Last night, we tackled the “Rainman” of autism-themed fiction: Mark Haddon’s 2004 novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. This wildly popular work has sold over 2 million copies, and it is largely credited with being the first novel to feature a first-person autistic narrator. As we alluded to last night, the book has also generated a spate of imitators, particularly in the young adult genre, but also evident in adult fiction. Whatever the issues of the novel, it is undeniable that it presented autism to countless readers for the very first time.
To get into the novel, we took Simon Baron-Cohen’s online Eyes Test, which Baron-Cohen used as a measure of empathy. We talked about the difficulty of the test, which asks participants to identify the emotion expressed by images of human eyes, and noted that while none of us obtained a perfect score, we are all quite accomplished at reading emotional expression. Christopher, the autistic narrator, cannot read facial expressions very well, and this places some restraints on him as a narrator–we expect neurotypical narrators to observe the subtle changing expressions of their subjects. Christopher is also incapable of lying or of detecting lies, and this led many of us to find him to be a more reliable narrator than, say, the Chief from Cuckoo’s Nest.
An interesting subtheme arose during our discussion of Christopher as narrator: the moral failures of the parents and nearly all of the adults in the novel. We wondered if Christopher was the moral compass of the novel, or whether he could fulfill this role, given that even his altruistic actions (e.g. saving Toby) seem to be automated. We wondered if the parents should blamed for their adultery and divorce, or whether they were coping with the high pressure of raising an autistic child to the best of their abilities.
After the break, we talked about how literature circles should work, and then we got into our circles for approximately 45 minutes. I asked each group to come up with one big idea that we needed to discuss. My memory fails me a little, but here are the ones we addressed:
- The ending, and more specifically, the gift of the puppy to Christopher. Was this a kind gesture by the father or an attempt to buy Christopher’s affections? Was it cloying or genuinely moving? How can we tell the difference?
- The overall impact of the book: even if the portrayal of autism may not be perfect, does the book perform a social good by raising awareness of autism?
- More on Chrisopher and his narrative style: do the flatness of his observations (and the equal emphasis on the important and unimportant) accurately represent an autistic perspective? Is there any way for a non-autistic author such as Haddon to represent an autistic mindset? Does a narrator need to possess the capacity for self-relfection? Is third person the solution?
- What would Christopher and Jack from “Telephone Man” have to say to each other?
- More on Christopher: is he the real mystery to be solved, and if so, is this a problem? Is he an issue (autism) in search of a story? Is there enough emotional depth to Christopher, or do we have to redefine what we consider emotional depth?
Good questions, all. We ended by looking at a YouTube video about the possible autism of Barron Trump, critiquing its negative portrayal of autism I’m off to the NCTE conference, where I’ll be presenting on my recent autism research, but I’ll see you next week. Remember to bring your literature circle book. Until then.