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Books: The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time and Vernon God Little

Note: This review is part of the Booklist 2005 Project.

Note: This review contains minor spoilers for Curious Incident ... but you may enjoy the book more for knowing them.

Do you ever do that thing where you make a to-do list, and you intentionally include a few tasks that you have already completed so you can have the satisfaction of crossing them off immediately?

I do that. In fact, I did it just last week.

When I recently groused that "I can't say that I read any particularly outstanding fiction books in 2004" and asked for recommendations, so many people mentioned The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon that I felt obligated to add it to the Booklist 2005 Project. This, despite the Curious Incident is one of the books I read last year that left me undazzled, thus inspiring the B2K Project in the first place.

Christopher Boon is a 15-year old boy with a form of autism known as Asperger's Syndrome. Unable to relate to human beings, Christopher has a special affinity for animals, who don't baffle him with the subtleties of facial expressions, voice inflections and body language. So when a neighbor's dog is brutally murdered and he is initially accused of committing the crime, Christopher resolves to apply his (overly) analytic mind to the task of deducing the killer's identity.

Curious Incident is written in first person -- at one point, a teacher suggests to Christopher that he keep a journal of his investigation, and this book is the supposed result. Haddon does a remarkable job of showing us the world through Christopher's eyes, while still allowing the reader glimpses of how someone without Asperger's would see the situation. As Christopher interviews his neighbors, for instance, it becomes clear to the reader that many of them know much more than they are telling, even while Christopher -- unable to spot or even suspect deception -- takes their statements at face value. The author does a masterful job of weaving together these two concurrent two stories -- how Christopher sees things and how everyone else sees things -- into a single, cohesive narrative.

So I loved this book, right? Well, I did ... halfway through. At that point I told The Queen that Curious Incident was the best book I'd read in years, and that I couldn't wait to finish it so she could have a crack at it. [Spoilers begin] But shortly thereafter Christopher suddenly abandons the mystery and sets off on a journey by himself, thereby eliminating the two things I had been enjoying most: the aforementioned "parallel stories" (once he's on his own, it's pretty much all Christopher's POV all the time), and my curiosity as to how the crime was going to be "solved". Worse, Christopher's Asperger's becomes heightened as he becomes increasingly anxious during his travels, which means that the story becomes ever more packed with trivia and tangents. I appreciate that Haddon was trying to convey to the reader how the autistic mind thinks (Haddon has real-life experience working with autistics, so presumably knows of what he writes), but at one point Christopher laments about his obsession with minutia, and by then I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly. [Spoilers end]

I didn't dislike Curious Incident, I just felt a little cheated by a perceived bait-and-switch. But if you ignored the spoiler warnings and read the above paragraph, you may be avoid my fate and love the book as much as most other people appear to. (Though, truth be told, I think I would have found the last 50 pages a tad boring under any circumstances.) Recommended, if only because it's well-written and an interesting experiment.

As as long as I'm damning books that invite comparisons to Catcher In The Rye with faint praise ...

Vernon God Little caught my eye because it won the 2003 Man Booker Prize and because a blurb on the cover compared it to the movie Rushmore. It's not a bad book, but by the end I thought both the award and the comparison were unjustified.

Also written in first person, Little follows the adventures of Vernon, a teen whose best (and perhaps only) friend just went on a Columbineesque shooting rampages and killed 16 classmates before turning the gun on himself. Without a living person to blame for the atrocity, the town starts casting about for a suitable substitute, and much of the story revolves around Vernon's efforts to avoid becoming the designated scapegoat.

In many ways Vernon is as inept at dealing with people as Christopher, though his anti-social tendencies seem the result of choice rather than biology. Written in Vernon's voice, Little is full of slang and the obsessions of young males -- at one point the word "panties" appears on eight consecutive pages. This makes for some tough reading -- it's no A Clockwork Orange, but turgid nonetheless. And if it has been the same length as A Clockwork Orange (i.e., 100 pages shorter) it might have been worth the effort. Instead, it feels somewhat rambling and unfocused. And author DBC Pierre can't seem to decide how broad to make his satire, so the book oscillates from subtle social commentary to situations so hyperbolic that they could work as second-half-of-the-show Saturday Night Live sketches.

As with Curious Incident, I didn't dislike Vernon God Little. But I finished both in 2004, and my assessment that I read no "outstanding fiction" that year stands.

Posted on February 24, 2005 to Books





Comments

just a typo:

At that point [I told] The Queen that Curious Incident was the best book I'd read in years, and that I couldn't wait to finish it so she could have a crack at it.

