Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Mark Haddon, through the protagonist’s obsession with prime numbers, his aversion to people and yellow and brown objects, succeeds in writing from an autistic person’s point of view. The drama around his family unfolds as Christopher, the protagonist, obsessively searches for the dog’s killer and when he finds out what happened to his mother, the “skeletons” in this dysfunctional family overwhelms him. Christopher’s mother left because she couldn’t deal with the drama around him. So he travels to London to look for her.
London Underground ("The Tube")

After he visits her, she argues with her new lover and breaks up with him. So, Christopher remains the central character around his parents’ lives. The dynamics between Christopher and those around him keeps the story moving forward and grips the reader’s interest. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a novel unlike others and through it we begin to appreciate an autistic person’s mindset.

Ryu Murakami's Coin Locker Babies

Their mothers left them to die in coin lockers when they were born, but they survived. Kiku and Hashi grew up together in a foster home as brothers, but must deal with their own demons.

Kiku becomes a pole vaulter and eventually kills his mother, landing him in jail. But he escapes and goes to the Garagi Island to search for a substance call “DATURA,” which he would use to destroy Tokyo.

Hashi becomes a bisexual singer and rises to stardom on the heel of Kiku’s killing his mother. But the trauma of surviving the coin locker continues to haunt him and it destroys his career. He kills his pregnant wife and journeys into a surreal world, and he couldn't escape the nightmare.

In Coin Locker Babies, Ryu Murakami ventures into the fringes of society. And Toxitown is a symbol of the darkness in the protagonists and an entire society. Kiku hears the murmuring, perhaps recalling his mother’s beating while he was in the womb. And Hashi believes he has swallowed a fly with a human face and he must kill to continue his success. Two broken individuals reflecting Toxitown reflecting society. But we would find Toxitown not just in Tokyo but also in New York, London, Paris, etc. Murakami’s graphic description of its mutated denizens and their activities matches the story’s theme and his commentary of contemporary society. He means to shock the readers, and moviegoers, and he succeeds. The kid with the hole in his head is only the beginning.

The surrealist, and dreamlike, ending blunts the horror but leaves the reader wondering whether Kuku will use “DATURA” on Tokyo and whether Hashi has become insane. Still, whatever happens, Murakami makes his point and the reader will recall Toxitown’s landscape, the crocodile’s death in the highway, Kiku shooting his mother on live TV, Hashi stabbing his wife in the shower, and all the while D, the producer, looking to sell more and more of Hashi’s records. Not everyone will be able to stomach the book, but if a reader can pass the first paragraph, then he or she will be ready to enter Murakami’s dark world and glimpse into contemporary society’s tormented souls.

Richard Wright's Native Son

From time to time, a voice from the desert would call and awaken us and Native Son was and still is such a voice.

Bigger Thomas in a panic suffocated Mary Dalton and then burned her body to hide the crime and to avoid capture he smashed Bessie Mears with a brick and let her freeze to death. There is no question of the brutality of the crimes. An even Bigger, when in jail, believes he deserves to die for them.

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog

But through the story of Bigger Thomas, Richard Wright depicts a people confined to the edge of existence. Their physical segregation, having to live in certain neighborhoods in the city, symbolizes their existential segregation. Mr. Dalton, the building’s owner and Bigger’s employer, donates to help the Black community, but still allows his landlords to only rent units in certain neighborhood to Blacks. Perhaps the social force overwhelms this man’s will to kindness.

To Bigger, white people aren’t flesh and blood but an impersonal force overwhelming him. “To Bigger and his kind white people were not really people; they were a sort of natural force, like a stormy sky looming overhead, or like a deep swirling river stretching suddenly at one's feet in the dark. As long as he and his black folks did not go beyond certain limits, there was no need to fear that white force. But whether they fear it or not, each and every day of their lives they lived with it.”

