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Friday, February 20, 2015

I can't do chatting.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time tells the story of the singular Christopher Boone, a 15-year old British boy with behavioral differences, and his quest to solve a mystery, during the course of which he ends up discovering a very great deal about himself. The book opens with Christopher happening upon the neighbor's dog, Wellington, who has been stabbed to death with a pitchfork. Christopher sets out to determine who killed Wellington, and in the process learns some dark secrets about his father, his mother, and the circumstances of their separation. Over the course of the novel, Christopher narrates his adventure for us, sharing intimate pieces of his investigation and the unique ways in which he (and his brain) functions. It is a story about exploring the unknown, uncovering painful truths, and above all, celebrating the rare attributes that constitute a beautiful (albeit a bit unusual) human being and his brilliant brain.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I read this book once before, though I can't pinpoint exactly when, or what inspired me to do so. In any case, I think I found it a bit odd, but liked it overall. This time around, I really enjoyed it. Like so many of the books on this list, it felt truer to me on second reading, and it felt like I was more primed to read it at this age and stage of my life than I was the first time around. If you haven't read it, I recommend it, though it is definitely not for everyone, and it takes some mental adjustment to appreciate [code for: my mother and sister, who often share my reading tastes, did not care for it - d'as ok! it's not for everybody!].

I thought it would be fun to share an abbreviated chronology of the turn of events so that You could enjoy the mystery, Too! [NB: This means that the entire post is, in itself, a plot spoiler. Apologies! Come back to it later if you think you'd like to read the book first yourself!]

Scene 2: In Which Christopher finds Wellington dead [growing up, my sisters and I read this series of books called "Dealing with Dragons" [CaN't believe I pulled that out. STEEL TRAP, ladies!] by Patricia Wrede [oh, you haven't heard of it? maybe that's because we were HUGE fantasy fans - if there was a book about a dragon, a witch, a sorcerer, or starring an animal as a lead character, WE READ IT. "If you made a movie, Tad, I've seen it."] and each chapter starts out with "In Which" - for example, "Chapter 1: In Which Cimorene Refuses to be Proper and Has a Conversation with a Frog". So for quite some time, we would make up chapters for our lives with ridiculous banalities like "Chapter 17: In Which Meredith Tries to Wash her Hair but Discovers Diana Has Used Up All of the Conditioner". #thatnerdylife #cantstopwontstop

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaand, we're back. [FYI, the scenes are incremental primes, in honor of the Christopher's convention for chapter numbering in the book] 

Scene 2 (for realz now): In Which Christopher finds that Wellington is, in point of fact, an Ex-Dog, and he is not simply pining for the fjords
  • "I decided that the dog was probably killed with the fork because I could not see any other wounds in the dog and I do not think you would stick a garden fork into a dog after it had died for some other reason, like cancer, for example, or a road accident. But I could not be certain about this." This is an example of the way Christopher narrates and thinks - a bit like stream of consciousness, but always with a clear logic. I found it amusing, and often unintentionally dry and witty. 
  • "He was leaking blood from the fork holes." ahh yes, the classic blood leaking.
Cue the local policeman who stumbles upon Christopher hugging the ex-Wellington:

Policeman: "Why were you holding the dog?"
    Christopher: "I like dogs."
Policeman: "Did you kill the dog?"
    Christopher: "I did not kill the dog."
Policeman: "Is this your fork?"
    Christopher: "No."

Amazing exchange. Is this your fork? 'Your cigarettes fell out of your pocket.' 'Those aren't mine. I don't smoke.' 

Scene 3: In Which Christopher lets us know how he Really feels about pesky metaphors like "We had a real pig of a day" and "They had a skeleton in the cupboard.": 
  • "I think it should be called a lie because a pig is not like a day and people do not have skeletons in their cupboards." too True, Christopher. At least I Hope people don't have skeletons in their cupboards!
  • "My name is a metaphor and it means Carrying Christ": "Mother used to say that it meant Christopher was a nice name because it was a story about being kind and helpful, but I do not want my name to mean a story about being kind and helpful. I want my name to mean me." I thought this was such a piercingly sweet statement. Our names often represent all kinds of things to the parents that name us (reminders of living or deceased family members, ideals, religious icons) but I think in the end, we all want our names to just mean us, the very essence of who we are. 
Scene 5: In Which Christopher enlightens us on why he doesn't like to hypothesize on what could have happened in a scenario
  • "If I start thinking about something which didn't happen I start thinking about all the other things which didn't happen. For example, this morning for breakfast I had Ready Brek and some hot raspberry milk shake. But if I say that I actually had Shreddies and a mug of tea* I start thinking about Coco Pops and lemonade and porridge and Dr Pepper and how I wasn't eating my breakfast in Egypt and there wasn't a rhinoceros in the room and Father wasn't wearing a diving suit and so on..."
*But I wouldn't have Shreddies and tea because they are both brown.

