I am told that a teenager with Asperger's syndrome might very well have a sense of humour, even if it might seem odd to most of us. But clinical accuracy takes second place to narrative intent in Mark Haddon's novel, whose autistic narrator, Christopher, is taken to have no such sense. "This will not be a funny book," he tells us. The statement is not made ironically: Christopher means exactly what he says. Yet there is irony here, for this is a very funny book.
It is presumed that Christopher cannot understand humour because it consists in the disparity between pretension and reality. Christopher either does not see such a gap, or registers it with bafflement. "I cannot tell jokes because I do not understand them." So jokes become funny by not being seen as jokes. Christopher is surrounded by grimly jovial adults, whose jests he uncomprehendingly records (and inadvertently satirises). Here he calls on a neighbour.
Mr Thompson answered the door. He was wearing a T-shirt which said
Helping ugly people
Have sex for
Mr Thompson said, "Can I help you?"
Mr Thompson, whose conversation is undistinguished by humour, bears his printed fragment of wit as a kind of blazon. Christopher cannot understand, but duly transcribes the message. In his blank recording, the declaration of the T-shirt wearer's drollness really does become funny, and just as nonsensical as it must seem to Christopher.
But then many a joke is unfunny. Arriving in London, Christopher asks a shopkeeper the directions to his mother's flat, and is told to buy an A-Z.
And I said, "Is that the A to Z?" and I pointed at the book.
And he said, "No, it's a sodding crocodile."
And I said, "Is that the A to Z?" because it wasn't a crocodile and I thought I had heard wrongly because of his accent.
And he said, "Yes, it's the A to Z."
The retailer's sarcasm is no match for his customer's pertinacity.
And he said, "Do you want to go one way, or do you want to go and come back?"
And I said, "I want to stay there when I get there."
And he said, "For how long?"
And I said, "Until I go to university."
And he said, "Single, then."
The ticket-salesman's wit is perfume on the desert air.
Haddon's is an unusual variation on a known technique. Think of Charles Pooter, the unconsciously absurd narrator of George and Weedon Grossmith's Diary of a Nobody. To hilarious effect, his authors gifted him with an utter earnestness in his genteel pretensions. In The Curious Incident, the narrator's humourlessness is the sine qua non of the humour. We all know the peculiar effect of deadpan humour, where our laughter is caused by the refusal of another person to acknowledge that what is said is funny. This is deadpan without the intent.
Christopher has found a neighbour's dog dead on the lawn, impaled on a garden fork. "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." From any other narrator, the long sentence here would be self-consciously, irritatingly fantastic. From Christopher, it is an earnest approximation to logic. It is funny because many of the world's incidents are mysterious, and he is just trying to cover the possible angles. You never know. And we will indeed find that the normal adults in the story are capable of the funniest (peculiar and ha-ha) actions.
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