Thursday, February 19, 2015

Do you hear it, too? Specificity and universality

I came across a clever device recently when reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon. This was quite a popular book when it came out and is now a Broadway show, but for those of you don't know, it is a sort of mystery book written from the point of view of a highly functioning autistic boy named Christopher.

One of the enjoyable things about the story is that it gets filtered through the perceptions of the narrator, which are highly unusual and fascinating to the non-autistic reader. It shouldn't really work, because the narrator tends toward the literal, admits he doesn't understand metaphors, and can't interpret emotional cues from other people--all things that make it hard to succeed at good storytelling. But on the other hand, Christopher loves specificity, feels emotions intensely, and loves a good mystery--and these are the things that make the book come alive.

Another thing that makes it work is that Christopher tends to assume that you (the reader) experience thing just like he does--and when he does this it serves not only to highlight the way in which Christopher might experience things differently from his audience, but also to transmit that experience more vividly than would be possible by simply "explaining" it. Here's the example that caught my attention. Christopher has just discovered the corpse of a neighbor's dog and is highly distraught:
"I rolled back onto the lawn and pressed my forehead to the ground again and made the noise that Father calls groaning. I make this noise when there is too much information coming into my head from the outside world. It is like when you are upset and you hold the radio against your ear and you tune it halfway between two stations so that all you get is white noise and then you turn the volume right up so that this is all you can hear and then you know you are safe because you cannot hear anything else."
--pp7-8. Mark Haddon. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. Vintage Contemporaries: New York, NY; 2003.
Snipped from the Guardian.
Christopher's comparison is to an experience he assumes he has in common with the reader: "It is like when you are upset and you hold the radio against your ear..." etc. From this, we discover that Christopher finds multiple stimuli disarming and prefers focusing on one, constant noise or activity.We also learn that his groaning is not merely an expression of distress, but also a soothing mechanism. This discovery is all the more compelling for that fact that many of his audience probably feel just the opposite--the sound of radio static turned up full volume might actually cause some to go crazy, for example--and for Christopher's age (he is taking pre-college math courses), rolling on the ground and groaning is not generally how most would find comfort, at least not in public.

The fact that Christopher doesn't know that his reactions are unusual gives the universe of the narrative all the more power--it dramatizes his emotional limits and the limits of his perceptions, while paradoxically, admitting us more fully into his inner life. For example, even though we might not relate specifically to radio static as an emotional outlet, the way he speaks about it makes it feel familiar--he listens to it "so that this [noise] is all you can hear and then you know you are safe because you cannot hear anything else." We've all sought this kind of refuge in some context--absorbing ourselves in a task or distraction to avoid some larger discomfort. With this device, suddenly something very specific to one boy becomes universal.

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