Christopher's strict color preferences are fantastic - I know they're a real representation of his behavioral differences, but I also found them delightful in the literary sense. And it's true - how do you Know I Didn't eat my breakfast in Egypt with a rhinoceros in the room? I could have been sick all night! Especially if I wanted to! Hard to say where imagination ends...

Scene 7: In Which Christopher explains his system for determining the quality of a day

"In the bus on the way to school next morning we passed 4 red cars in a row, which meant that it was a Good Day, so I decided not to be sad about Wellington.
    Mr. Jeavons, the psychologist at the school, once asked me why 4 red cars in a row made it a Good Day, and 3 red cars in a row made it a Quite Good Day, and 5 red cars in a row made it a Super Good Day, and why 4 yellow cars in a row made it a Black Day, which is a day when I don't speak to anyone and sit on my own reading books and don't eat my lunch and Take No Risks."

This system for days was one of my favorite motifs in the book. It also makes total sense to me! There are all kinds of things I look at in the morning (is the sun shining? did I slip on the ice? was there traffic on the way to work? did I get a good parking spot?) that I use to determine whether my day will be good or not, and they're just as arbitrary as Christopher's car-counting system. So maybe I'll try his way! I also love the "TAKE NO RISKS" part. It's hilarious to think about consciously spending a day intentionally taking No risks. Want to go for a car ride? No. Want to go horseback riding? NO. Today is a day to take no risks. Christopher also explains that if he has 2 black days in a row, he's allowed to close his eyes the whole ride to school so that he doesn't see the cars and he can reset the system. Which I think is a very logical (and practical) back door to his system. [Especially since one would start to get very hungry!]

Scene 11: In Which Christopher's father tells him that his mother is very sick and Christopher makes a card for his mother "in hospital" [in quotes because Mother is not sick (and does not die as Christopher's father tells him) but has actually left them to live with a man in London]

"I did it at school with Mrs. Peters, who does art, and it was a lino cut, which is when you draw a picture on a piece of lino and Mrs. Peters cuts round the picture with a Stanley knife and then you put ink on the lino and press it onto the paper, which is why all the cars looked the same, because I did one car and pressed it onto the paper 9 times. And it was Mrs. Peters's idea to do lots of cars, which I liked. And I colored all the cars in with red paint to make it a Super Good Day for Mother." Possibly the cutest moment in the whole book. 

Scene 13: In Which Christopher explains why detective work is hard ["My body's nobody's body but Mine..."] 
  • "Talking to strangers is not something I usually do. I do not like talking to strangers. This is not because of Stranger Danger, which they tell us about at school, which is where a strange man offers you sweets or a ride in his car because he wants to do sex with you. I am not worried about that. If a strange man touched me I would hit him, and I can hit people very hard." Haghaghaghaghaghagh. Christopher is not worried, OK? He's got this on lockdown. No strangers with sweets trying to do sex with Him!
Scene 17: In Which we are introduced to Christopher's pet rat, Scabbers Tony
  • "Most people don't like rats because they think they carry diseases like bubonic plague. But that's only because they lived in sewers and stowed away on ships coming from foreign countries where there were strange diseases. But rats are very clean. Toby is always washing himself. And you don't have to take him out for walks. I just let him run around my room so that he gets some exercise. And sometimes he sits on my shoulder or hides in my sleeve like it's a burrow." So, true story. One Christmas, my oldest sister bought 2 pet rats for my middle sister, because at the time, she couldn't have large furry pets, and we thought Diana might be able to get behind the idea of pet white 'fancy rats' (actual breed name). To her credit, she got as far as naming them (one was Captain Cynthia - can't remember the other - anyone? Bueller?) before she donated them to the local high school's biology department to keep as classroom pets. Sorry, Christopher, not everyone can get behind rats. The tails were hard to stomach.
Policeman: "Jesus. What is that?"
And I looked down and I said, "That's my pet rat, Toby," because he was looking out of my pocket at the policeman.
 And the policeman said, "A pet rat?"
And I said, "Yes, a pet rat. He's very clean and he hasn't got bubonic plague."
 And the policeman said, "Well, that's reassuring."

