'A common feature of contemporary fiction is the questioning of the nature of fiction itself.' Discuss with reference to two or more of the novels.

I do not tell lies. Mother used to say that this was because I was a good person. But it is not because I am a good person. It is because I can’t tell lies. (Haddon, 2003, p. 24)

Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Monica Ali’s Brick Lane are both novels that are concerned with the real world, and at their heart concerned with humanity. There are no elements of fantasy or science-fiction in either. They are fictional in so far as the plot and the characters have been made-up by each writer, but even this cannot be claimed for certain, as the writers may well have used people and events from their own lives. The reader believes that Christopher Boone has a form of autism and lives with his father in Swindon, just as they also believe that Nazneen is originally from Bangladesh and has been married off to a Bangladeshi man living in Tower Hamlets in London. There is nothing in either novel that could not actually happen in ‘real’ life, i.e. the life that all literature aims to express in some way. Therefore, the question may be posited: what makes fiction fictional? In order to answer this it is necessary to consider the criteria of fiction: plot, character, setting, themes and metaphors to name a few.
It is interesting to note a quote from a review printed on the Jonathan Cape hardback edition of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: ‘I have never read anything quite like Mark Haddon’s funny and agonizingly honest book, or encountered a narrator more vivid and memorable’. This is attributed to Arthur Golden, the author of Memoirs of a Geisha and another writer who constructs so precise a representation of Japan in the early 1900s that on first reading it is assumed to be an authentic autobiography. The fact that it is not illustrates the ease with which a factual account of an incident or time and a piece of fiction concerned with the same can so easily be confused. It may also be perceived as a form of deception. This is certainly how the protagonist of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time sees it.
My name is a metaphor. It means carrying Christ ... it was the name given to St Christopher because he carried Jesus Christ across a river ... Mother used to say that it meant Christopher was a nice name because it was a story about being kind and helpful, but I do not want my name to mean a story about being kind and helpful. I want my name to mean me. (Haddon, 2003, p. 20)
In the same way that Christopher describes metaphors negatively as lies fiction could be described negatively as gossip. If, as has been noted, neither novel contains any element of fantasy or fairytale it is far more difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is that makes tem entertaining to read. It must surely be the same thing that occupies the Bangladeshi women of Nazneen’s council estate, as they while away their long hours arguing with each other, sharing anecdotes, stating opinions and coming to conclusions. In the case of these women they enjoy stories of discord and disharmony within their immigrant communities: stories of secret liaisons between English girls and Bangladeshi boys - ‘His father saw him in a pub with a white girl’ (Ali, 2003, p. 48); rumours of divorce – ‘He has another wife that he forgot to mention for the past eleven years’ (Ali, 2003, p. 71); and tales of suicide – ‘at sixteen floors up, if you decide to jump, then there’s the end to it’ (Ali, 2003, p. 27). They create their own dramas and tragedies, and perform them on the stages of their collective minds, simultaneously enacting the roles of playwright and audience. Brick Lane plays on the borders of fact and fiction. It describes incidents that occur regularly in the actual world of London’s urban sprawl and therefore incidents that are part of a society the reader themselves is likely to be familiar with, even in only a small way. Thus the details of the narrative draw on the reader’s own experiences and emotions: ‘May God save us from such wicked men’ And from ourselves too, that we should enjoy such stories. (Ali, 2003, p. 71)
It is only when Nazneen makes this pertinent plea that the reader checks themselves, realising guiltily that they are just as much a busybody as the characters whose meandering conversations they are listening in on.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time differs from Brick Lane in the way it presents the events of real life. As the story is told through the eyes of its protagonist, who ‘cannot do chatting’ it reads in a manner reminiscent of a written report or case file. This is particularly evident with Christopher’s answer to a complicated maths equation, which he determinedly includes at the end of the novel in an Appendix. Christopher makes it clear from the beginning that The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is intended as a crime novel: ‘This is a murder mystery novel’ (Haddon, 2003, p. 5). It is also early on that he establishes his dislike, even distrust, of fiction: ‘I do not like proper novels’ (Haddon, 2003, p. 5). He cannot understand them and this is his reason for not liking them. The difference between a proper novel and a murder mystery novel is that ‘someone has to work out who the murderer is’ (Haddon, 2003, p. 5). For Christopher there is a point, ‘It is a puzzle.’ (Haddon, 2003, p. 5). The essential difference here would seem to be that fiction often does not have a clear destination. Much like life it includes things that are irrelevant to plot developments – red herrings as Christopher explains in Chapter ... – such as ‘ “I’m worried that I might have left the gas cooker on.” ‘ (Haddon, 2003, p. 178). Yet while such irrelevant things do not interest Christopher they are integral to the way most other people go about their daily lives. Art, as has been hotly debated, acts as a mirror to life. If fiction is intended to reflect the actual world it must include all aspects of that world, whether they are vital or not. It is only when the writer attempts to manipulate their representation of the world in order to achieve a final message or moral point that the practice of including irrelevant details is called into question.
