Narrators usually treat the reader as a confidant. They tell us secrets, confess their crimes, and in return we share their shocks and downfalls. We solve the mystery with them, and sometimes, possibly depending on how many thrillers you’ve read, you think faster than the narrator and beat them to the solution. It’s a careful game a writer plays with her audience: spinning out details so you walk with the narrator, but don’t solve the case before he does. But what happens when the narrator isn’t fully aware? Maybe they lack something the reader has? Then the game becomes downright delicate and it takes a writer with precise control of her craft to pit the narrator’s awareness against what the reader has already figured out.
Mark Haddon’s the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is an exercise in such craft. His protagonist, Christopher, suffers from Asperger’s (though I don’t believe it’s ever named). A boy on a mission to solve a mystery, he lacks the understanding of other people’s emotions that guides most of us through human interactions. As Christopher’s quest grows more complex, he strains against that lack, even as the reader sees things Christopher can’t.
It’s a beautiful little book that reminds me of how lucky I am that some things, like relationships, don’t come so easily for everyone. Christopher is original character. He’s brilliant at math, affectionate to his pet rat, and exact in the manner in which he follows the spelled out to him: which gives him several clever, logical outs when those rules aren’t expressed in practical ways.
Haddon builds a simple mystery that would fit well in a children’s book, the murder of a neighbor’s dog, into something of much graver importance. When Christopher has to push himself to go beyond the boundaries of the safe world his parents built for him, you worry for him in a very different way than you would worry for a child. I loved this book. My friend Alfred recommended this book to me after we were talking about readers and narrators. Reading it taught me a lot about how to use the reader’s intelligence to the writer’s ends, even in a first person point of view where the reader doesn’t know more than Christopher, they just understand more.