Michael Dirda

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, September 17, 2006


A Novel

By Mark Haddon

Doubleday. 354 pp. $24.95

As psychiatrist R.D. Laing once observed, the family is a machine designed to inflict insanity. Sometimes the build-up of stress merely leads to a never-ending tension, that guarded silence of an armed camp when the worn-out legionnaires await the attack at dawn. At other times, the stresses go even further, breaking forth in unending arguments, crippling anxiety, depression, the abuse of drink and drugs, emotional coldness, infidelity, delusion, violence, perhaps even murder or suicide. Sounds pretty bad, right? To Mark Haddon, in his superbly entertaining new book, any or all of these is hardly more than "a spot of bother."

Haddon's first novel, the prize-winning bestseller The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time , managed a teeter-totter's balance between humor and pathos, with a mystery thrown in to boot. In A Spot of Bother he takes on marital and domestic strife, and somehow manages to make us smile, even laugh, as we follow the upheavals in the tormented Hall family as it gradually spins out of control. Haddon's particular genius, however, lies in the unobtrusive way he makes us identify with his characters. Any of us might be George Hall or his wife, Jean, or his adult children, Katie and Jamie. We have felt what they feel, thought their thoughts, glimpsed their faces in our own bathroom mirrors.

A recently retired mid-level executive, George Hall is the kind of guy who potters around in the backyard building a shed, reads the occasional Flashman novel and plans to take up drawing, maybe even watercolors, now that he has some time. Jean is quite proud of him. Her friend "Pauline's husband started to go downhill as soon as they handed him the engraved decanter. Eight weeks later he was in the middle of the lawn at 3:00 a.m. with a bottle of Scotch inside him, barking like a dog." Before A Spot of Bother is over, Pauline's poor husband will seem relatively well adjusted.

One afternoon George goes downtown to buy a black suit for the funeral of a former colleague. While trying on the trousers, he notices "a small oval of puffed flesh on his hip, darker than the surrounding skin and flaking slightly. His stomach rose and he was forced to swallow a small amount of vomit which appeared at the back of his mouth. Cancer." George immediately realizes that he will now have to kill himself, the only question being when and by what means. His mind reviews the options.

George's mind is, in fact, always reviewing the options. If not quite a hypochondriac, he nonetheless suffers from a hyperactive imagination, and he consistently imagines the worse. In the past, whenever he had been forced to fly, "he stared doggedly at the seat back in front of him trying desperately to pretend that he was sitting in the living room at home. But every few minutes he would hear a sinister chime and see a little red light flashing in the bulkhead to his right, secretly informing the cabin crew that the pilot was wrestling with some fatal malfunction in the cockpit."

Naturally, George tells no one about his fear that he's dying of cancer. And, as life will have it, after he returns home, he learns that his divorced daughter has unexpectedly decided to marry her utterly inappropriate boyfriend, Ray. "The main problem, George felt, was Ray's size. He looked like an ordinary person who had been magnified. He moved more slowly than other people, the way the larger animals in zoos did. Giraffes. Buffalo. He lowered his head to go through doorways and had what Jamie unkindly but accurately described as 'strangler's hands.' " But Katie is more than a little desperate, and just might be marrying Ray because he can give her a decent home and because he loves to play with her 2-year-old, Jacob. Good enough reasons, no? It's really unfair that her family doesn't approve of him.

Besides, who are they to judge? Brother Jamie is gay, after all, and their mother has recently begun "shagging one of Dad's old colleagues," even if Dad himself seems to imagine that his wife's new silk scarves and a distinct "twinkle" are due to her enthusiasm for an Italian-language class. Meanwhile, George continues to suffer silently. "With blinding clarity he realized that everyone was frolicking blindly in a summer meadow surrounded by a dark and impenetrable forest, waiting for that grim day on which they were dragged into the dark beyond the trees and individually butchered." Occasionally, he reassures himself that the lesion is nothing, maybe just some eczema; at other times, that it's invisibly, quietly spreading throughout his body. One night he wanders up to Jean "holding a soiled Q-tip to ask whether she thought it was normal to have that much wax in one's ear." He starts sipping lots of wine, then taking pills.

George may be the extreme case here, but everyone around him is suffering. Katie's girlfriends ask if she really loves Ray, and the next day her gorgeous ex-husband, Graham, invites her out for coffee. Jamie's perfect London existence starts to unravel when he decides that he simply can't face bringing his boyfriend, Tony, to the wedding. Jean realizes that her own carefully balanced life was "becoming looser and messier, and moving slowly beyond her control." Which does she want more, her kind, attentive lover or her distracted husband and angry children?

Haddon relates these ever-spiraling emotional crises in short, three- or four-page chapters, shifting the viewpoint from one Hall to another, gradually tightening the focus so that all the storylines will come to a head on the wedding day. To my mind, this clockwork timing just slightly undermines A Spot of Bother . Haddon has made us suffer his characters' confusions, heartaches and desperation. But then their problems are all resolved in an oddly conventional, even pat, Hollywood finale. The truest eloquence, it's been said, includes an occasional stutter. Mark Haddon never stutters. A Spot of Bother is too expert and smooth for that.

Still, one should hardly disdain fine craftsmanship, especially when a novel gets so many things exactly right. You will be hard put to find a more realistic 2-year-old in fiction than young Jacob, with his passion for Bob the Builder videos and his manly pride in going poo. Jean's lover, David, despite his provincial urbanity, is -- surprise, surprise -- a truly kind and respectful man. Indeed, the most admirable people in the entire book are David; Jamie's carpenter-boyfriend, Tony; and the long-suffering Ray.

What matters most, though, is the way that Haddon fleshes out his characters with details and quirks that might have been stolen from the reader's own psyche: At one point, for instance, Katie takes up "the ballpoint pen Ray had been playing with and lined it up with the grain of the tabletop. Maybe if she could place it with absolute accuracy her life wouldn't fall apart." Been there, done that.

In several ways, Mark Haddon's new novel recalls last year's On Beauty , Zadie Smith's similar portrait of a dysfunctional, i.e., typical, family. Love hurts and heals, and half the time while reading A Spot of Bother you won't be sure whether to laugh or cry. Which is, I suppose, precisely the point. ยท

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com. He discusses books each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.

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