Many readers will have their experience of Mark Haddon's novel shaped by a technical peculiarity of which they might not be conscious. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time uses a sans serif font: that is, a simple kind of print in which letters lack the little tails and plinths that printers call serifs. This is highly unusual in any published book; the conventional wisdom is that serifs help the brain's visual apparatus as a line of print is scanned. The tiny thickenings and thinnings of the limbs of every letter give the eye something to catch on to. Sans serif fonts may be used in advertisements, headlines and the like, but their simplicity is almost physically uncomfortable in any lengthy text.
The font's discomfiting simplicity is perfectly suited to Haddon's narrator, Christopher, in all his pedantic veracity. He narrates plainly (sometimes just cataloguing or enumerating) and the plainness is even there in the lettering. Reading a page printed like this is, I think, visually disconcerting. Graphically speaking, we are in Christopher's nuance-free world from the start. We are unsettled by its lack of variation, just as we will become conscious of his flat-voiced failure to sense the emotions and tones of the novel's other characters.
Christopher himself hardly has a tone except plainness. One of several reasons why this is intriguing in a novel (as it would not be in life) is that it comes close to parodying what the novel as a genre originally set out to achieve. In his hugely influential The Rise of the Novel, the critic Ian Watt described one of the distinctive features of the novel form, in its first 18th-century experiments, as "a prose which restricts itself almost entirely to a descriptive and denotative use of language." Its "realism" committed the novelist to a plain style, avoiding ornamentation and figurative extravagance.
For Christopher, all language's indirectness (metaphor, irony, understatement) is mysterious. His narrative is prose reduced to its most literal patterns, accuracy its only standard. It allows for some similes, but only, as Christopher himself tells us, to show us some literal resemblance. When he says that a policeman with a very hairy nose "looked as if there were two very small mice hiding in his nostrils," it is because "it really did look like there were two very small mice hiding in his nostrils." A simile is not a lie, "unless it is a bad simile.".
He reports things. He collects observations and strings together statements. Never can there have been a novel in which so many sentences, indeed so many paragraphs, begin with the word "And." Doggedly, he pursues a founding ambition of the novel: to be true to the world of circumstantial facts. "I see everything." Travelling on his own to London for the first time, he must describe exactly the condition of the lavatory on the train. His descriptions are collections of "things I noticed," unsorted by significance or priority. Sometimes he provides diagrams, as if these fulfilled the purposes of narrative in a more satisfactory way. He tells us things because they are true, and we begin to realise what a strange standard the plain truth truly is.
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