Scene 19: In which Christopher almost has tea with his neighbor, Mrs. Alexander

Christopher, on being offered Battenberg cake (see picture): "I think I'd like the pink squares but not the yellow squares because I don't like yellow. And I don't know what marzipan is, so I don't know whether I'd like that.

Mrs. Alexander: "I'm afraid marzipan is yellow, too. Perhaps I should bring out some biscuits instead. Do you like biscuits?"

Christopher: "Yes. Some sorts of biscuits."

Mrs. Alexander: "I'll get a selection."  I thought this was such an adorable exchange. Mrs. Alexander just rolls with the punches where Christopher's specific rules are concerned, and she's one of the only people in the book who doesn't challenge or question his preferences or behaviors. Don't like yellow? Righty-ho then, a different color it is!

Scene 23: In Which Christopher tells us how he feels about the epithet 'special needs'
  •  "Siobhan (one of Christopher's teachers) said we have to use those words because people used to call children like the children at school spaz and crip and mong, which were nasty words. But that is stupid too because sometimes the children from the school down the road see us in the street when we're getting off the bus and they shout, "Special Needs! Special Needs!" But I don't take any notice because I don't listen to what other people say and only sticks and stones can break my bones and I have my Swiss Army knife if they hit me and if I kill them it will be self-defense and I won't go to prison." Like I said, Christopher has this on lock. Maaaaaybe take it down a notch, though, killer. ;)
Scene 29: In Which Christopher is caught in a rhetorical trap after his father finds out he has been detecting ADO (Against Dad's Orders, OBvi)

Christopher's Dad: "Is this true? Did you talk to Mrs. Alexander?"
"Holy fucking Jesus, Christopher. How stupid are you?"
   This is what Siobhan says is called a rhetorical question. It has a question mark at the end, but you are not meant to answer it because the person who is asking it already knows the answer. It is difficult to spot a rhetorical question." Hahgaghaghagh yes. It Can be Tricksy, Christopher!

Scene 31: In Which Christopher must venture out on his own for the first time, like Denver

"I had to get out of the house. Father had murdered Wellington. That meant he could murder me, because I couldn't trust him, even though he had said "Trust me", because he had told a lie about a big thing."

"And I had never been anywhere apart from the shop at the end of the road on my own. And the thought of going somewhere on my own was frightening." I was struck by the symmetry with Beloved on this reading, and the way in which Christopher's fear of his father is ignited by an act of violence, much like Denver's fear and mistrust of Sethe.

