I’ve always regretted that the phrase ‘Asperger Syndrome’ appeared on the cover of Curious Incident when it was first published. Mostly because the central conceit was that Christopher himself had written the book (for a long time it had the dull but accurate working title, Christopher’s Book) and ‘Asperger Syndrome’ is not a phrase he uses. In the book he refers to himself only as ‘someone who has Behavioural Problems’.
I prefer the wry humour in these words. I like the way it gently mocks the diagnostic medical language. I like the way it includes all of us (who doesn’t have behavioural problems?). But I like it most of all because it is Christopher’s own phrase. Labels tell us very little about the person who has been labelled and a lot about the people doing the labelling. If you want to find out who someone is, just ask them.
In the early eighties I spent several months working at an Adult Training Centre in North London. There was a great deal of discussion at the time about the language used to describe people who had what were coming to be known as learning difficulties but were more widely known as mental handicaps. The adults who attended the centre nine-to-five, Monday to Friday, were known as ‘trainees’ despite the fact that they were trained to do very little, so the staff were keen to replace the word. When asked for his opinion, a middle-aged trainee called Clive said, dryly, ‘I think we should be called The Obedient Dogs’. His suggestion comes back to me every time I hear well-intentioned people searching for the appropriate PC language. Clive is probably called a ‘client’ now.
One of the other reasons I regret the words ‘Asperger Syndrome’ appearing on the original cover of Curious Incident is that it sparked a sometimes heated and often misguided debate which rumbles on quietly to this day. In short, is Christopher a correct representation of someone with the condition? The assumption being that there is indeed a correct representation of someone with the condition. I think it is indicative of the way we think about people we label ‘disabled’ that we can even ask this question. We would never ask if a character in a novel was a correct representation of a cellist or a lesbian or an archbishop. There is no such thing. And the same is true for people who are given the label ‘disabled’. They are as various and individual as any other group in society.
Does Christopher seem real? That’s the question you should ask. That’s the question you should ask of any character in any book. Does he seem rich and layered and believable or does he feel like a lazy arrangement of words on the page? I’m happy for readers to answer ‘No’, just as long as we agree on the question.
As it happens, when I was putting Christopher together I drew upon a long list of beliefs, habits, quirks and behaviours which I borrowed from friends and acquaintances and members of my own family. It would be unfair of me to name the person who can’t eat a plate of food if the broccoli and salmon are touching, or the person who can’t use a toilet if a stranger has used it. Suffice to say that neither of them would be labelled as having a disability. Which is only to say that Christopher is not that different from the rest of us. It’s the number and combination of his eccentricities which cause him difficulties.
For the record, I have been – and continue to be – immensely touched by the letters I get from readers of the novel. Some write to say that their mother or father or brother or sister didn’t really understand them until they got them to read Curious. Others write saying that they didn’t really understand their mother or father or brother or sister until they themselves read Curious (most, of course, write to me to disagree with Christopher’s explanation of the Monty Hall problem). Though it makes me sad, too, that it took a work of fiction to open a door you would hope people could have opened themselves with persistence and a little imagination.
For the record I’m also hugely flattered that the book has become a set text for schoolchildren around the world. What writer doesn’t want more and more readers reading their work more closely?
But I’m a little uneasy when, as occasionally happens, it is used as a textbook, and handed to policemen or social workers to give them some insight into the behaviour of people they might come across in their professional lives.
I’m in favour of anything that introduces a little more empathy into the world, but I’d like to fight the corner for Curious simply as a novel. Of course, it’s about disability and our attitudes towards it, but it’s about many other things as well: mathematics, families, Sherlock Holmes, truth, bravery, Swindon, railways…
It’s also a novel about the act of reading. It contains huge gaps that readers fill without noticing. Christopher, for example, never says what he looks like, the clothes he wears, the way his hair is cut, whether he is skinny or fat, tall or short. In spite of this most readers have a vivid image of him. And this, I suspect, is one of the many reasons why so many of them feel a peculiar sense of ownership about the book, for when they close the final page they have had an experience which is, to a large extent, of their own making.
If I was being contentious I might say that Curious is not really about Christopher at all. Christopher is an outsider, and novelists are drawn to outsiders of all kinds – Robinson Crusoe, Raskolnikov, Holden Caulfield, Jane Eyre and Benjy Compson – because they grant us a privileged position from which we are able to look back at ourselves. Curious is about us.