Posted by: forrest on February 25, 2005 5:48 PM

I forgave the big switch in The Curious Incident because at that point I realized that it was not a mystery story, but the story of a family. And a good one. But I mainly loved how it's an adventure story on a small scale. Christopher has to (simply?) walk through a pedestrian tunnel, and the scene is a real page-turner.

Posted by: ken on February 26, 2005 6:19 AM

I brought this book with me to the hospital to get induced. I stayed up the entire night reading it mostly because the contractions kept me from sleep. I got about fifty pages from the end before I was unable to ignore the pain. Those fifty pages remain unread partly because now I'm dealing with the baby boy but after reading your post here I realize that I simply didn't care enough about the characters or the story to continue. Not a good sign. I agree with your take and don't feel so bad now about not finishing the story... So it goes.

Posted by: Meredith on February 26, 2005 8:28 AM

Weird coincidence: no more than 40 seconds ago, I read the original lines in Pope's Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot from which we get the saying "to damn with faint praise," decided to take a break, and then read those words again in this post. It seems like that kind of thing has been happening a lot lately . . . wonder if I'm losing my mind.

Posted by: Justin on February 27, 2005 5:14 PM

life of Pi is pretty good too.

Posted by: Ronny on February 28, 2005 3:31 AM

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Posted by: 下载 on February 28, 2005 4:48 AM

Will you marry me, author?

Posted by: Mary on February 28, 2005 6:40 AM

I felt much the same about those two books, which, like you, I read one after the other. "Curious Incident" was a very interesting insight into an Aspburger's mind and "Vernon God Little" quite the feat of literary gymnastics, but neither book grabbed me enough to want to keep the copies that I'd bought. My most significant reads of last year? The Time Traveller's Wife (which I see you have on your list) and The His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman. Happy page turning!

Posted by: galetea on February 28, 2005 8:39 AM

haven't read either of them, in fact have purposely stayed far away. i hate it when novels get that much hype right after they come out. i'd much rather read an unknown, or else wait a few (dozen) years until it all calms down and the book is off the oprah list.

i'm reading as the crow flies by ann-marie macdonald. it's stunning. her first book, fall on your knees, was also stunning, perhaps a bit more gripping in that first-novel kind of way. this one is a research and creative writing tour de force, though, and much more "adult" than the first. i recommend it. you won't have read it in 2004, but maybe that's a good thing, given the vintage. ;)

Posted by: romy on February 28, 2005 12:32 PM

Was I the only one who just wasn't that thrilled by Life of Pi?
I liked the part in the boat, but the whole first section was just kind of dull. And he kept going on about how this is a story that will make you believe in God! And have a spiritual awakening!
And while I was entertained, I really didn't feel especially awakened.

A book that is sort of similar, in that claustrophobic, trapped-in-a-small-space way, is Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe.
I think WitD is much better.

Posted by: Jenne on February 28, 2005 2:16 PM

Yay. Other people who didn't like the books that I didn't like but everyone else did.

Posted by: Tinabug on February 28, 2005 4:48 PM

Jenne -- Another "Life of Pi" detractor? My God, I thought I was the only one! I was practically run out of town for saying "Yeah, it was well-executed enough, but spiritually 'important'? Nah."

Posted by: Larry on February 28, 2005 5:09 PM

Today I received 12 books I ordered from the Booklist. Are there going to be posts discussing any one of the 20 books on the list, plus discussion of the 25 "candidates", plus any of the already mentioned suggestions, plus any number of new suggestions, all in the comments under your post regarding two titles? For example, a discussion of "Life of Pi" under "Curious Incident/Vernon God Little"?

Posted by: Anonymous on February 28, 2005 5:57 PM

In The Life of Pi I can't even get to the past the boring point! At least these books get donated to the library. Suckers.

Posted by: kerewin on February 28, 2005 6:00 PM

Apparently so!

Posted by: Anonymous on February 28, 2005 7:03 PM

The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time sounds like a less entertaining version of Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn. Both feature narrators with quirky mental disorders trying to solve mysteries. Lethem resolves the mystery in his novel, though, and the rearranging of detective and gangster trophes adds another level beyond the character's skewed POV.

Posted by: Kermit on March 1, 2005 10:18 AM

About half way through, "Curious Incident" began to suck? Hmmm, sounds a lot like Million Dollar Baby.

Posted by: jpact on March 1, 2005 12:02 PM