Scene 37: In Which Christopher embarks on an adventure to London after finding out his mother is Not dead and his father made Wellington an ex-Wellington (in a fit of rage at being spurned by the woman who owns Wellington (with whom he happens to be having an affair))
  • "And then there was no one else in front of the window and I said to the man behind the window, "I want to go to London," and I hadn't been frightened when I was with the policeman but I turned round and I saw that he had gone now and I was scared again, so I tried to pretend I was playing a game on my computer and it was called Train to London and it was like Myst or The 11th Hour, and you had to solve lots of different problems to get to the next level, and I could turn it off at any time." OMG MYST. OMG MYST. Now I just want to go play Myst all day. Anyone? Anyone? I'm still trying to figure out how to connect those wooden paths on the island. 
Scene 41: In Which Christopher shares his opinion on vacations being vastly overrated
  • "Siobhan says people go on holidays to see new things and relax, but it wouldn't make me relaxed and you can see new things by looking at earth under a microscope or drawing the shape of the solid made when 3 circular rods of equal thickness intersect at right angles. And I think that there are so many things just in one house that it would take years to think about all of them properly. And also, a thing is interesting because of thinking about it and not because of being new. For example, Siobhan showed me that you can wet your finger and rub the edge of a thin glass and make a singing noise. And you can put different amounts of water in different glasses and they make different notes because they have what are called different resonant frequencies, and you can play a tune like Three Blind Mice. And lots of people have thin glasses in their houses and they don't know you can do this." See, everyone!? Next time you think you need to run off to Cancun or Paris, just dig around in your house - I bet you have thin glasses in your house and you Don't Even Know It. 
Scene 43: In Which Christopher arrives at his not-dead Mother's flat in London and addresses her and her stunned boyfriend
  • "I stood up and I said, "You weren't in, so I waited for you." Classic. OH HI! Guess what? I'm HEEEEEEEEre! Sooprize!
Scene 47: In Which Christopher begins to (begrudgingly) reconcile with his father
  • "So I sat on the sofa and he sat on the armchair and Mother was in the hallway and Father said, "Christopher, look... things can't go on like this. I don't know about you, but this... this just hurts too much. You being in the house but refusing to talk to me... You have to learn to trust me... And I don't care how long it takes... If it's a minute one day and two minutes the next and three minutes the next and it takes years I don't care. Because this is important. This is more important than anything else.'   And then he said, "Let's call it... let's call it a project. A project we have to do together. You have to spend more time with me. And I... I have to show you that you can trust me. And it will be difficult at first because... because it's a difficult project. But it will get better. I promise." I recently watched the first few episodes of Parenthood, in which one of the couples discovers that their son, Max, has Asperger's. They've noticed changes in his behavior over the years, but the most recent conundrum is that Max will only wear a pirate costume to school, and is starting to get bullied. Max meets with a specialist who officially diagnoses him, and when the distraught parents ask how to get him out of the costume, the specialist tells them that they need to 'get down on his level' and climb into his world as a first step. The episode ends with a triumphant scene of Max's generally stiff and stodgy dad careening into the backyard wearing an adult pirate costume, and the two of them begin to duel with plastic swords. I can't imagine how difficult it would be to feel different, like Christopher or Max, or to love Christopher or Max, and want only the best, warmest, most comfortable life for them. I found both of these moments poignant because they speak to such unconditional parental love in the rawest moments of human connection.
As I was reading the book, I began to compile a list of ways in which Christopher and I are alike. Here's the final list:
  • We have a fear of meeting strangers: "I do not like strangers because I do not like people I have never met before. They are hard to understand. It takes me a long time to get used to people I do not know." 
  • We don't like small talk:  
Mrs. Alexander: "It's very nice of you to come and say hello."
  I didn't reply to this either because Mrs. Alexander was doing what is called chatting, where people say things to each other which aren't questions and answers and aren't connected. I was about to turn and walk away when she said, "I have a grandson your age."
     I tried to do chatting by saying, "My age is 15 years and 3 months and 3 days." 

