t read emotional cues in part because he has been trained to ignore them or trample them down in the interest of being a smooth, dignified butler.

  4. Although I do like Curious Incident a lot, as a teacher of literature I have some objections to it that sort of go with your own criticisms. Specifically, to the extent that we do believe in Christopher, could he ever have written a book like this? Would he order things in the way he does? Even though he professes to hate metaphors (which he calls lies), there are plenty of them in the book, and suspenseful cliffhanger sentences often appear at the ends of chapters (especially in the later part). So it seems as if Haddon has been unable to hide his author's hand, though he does pull it off a lot of the time.

    I also strongly agree with the previous commenter's last paragraph: the idea of any one character or any one novel "representing" or "speaking for" a person with a particular condition is an impossibility. The problem, of course, is that when a book does as well as this one did, it's marketed and discussed with that assumption, as Flowers for Algernon (and the movie version, Charlie) did when they came out. Ditto for Rain Man and lots of others.

    A final note on others' reactions. A friend of mine has an adult son with severe Asperger's, and she absolutely hated the book. She said it was full of stereotypes and sensationalized the condition, and said that someone on the spectrum needs to write the great Asperger's novel (I say do it, Richard!). I should add that her Asperger's son liked the book and said it was "75% accurate"! I've also had some very interesting reactions from my students: autism-spectrum disorders are so common that I always have several students with close experience with it, sometimes as siblings. Reactions vary hugely: some would agree with you and with my friend, others find it accurate and positive. I had a student this semester with an autistic sister, and she took issue with calling Christopher autistic, because her sister is mostly nonverbal and very low-functioning, and I think she prefers to reserve "autistic" for much lower-functioning individuals than Christopher. I notice that you mention Mr Stevens as an example of "the autistic mind." It seems as if different people have different understandings of "autistic" vs "Asperger's," and I think (as Haddon realized) that using them as marketing tools for novels or films is probably a recipe for disaster.

    In any event, I learned a lot from your post, as did several of my students, who have cited it in their papers. Many thanks!

  5. Thanks Robert, very pleased to hear you and your students found the piece useful.

  6. Thank you for a really brilliant article on 'The Curious Incident' - I've read various discussions of the book but yours is by far the most insightful and relevant discussion of Haddon's writing of Christopher in the book. Some really excellent links with 'The Remains of the Day', positioning Stevens in a way I'd never thought to before!

    Many thanks for a great read.

  7. Thanks, Matthew, glad you enjoyed it.