Haddon once noted in a newspaper essay that Jane Austen’s novels focus on ordinary people, going about ordinary lives at the end of the eighteenth century. What makes readers admire her work, he claimed, is the sympathy she exhibits for those ordinary young men and women who populate her novels. One might say much the same about Haddon’s first two adult novels, which, like Austen’s, are populated by ordinary people whom Haddon invites the reader to feel for and even to like. Superficially, the characters of these novels are quite different.
The adolescent Christopher Boone, the narrator of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, tells his story with the affectless voice of a person with Asperger’s syndrome. He is incapable of analyzing the emotions of the people around him or of interpreting their motives in his dizzying world, where he always teeters on the edge of sensory overload. The four characters who provide the point of view in A Spot of Bother (2006), on the other hand, spend a great deal of time analyzing themselves and others. All of them, however, are part of a very ordinary world. Christopher is trying to understand who killed the poodle of one of his neighbors, and in the process he comes to learn the secret of his mother’s death and his family’s breakdown. The four members of the middle-class Hall family in A Spot of Bother are grappling with the usual materials of comedy—three love affairs, which look likely to disintegrate, a family wedding, and, the salt in the comic froth, a grand-scale mid-life crisis.
The last decades have increased public understanding of what the medical world calls “the autism spectrum,” so that Christopher Boone’s particular personality traits in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time may remind readers of what countless magazine articles and television specials have often described. The person with Asperger’s syndrome, a high functioning variety of autism, may have difficulty empathizing with others and with understanding the significance of others’ gestures and facial expressions. Such persons may dislike being touched, may insist on rigid routines for activities and even for foods, and may find loud noises frightening and painful. They may find figurative language and jokes baffling, and they may have their own idiosyncratic passions and monomanias and their own curious means for comforting themselves, such as rocking or hand flapping, when the world frightens them with incursions of noise or other sensory impressions. Haddon’s success lies in creating a voice for Christopher that rings true but still allows the reader to care about him. Part of the novel’s humor rises from Christopher’s misinterpretation of events around him, but because those events are described through Christopher’s eyes, the reader inevitably identifies with him as well. His fear of people he does not know forces him into a complicated mental gymnastic in order to find a railroad station; he is more comfortable making mental maps than asking directions. His solution is funny, but it also establishes his intelligence.
Haddon accomplishes the same effect in portraying George Hall’s mental breakdown in A Spot of Bother. Like Christopher, George imagines that even his most irrational actions are perfectly logical, an effect of stress. Haddon is particularly skilled at creating lifelike descriptions of disintegrating mental states, the state which makes Christopher sit immobilized on a bench in a subway station for six hours or which leads George to attempt do-it-yourself surgery on what he believes to be a tumor on his hip.
It may seem superficial to note that communication is an important theme in Haddon’s work; after all, communication is a key to most human relationships. Some critics faulted A Spot of Bother for offering situation-comedy situations and solutions, last-minute epiphanies that some readers found too pat for comfort. However, even truisms can be meaningful. In The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, most of the novel’s action results from Christopher’s inability to communicate with others, and one of his father’s most appealing qualities is his effort to make his son understand his love for him. Tellingly, father and son’s estrangement arises from his father’s attempt to hide the fact that Christopher’s mother has left them by telling Christopher that his mother has died. Christopher’s terrifying journey from Swindon to London is precipitated by his finding a packet of the letters that his mother has faithfully written to him.
In A Spot of Bother, the whole Hall family is paralyzed by the members’ failure to talk to one another or to look much beyond themselves. George and Jean are in late middle age, and their marriage has faded into wordless routines that have sent each of them in different directions. Jean is involved in a love affair, while George, whose focus is even more inward than hers, concludes that he is dying of cancer. Their grown daughter Katie seems about to make a second bad marriage, though neither of her parents is able to tell her their concerns, particularly because ever since her explosive adolescence, talking with her has been a bit like walking through a minefield. George and Jean have also been unable to talk honestly with their son Jamie, who has told them that he is gay but who has never brought his partner, Tony, to meet them. Now Jamie’s relationship with Tony seems to have ruptured, in part because Jamie has been unable to articulate—or even to admit to himself—the depth of his feelings for Tony. Haddon’s particular gift is his ability to make his readers care about these people, even while he describes the world as it is viewed through their very limited vision. “Only connect” is the motto the English novelist E. M. Forster provided...
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