and later...
Mrs. Alexander: "'Don't worry, I'm not going to tell your father, because there's nothing wrong with having a chat. Having a chat is just being friendly, isn't it.' 
Christopher: 'I can't do chatting.'"Haghahgahga. Neither can I, Christopher! Neither can I! (Aye, sister, SO did I!) I often have to mentally prompt myself to think of mundane questions to ask other people, and I find small talk immensely uncomfortable. 
  • Moving furniture makes us nauseous [or is it NauseAted, grandma?] "It is permitted to move the chairs and the table in the kitchen because that is different, but it makes me feel dizzy and sick if someone has moved the sofa and the chairs around in the living room or the dining room. Mother used to do this when she did the hoovering, so I made a special plan of where all the furniture was meant to be and did measurements and I put everything back in its proper place afterward and then I felt better." I got my first real office this year at work, and it took me nearly two weeks to settle on how I wanted to orient my desk. But each time I moved it, I felt dizzy and a little uncomfortable. It took me nearly 2 months to feel like it was truly settled. 
  • We both wanted to be astronauts when we were younger, but we both knew it would never work out.        Christopher - "I think I would make a very good astronaut."
  • Both like white noise (We both like Soup...): "On the fifth day, which was a Sunday, it rained very hard. I like it when it rains hard. It sounds like white noise everywhere, which is like silence but not empty." I've started listening to 'rainy mood', which is a website that just plays rain sounds on repeat, when I'm reading, or when I have a long project at work. I find it exceedingly soothing. 
  • Subway crowds = our own personal hell 
"There were lots of people on the train, and I didn't like that, because I don't like lots of people I don't know and I hate it even more if I am stuck in a room with lots of people I don't know, and a train is like a room and you can't get out of it when it's moving.
Then I went out of the toilet and I saw that opposite the toilet there were two shelves with cases and a rucksack on them and it made me think of the airing cupboard at home and how I climb in there sometimes and it makes me feel safe. So I climbed onto the middle shelf and I pulled one of the cases across like a door so that I was shut in, and it was dark and there was no one in there with me and I couldn't hear people talking so I felt much calmer and it was nice." When I lived in Arlington, Virginia, I lived off of the Orange metro line, and was therefore a lucky participant in the "ORANGE CRUSH" during rush hour, aka being smothered daily by other people (and their body odor) on the way to work. It may have been 3 degrees on my way to work today, and I may have felt my body shutting down during the commute which is too short for the heat to start working but guess what? No one else was in the car sitting on my face or obnoxiously talking politics or smushing me up against a glass door. So... #winning. This story also reminded me of when my sisters and I lost my cat, Suzy Chubsters, at a cabin we were staying at for New Year's. After several hours, we located her from her tiny squeak-meows, only to discover that she had climbed on top of some skillets in a cupboard when we pulled out a pan to bake cinnamon buns. Because I'm a crazy cat lady, sometimes I leave the tea-towel drawer open in my kitchen so that Suzy can climb into and behind it, because she likes to lurk in the dark space back there for hours on end. #iknow,mylifeisawesome #youknowyou'rejealous
  • We are both terrified by the sound of the subway train arriving: "And then there was a sound like people fighting with swords and I could feel a strong wind and a roaring started and I closed my eyes and the roaring got louder and I groaned really loudly but I couldn't block it out of my ears and I thought the little station was going to collapse or there was a big fire somewhere and I was going to die." Preeetty much how I felt every morning of the Orange Crush era.
I'd like to leave you with this final tidbit from charismatic Christopher's brain: 

"When I was asleep I had one of my favorite dreams. Sometimes I have it during the day, but then it's a daydream. But I often have it at night as well.
  And in the dream nearly everyone on the earth is dead, because they have caught a virus. But it's not like a normal virus. It's like a computer virus. And people catch it because of the meaning of something an infected person says and the meaning of what they do with their faces when they say it, which means that people can also get it from watching an infected person on television, which means that it spreads around the world really quickly.
   And eventually there is no one left in the world except people who don't look at other people's faces and who don't know what these pictures mean

and these people are all special people like me.
And I can go anywhere in the world and I know that no one is going to talk to me or touch me or ask me a question. But if I don't want to go anywhere I don't have to, and I can stay at home and eat broccoli and oranges and licorice laces all the time, or I can play computer games for a whole week, or I can just sit in the corner of the room and rub a 1 pound coin back and forward over the ripple shapes on the surface of the radiator."

What do you dream about? I'm not sure I'd want a whole world of people with my particular class of personality/mental makeup, but there's something so painfully poignant about Christopher's dream. Sure, it sounds like a nightmare for many (after all, it starts with a virus that basically triggers an apocalypse) but it gets at the idea of how wonderful it is to find a place where you can be you, in whatever way feels comfortable. 

Rubbing the coin on the ridges of the radiator reminded me that when I was younger, I had a pink 'blankie' covered with different patches of fabric and sewn over in places where it had ripped or gotten thin (and in one place it was even burned because I accidentally left it on top of my lamp - safety first, kids!) But anyway, I loved that blankie, and my favorite thing to do at the end of the day was just to rub my fingers along the edges - one side had a smooth, satiny binding, and one side was ragged, and felt scratchy and soft at the same time, and the rest was ridged all the way around. I think in my dream apocalypse, there are books everywhere, but people, too, and you can talk to the people if you want, but you can also just go into your separate velvet-covered reading rooms and snuggle into couches with hot cocoa and read silently on your own. I can do without the licorice laces, but endless bagels would be superb. And when it's time to go to sleep, I would pull my blankie out (no sneaking necessary - it's my dream, remember? so it's Cool to have a blankie when you're 28 there) and just serenely knead along the edges, switching from soft to ragged to smooth, over and over, until I drifted off to pleasant dreams. 

Well folks, we're down to the final six! Join me for Wan Conflagration if you care or dare!

Sending you thoughts of warm cocoa, soft velvet reading couches, and the land of pleasant dreams. 

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