This idea of the pursuit of purpose or destination is observable in the lives of the characters in Brick Lane. Nazneen’s purpose is to get back to her sister, while Chanu’s is to achieve his promotion. In their personal strivings they question the nature of their existence and the events that have led them to the situations they find themselves in. This follows an early established preoccupation in the plot of the dialectic between fate and free will.
Fighting against one’s Fate can weaken the blood. Sometimes, or perhaps most times, it can be fatal. Not once did Nazneen question the logic of the story of How You Were Left To Your Fate. (Ali, 2003, p. 15)
Both protagonists experience dreams as forms of relief and escape, within which they are free to go wherever they want and do whatever they want. They become omnipotent, able to affect the world – to change it so that it meets their desires, especially in Christopher’s case.
And I take a ladder from Father’s van and I climb onto the roof, and when I get to the edge of a roof I put the ladder across the gap and I climb to the next roof, because in a dream you are allowed to do anything. (Haddon, 2003, p. 243)
In his dream world he can do the things he cannot do in real life, even though this real life is supposedly unreal, from the reader’s point of view. The achievement of the plot here is that it establishes a set of rules for the world in which The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is set, and anything that rebels against those rules cause excitement and intrigue. Therefore when Christopher sets out on his journey to London the boundaries he normally operates within are being broken. This is what gives the narrative its drama and entices the reader to read on. In the same way Nazneen breaks the rules in her dreaming, which occurs in the day as well as at night.
And she drifted off to where she wanted to be, in Gouripur tracing letters in the dirt with a stick while Hasina danced around her on six-year-old feet. In Gouripur, in her dreams, she was always a girl and Hasina was always six. Amma scolded and cuddled, and smelled as sweet as the skin on milk when it had been boiled all day with sugar. (Ali, 2003, p. 45)
Not only has Nazneen escaped the confines of her flat in grey suburban London but she is young again, in a time and placed preserved in her and protected in her memory. It is almost spiritual in its perfection, with her family around her, fresh and uncontaminated. The image is so different from the reality that it just as powerfully depicts the latter, which is so alien to her understanding of the world.
Another person who dreams in Brick Lane is Chanu, but in a different way to Nazneen. He is far more vocal for one, emptying his head and his heart to his quiet wife.
He talked and she listened. Often she had the feeling that he was not talking to her, or rather that she was only part of a larger audience for whom the speech was meant. He smiled at her but his eyes were always searching, as if she were a face in the crowd singled out for only a moment. He was loud, he talked, he joked, and he sang or hummed. (Ali, 2003, p. 42)
In this passage Chanu comes across as a performer, self-centred and yet contemplative at the same time. He is not depicted as the traditional baddie; he does not suppress his wife callously by beating her into submission. Ali gives him soul and sadness of his own, adding another layer of realism to her text. The reader comes to empathise with him as well as Nazneen, agreeing with her conviction: ‘She was in this country because that was what had happened to her. Anyone else, therefore, was here for the same reason’ (Ali, 2003, p. 72).
It is worth mentioning the concept of texts within texts. In the case of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Brick Lane this is most obviously demonstrated in the form of letters. In the latter novel there are two sub-narratives to be found, both concerning the whereabouts of Christopher’s mother. The first is the sketchy account given by his father of his mother’s death and the second is her written correspondence detailing her new life with Roger. The power of fiction is revealed here. Christopher’s understanding of the people around him is shaken and demolished as he learns things are not what they had previously seemed to him. Consequently the truth drives him to do something he would never have considered doing beforehand.
Sister I think of you every day and send love. I send respect to husband. (...)
‘Once there was prince who lived in far off land seven seas and thirteen rivers away.’ That is how I think of you. But as princess.
We see each other before long time pass and we as little girls again. (Ali, 2003, p. 26)
Similarly, it is through sporadic letters that Nazneen manages to stay connected to her sister’s life and times. It is again through this connection to the truth that the protagonist is able to maintain her identity and sense of personal conviction. It is clear from the way in which each protagonist learns from these letters that people need to understand the past before they can make sense of their present. In order to understand the past it must be recounted in detail, and by virtue of its being passed this is impossible to do accurately. As L. P. Hartley once famously wrote in his novel The Go-Between, ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’. For Christopher and for Nazneen who remember their past so vividly this is something that they are very aware of – how different things were back then.
Both The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Brick Lane are works of fiction. However, when considering the nature of fiction it is interesting that neither are narratives in which the reader can experience what is typically termed ‘escaping’. They are novels that deal with the world, in particular South East England, as perceived by two individuals who are seen as different; Christopher as a consequence of being born with Asperger’s syndrome; and Nazneen because she is an immigrant from Bangladesh. Yet both narratives progress, events occur, characters grow and denouements and conclusions are reached. What is achieved by both texts is the notion that life itself is a narrative – that at times there is very little to distinguish fiction from reality.
 
Bibliography

Ali, Monica. Brick Lane. (2003) Black Swan: London.

Haddon, Mark. A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. (2003) Jonathan Cape: London.