I thoroughly enjoyed reading Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. Out of everything we’ve read so far, Curious Incident felt like it was the most relatable to both neurotypicals and the neurodiverse. It was clear, easy to understand, and funny. I felt hopeful reading about Christopher’s adventures; was this finally the book we’ve been looking for? I did some searching for critiques on the novel and discovered, belatedly–
–no. It wasn’t.
My perception of what constitutes a realistic and non-stereotypical portrayal of ASD or Asperger’s will never be completely on point, I’ve come to realize. I read several reviews, and though a couple of them had plenty of good things to say, most of them were the tired voices of individuals used to disappointment.
Author Eric Chen has written a few novels on autism, having ASD himself. In his critique of Curious Incident he gave examples of three passages from the book, and then rewrote them from a more realistic ASD lens.
For example, Chen took this passage:
And one day, Julie sat down at a desk next to me and put a tube of Smarties on the desk, and she said, “Christopher, what do you think is in here?”
And I said, “Smarties“.
Then she took the top off the Smarties tube and turned it upside down and a little pencil came out and she laughed and I said, “It’s not Smarties, it’s a pencil” .
Then she put the little red pencil back inside the Smarties tube and put the top back on.
Then she said, “If your Mommy came in now, and we asked her what was inside the Smarties tube, what do you think she would say?“, because I used to call Mother Mummy then, not Mother.
And I said, “A pencil“.
That was because when I was little I didn’t understand about other people having minds. And Julie said to Mother and Father that I would always find this very difficult. But I don’t find this difficult now. Because I decided that it was a kind of puzzle, and if something is a puzzle there is always a way of solving it.
And rewrote it like this:
I was put in a cold room smelling of strangeness-A (translated: antiseptic). The lady with big black glasses asked me many questions. I just answered as much as I can.
For example, she showed me a Smarties (tube) and asked me what it is. I said, “Smarties“. Then she took out a pencil from the Smarties (tube) and made some odd sounds and movement (translated: slight laughing and smiling).
I remained still, not knowing what to do or say, except that the light glaring off her glasses is disturbing me, so I flicked my eyes around her spectacle frame. She asked me what I saw. Glancing at her hand, I replied “a pencil“. Then she put the pencil back into the Smarties tube.
She asked me, “If your Mommy came in now, and we asked her what was inside the Smarties tube, what do you think she would say?”
I took a while to understand what she said. It was a long sentence and I must grind through it carefully. She repeated the question again, and again. After a while, I concluded that it meant: “What is inside the tube?” So I answered her: “A pencil.”
And no one ever knew what was really happening.
Chen stressed that Christopher showed a level of self-consciousness that wasn’t realistic for a character who is supposed to be representing ASD or Asperger’s. This was something I hadn’t realized, or if I had I had dismissed the misrepresentation as a means to write something neurotypicals would also understand. However, Chen demonstrates with ease that it is possible to write realistically while also writing in a way that is easy to understand. Chen also made sure to point out that he wasn’t trying to be mean by criticizing Haddon’s work, but that he wanted to ensure nobody went into reading the novel as if it were a true representation of what it is like to live with ASD.
Another article, written by the father of a child with Asperger’s, expressed his distaste with Haddon’s own statement, “imagination always trumps research”. Greg Olear, writer for Huffington Post, had this to say:
I don’t begrudge Haddon his freedom of speech, or his ability to make a living as a man of letters. He can write about whatever he pleases. What I find objectionable is that he seems unaware of — or, worse, indifferent toward — the fact that he has made both his name and his fortune exploiting the Asperger’s community, my son included. After all, if his aim were to present an honest portrayal of the disorder, his research would have involved more than skimming an essay about Temple Grandin, who isn’t even an aspie (2012).
The rest of the article is a pretty harsh review of Haddon’s work, but I did see what he was getting at. Haddon insists the book isn’t about Asperger’s or ASD . . . but it clearly is supposed to represent something close to it.
I still loved the book, to be honest. I don’t know if that’s a bad thing or not, but I commend Haddon for creating a character who persevered despite his difficulties. But this book wasn’t the one. I guess we’re still searching for it.