WINNER OF THE Whitbread Book of the Year and one of the biggest hits of 2003 when it appeared in hardback, with a narrator, Christopher, who has Asperger's syndrome (though this is never stated in the book, only in the cover blurb), and the solving of the mystery of a neighbour's dead dog, which leads to the messy revealing of family secrets. But what, you may reasonably ask, does it have to do with hills?
Nothing, or so one might think. But I was only on page one when a sense of familiarity started to creep up on me. Page one, but the chapter was headed 2. Odd; had I missed something? I flicked back to the previous page - only acknowledgements there, so no. Page two and the new chapter was headed 3 - that's all right then. But the next chapter was headed 5 and the one after that 7, followed by 11, then 13, 17... I would bet that a large percentage of the readership of TAC has the explanation already, but I, being not very mathematically inclined, had to wait for the narrator to provide it on page 14 (chapter 19): "Chapters in books are usually given the cardinal numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and so on. But I have decided to give my chapters prime numbers 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13 and so on because I like prime numbers."
Immediately I recalled Alan Dawson's Marhofn, the Marilyn Baggers' newsletter: the 2001 edition is numbered 58.03, the 2002 one 84.04, the 2003 one 93.05, and this year's 106.06. What the hell is going on there? Well, so I'm told, the first number is the total of people in the Marilyn Hall of Fame (who have climbed 600 Marilyns and informed Alan - Ed.) at the time of publication, and the second is the issue number. Perfectly logical, just not what you'd expect - like using prime numbers for chapters. And then, with the synchronicity that comes to those who faff about long enough writing their reviews, two letters appear in TAC62 (p17) linking prime numbers and hills. Perfect.
Soon there was something else familiar: "...if you see someone's name", The Curious Incident continues on page 32, "and you give each letter a value from 1 to 26 (a = 1, b = 2 etc) and you add the numbers up in your head and you find that it makes a prime number, like Jesus Christ (151), or Scooby Doo (113), or Sherlock Holmes (163), or Doctor Watson (167) ..." Not quite the old Corrie game of adding up the number of different letters in a name and then the total number of letters, the aim being to end up with two numbers the same, eg Hamish Brown is 11:11; but not far off either. (See, for example, TAC22 p15 and TAC23 p15.)
Cambridge psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen (cousin of the more famous Ali G) advances the controversial theory that autism (of which Asperger's syndrome is at the high-functioning end) is an extreme case of the male brain, which he characterises as low-empathising, high-systemising. This contrasts with the high-empathising, low-systemising typical female brain. I'm no psychologist, but on the basis of a totally unscientific sample of one, my TAC-editorial other, I think Baron-Cohen may be on to something. Christopher's systematising brain craves order, routine and familiarity. I cite the Ed for comparison: if 504 times up Ben Cleuch isn't routine and familiarity, I don't know what is.
Christopher's spatial sense is highly developed and his ability to draw accurate and complex diagrams of places he has visited only once - a classic idiot savant skill - would be envied by many a hillwalker. He knows about astronomy and Occam's Razor and the ocean depths, but understands far less of how the world works in terms of people and the day-to-day practicalities of living. A train journey from Swindon to London to solve the family mystery is an expedition in threatening territory: he can't cope with crowds, with too much sensory stimulus and unfamiliarity. But he is determined and dogged and brave; he buys an A-Z and reaches his destination and a new life.
After so much hype, I feared The Curious Incident would disappoint, but it did not. It is funny and sad and touching and very clever in its apparent simplicity. Haddon lets us see both the world through Christopher's eyes and Christopher through the world's eyes, and thereby succeeds in making us empathise with a narrator who is virtually unable to empathise with others himself.
I read somewhere that Haddon did little or no research on autism or Asperger's syndrome, but rather started with the idea of writing a funny book and hit on using a completely deadpan narrator. Perhaps this is why one expert (Ann Karmiloff-Smith, "Tales of autism, with and without a Rainman gloss", Times Higher Educational Supplement, 11/6/04) notes that he gets many aspects of the syndrome wrong while capturing others beautifully - the tendency, for example, to take language literally, and the insistence on obsessive rituals.
Numbers feature prominently in The Curious Incident, thanks to Christopher's observational acuity and pre-occupation with precise timings. The school psychiatrist's brown shoes have "approximately 60 tiny circular holes"; Christopher "had been hugging the dog for 4 minutes", is "15 years and 3 months and 2 days" old, and to keep calm he works out cubes of cardinal numbers or does quadratic equations in his head. Again, I cite the Ed. I don't know if he does quadratic equations to keep calm, but his "teeming brain" (© Perkin Warbeck in the foreword to Walking the Watershed, 1994) is certainly full of numbers - running totals of obscure categories of hills climbed, a tally of taxis in Glasgow - and it connects these numbers in, to me, obscure ways, imposing order. The Ed's number of ascents of Ben Cleuch is the same as Bradman's batting average, or the height of Ben Nevis is the same as the number of football teams in the Scottish Prem-ier League. And then there are the trig points: the ritual of noting down on the back of the map the number of each one bagged and then deciding if it's a "nice" number, not to mention the grand plan to visit, in order, a trig point of each height from lowest to highest in Scotland (13 of 748 done so far; he may be some time).
Of course, the Ed is not the only one. Years of pedantic discussions in TAC, overwhelmingly from its male contributors, on heights and lists and grid references and boring squares and fundamental benchmarks and flush brackets are proof of that. Nor is it just TAC: the internet is infested with a mind-boggling range of manifestations of the boys-and-numbers phenomenon: sites on road numbers, on bus- and train-spotting, on electricity pylons, for heaven's sake. Readers will already be familiar with the trig sites http://groups.msn.com/OSBM/ and http://www.nmc-ramblers.org.uk/trig/index.php (see TAC59, p11), but perhaps not with Summits on the Air, http://www.qsl.net/g4zay/homepage.html, "an award scheme for radio amateurs and shortwave listeners that encourages portable operation in mountainous areas", where "each summit earns the activators and chasers a score which is related to the height of the summit."
For those who prefer wheels, Chris's British Road Directory, www.cbrd.co.uk, welcomes you to "a sort of fan site dedicated to the entire road network of mainland Britain", with a whole section on "Duplicated Road Numbers" and with the 2/10/04 update promising "a thorough exploration of Halifax's visionary inner relief road, Burdock Way. Learn more about it than you ever thought possible with a full history and a photo tour of the route today." I can't wait.
But pick of the bunch has to be Pylon of the Month, http://users.tinyonline.co.uk/bigh/bigh/pylonof.htm, "dedicated to the humble electricity pylon, whose beauty remains tragically unrecognised. Railed against by misguided environmentalists, these delightful constructions enhance and beautify their surroundings, providing a comforting reminder of Man's harnessing of the forces of nature. They also provide children and adults alike with the opportunity to engage in the fascinating and rewarding hobby of electricity pylon number collecting."
Christopher succeeds in solving the mystery of the dog in the night-time, but this lot are just barking mad.
TAC 63 Index