Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A Spot of Bother - Mark Haddon

Mark Haddon is truly a jack of all trades, having spent his life doing an assortment of jobs, but he always retained a rather creative outlet.  He started his literary career with children's books, many of which he illustrated himself.  He has also published a poetry collection and works on screenplays.  While he does have this quite impressive writing background, I never would have heard of him had it not been for the 2003 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.  The book received much praise and numerous awards, all which it well deserved.  A mystery, the book is from the point of view of a 15 year old boy with something akin to autism.  Haddon never says what the boy has, but the description points to autism/aspergers.  The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is a mystery, but it's certainly not genre-fiction.  Christopher, our hero/detective, discovers the body of his neighbor's dog and decides to investigate the murder of the pooch.  During this investigation, Christopher also goes on a search for his supposedly dead mother.  I found different and beautifully done, so when I saw Haddon had published another novel, I snagged.  A Spot of Bother (2006) continues with a story told through someone with mental issues and focuses strongly on the family unit.  It's horribly depressing, yet laughingly so.  I suppose that's life though, you don't know if you should laugh or cry, or kill yourself.

The small chapters of the book are snapshots into various family members' lives.  The story revolves around and starts with George, the father.  George is an older man.  He lives with his wife, Jean.  His two children, Jamie & Katie are grown.  He has a grandson, Jacob.  And I should mention he's crazy as a loon.  Old age and retirement have made in a first-class crazy person.  A hypochondriac who will convince the reader that maybe s/he should get that skin lesion checked out.  That's how it starts; George see this skin spot/lesion and becomes convinced it's cancer.  This slowly makes him insane.  At one point, he rocks on the floor on all fours moo-ing like a cow to keep calm.  He manages to swallow his panic and go to a doctor where is told it's just eczema and is given a steroid cream.  This helps briefly.  Later, George begins to medicate and calm himself with codeine, Valium, and wine.

Jean is a little bit oblivious to her husband's insanity.  She is not home often as she is having an affair with George's former colleague, David.  (An affair the George learns about by watching it happen.  The description of two older people engaged in sex is not exactly romantic.)  Jean is a busybody who needs someone to take care of, and as she realizes her husband isn't well, she begins to feel better about herself.  She is also a guilt-tripping controlling mom.  She is less than pleased about her daughter's upcoming wedding.  And she's completely concerned with what people with think if her son shows up to the wedding with his boyfriend.  She was not a likeable character for me, but she was a very believable one.

Katie, a single-mother, has some serious anger issues.  She's also a bit like her mother and much concerned with appearances.  That said, she thinks she is too good for Ray, a commoner (and a belief held by her parents), but he takes care of her and Jacob and marrying him will truly piss her mom off.  Katie has had a string of men who are "perfect" as far as appearances go.  They are well-read, well-educated, respectably employed at a respectable job, muscled, tan, beautiful to look at.  And generally sorry lots.  That pretty much describes her first husband and Jacob's father.  Her and Ray are a bizarre fit.  The wedding gets called off.  She panics because she is afraid he'll toss her out.  An all around good guy, Ray assures her he won't, that they'll figure it out, but he cares about her and Jacob too much to just toss them on the street.

Jamie has created a new life away from his family.  But when he hears about the wedding, his life falls apart.  His boyfriend, Tony, wants to come.  Tony has never been introduced to Jamie's family and Jamie has never really come out to his family (they know, but they pretend otherwise).  Tony leaves Jamie because he doesn't think Jamie loves him, at least he doesn't love him enough to take him home.  (And we all know that's the test of any relationship.)  Jamie falls apart.  The problems in his life make it difficult for him to give his attention to his father's crazy or his sister's looney or his mother's wtf moments.

So what happens?  Does George go completely nuts?  Does he ever tell Jean he knows about the affair?  Does the affair stop?  Does the wedding happen?  Does George attack David at the wedding?  (Okay, that might give a bit away.)  Are there suicide attempts?  Does Tony come back?  Does Jamie get a new man?  Is the person at the bed/breakfast that Jamie's mother puts him in after doing research to see what "his kind" would like a man to woman tranny?  Does Katie get involved with her ex?  Is there a horrible sex scene between two men that starts off hot and heavy and ends with food poisoning?  (Yes.  I will answer that one. Yes.)  Does George become better or worse?  Does his marriage to Jean survive or does she leave him?

It's a good book and a rather quick read.  The fragmented sections of snippets makes it a very speedy read that is easy to follow.  Haddon doesn't get all flowery and descriptive, he keeps his story nicely on track.  This whole family is spiraling out of control independent of each other.  The story, the spot of bother, is what happens when their spiraling into each other.  Can they survive it?  Independently and as a family.

(The book was made into a French film for those interested.  Une Petite Zone de Turbulences

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