I first read this novel by Mark Haddon on the island of Saipan. I didn’t read it in one sitting. I think it was in three. Maybe four. It was in one day. The voice captured me, the situationally specific details made me nostalgic and curious for elsewheres, and the detailed descriptions of disparate thought processes shed light on what it means to be human. I loved the book. I’ve recommended it to many, and read it out loud to a handful of high school classes since then.
Some of the people I recommend it to have said, “What are you trying to say?” One person who read it said that he thought he was, after reading the book, 20% Autistic.
I remember being excited to read it with a class because of the opportunities to discuss: first person narration, voice, detail selection, similes/metaphors and figurative language, literal thinking, internal vs. external plot and conflict, logic, British slang, personality quirks, varieties of irony, comparisons to Huck Finn and Holden Caufield, etc. Can’t say that class conversations always mined the available gold. Often student thoughts are diverted into verbal diarrhea discussing whether this town has more herpes or chlamydia. At least that was yesterday. Sometimes it is a fun pairing to read this book with The Catcher in the Rye and have students let their teenage first person selves run on the page.
The story is told from the perspective of a teenage boy who loves maths, hates metaphors, loves space and rats, and hates the color yellow and France. He doesn’t like to be touched, thinks very literal about everything, and when he gets overwhelmed is likely to groan and cover his ears. In interviews Mark Haddon has said that he didn’t intend to write a story about an autistic boy, but rather a believable and quirky narrator. Many point to this book as a description of autism which isn’t quite fair or completely accurate.
I love the narrator’s detailed descriptions throughout the book and how he explains how much he hates metaphors (because they are lies), and yet he masterfully creates similes throughout the book. I love this description of being mentally overwhelmed:
He was asking too many questions and he was asking them too quickly. They were stacking up in my head like loaves in the factory where Uncle Terry works. The factory is a bakery and he operates the slicing machines. And sometimes a slicer is not working fast enough but the bread keeps coming and there is a blockage. I sometimes think of my mind as a machine, but not always a bread-slicing machine. It makes it easier to explain to other people what is going on inside it.
His descriptions of his behavioral problems, which are listed A – R, and some of which include footnotes with more specific details and explanations are great examples of saying something and then explaining it. Say and explain. Be specific. My job as an English teacher sometimes feels like saying those two sentences over and over again.
Say and explain.
And Christopher Boone, the narrator of The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-Time, does this quite well and extensively. And we laugh because of dramatic irony. And we smile because we recognize that we also have personality quirks (even if they aren’t as pronounced). And we are entertained because it’s a great story, a story where something happens (internally and externally), which is entertaining, which provokes thought, which invokes emotion, which is full of specific (often surprising) details, which includes surprises, and is memorable.
Note: That last sentence includes the 7 THINGS THAT MAKE A STORY GREAT according to class discussions at this high school and based on the four criteria that Robert Swartwood outlined in the introduction to his anthology of Hint Fiction stories. I like the list. A good story should: be a story, entertain, provoke thought, and invoke emotion. We added: include specific details, often includes surprises, and is memorable.
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