So when Mary and Jan try to befriend Bigger and treat him better than other whites had, Bigger feels that force upon him. They, perhaps unknowingly, exert their power on him and Bigger resents that, even if the power comes from their kindness and goodness. He doesn’t want to be told what to do; he wants to live. And so he hates Mary and Jan for forcing him to do something he doesn’t want to. He tells his attorney Max, “Mr. Max, a guy gets tired of being told what he can do and can’t do. You get a little job here and a little job there. You shine shoes, sweep streets; anything… You don’t make enough to live on. You don’t know when you going to get fired. Pretty soon you get so you can’t hope for nothing. You just keep moving all the time, doing what other folks say. You ain’t a man no more.”

“‘I always wanted to do something,’ he mumbled.” Bigger wants to fly a plane but he is Black and he is poor, so he can’t attend aviation school. And he expresses this confinement to his friend Gus as “They don’t let us do nothing.”

While he’s on the run, Bigger realizes that killing the two girls was his only true acts of living in his entire life. He has done something to assert his existence rather than follow the dictates of other. “In all of his life these two murders were the most meaningful things that had ever happened to him. He was living, truly and deeply, no matter what others might think, looking at him with their blind eyes. Never had he had the chance to live out the consequences of his actions; never had his will been so free as in this night and day of fear and murder and flight.” It is Bigger’s tragedy that only through killing the girls could he assert his existence, could he live.

I recommend Native Son for its depiction of a people living in the fringes, the despair and the sense of confinement, the longing to live fully. We need not agree with all of Richard Wright’s arguments to sense that despair and struggle, to appreciate the progress since the book’s publishing, to assess the road ahead. And realize our common humanity.

William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying

As in Faulkner’s other works, madness dominates As I Lay Dying. Addie Bundren’s dying wish is the be buried with her people in Jackson, Mississippi, rather than near her home, a request that would bring hardship to the family. And Anse, the husband, agrees to this journey and jeopardizes the family’s safety and livelihood, perhaps with the ulterior motive of getting a set of false teeth. When Cash broke his leg trying to drive the wagon with coffin across the river, they put cement on his leg to make a cast and the doctor has to crack the cement and peel his skin to remove it. Darl, the second son, in trying to destroy the coffin, burns down a barn, almost killing all of its owner’s cattle. Dewey Dell, the daughter, tries to get an abortion by getting some concoction in a drug store but only end up being taken advantaged of. Madness, madness and madness.

The family’s tragic-comedy shows its dysfunction. Dr. Peabody said to Cash, “God Almighty, why didn’t Anse carry you to the nearest sawmill and stick your leg in the saw? That would have cured it. Then you all could have stuck his head into the saw and cured a whole family…” Perhaps it is sarcasm but in light of the absurdity throughout the novel, this is wisdom indeed. In this sense, Faulkner is as much of an existentialist of absurdity as Camus.

In this novel Faulkner proves again to be a stylist, using multiple first-person POV and stream of consciousness. The nearness to the characters and the jumble thoughts reflect this dysfunctional family’s madness. And the stream of consciousness (italic text) versus the monologue (normal text) highlights the conflict between the characters’ internal and external worlds, the inability to express thoughts and emotions. The tension is almost suffocating and echoes the summer heat in the Mississippi. To read As I Lay Dying is to feel the tension and the madness that is the Bundren family.

To highlight that madness, at the end of the novel Darl, the sanest in the family, is committed to the sanitarium, and Anse, for all his eager in fulfilling Addie’s dying wish, gets a set of false teeth and finds his next wife. In the last sentence, when he says, “Meets Mrs. Bundren,” we can only laugh and appreciate Faulkner’s sense of humor and sarcasm.

Life is flimsy indeed, not only because Addie died and Cash broke his leg and Darl has to go to the sanitarium and Dewey Dell may have to become a mother, but also because Mrs. Bundren has transformed from the deceased Addie to this new woman. Vardaman’s fish has resurrected.