Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A book I won't read in bed

Once again, I'm feeling a bit in awe of a first-time novelist.  I've read so many good first-time books in the past few years that I'm beginning to think that I could be perfectly content reading only debut novels. David Whitehouse's debut novel Bed is the latest to join the list.

The story itself is interesting, if a little odd.  Really, though, it's the characters who drive this book.  It's narrated by the unnamed younger brother of Malcolm "Mal" Ede, a man who takes to his bed on his 25th birthday never to get up again.  As Mal's weight increases (by the time we meet him 27 years later, he's well over 1,000 pounds), so does the emotional weight constricting his family.  In a series of flashbacks, Whitehouse takes the reader through the family dynamic that always held a portent of an unhappy future.  Their mother clearly favored Mal over his brother and indulged Mal's every whim, even as he displayed anti-social tendencies that suggested a troubled inner life.  Their father, overwrought by guilt from a mining accident in an elevator he designed, was reclusive and spent his time in the attic.  Meanwhile, the narrator seems aware of his limited life lived in the shadow of his brother but, in resignation to this fate, acts only in reaction to others.  The characters and their actions (or lack thereof) were often frustrating, but consistent in their helplessness. 

Whitehouse's simple style should not be dismissed as simplistic.  He was able to effectively transmit a great deal of information about thoughts, motivations, and relationship dynamics in sparse descriptions.  One such time was a simple reflection back on a boyhood campout in the backyard that conveyed much more about the family: "We played travel versions of popular games.  We didn't have the full versions.  We never really traveled.

It would be easy to focus on the sensationalistic literal weight that pins down Malcolm to his bed, but Whitehouse was deft at using it instead as a manifestion of the many other, metaphorical, weights that held them down.  Ultimately, Mal's revelation of why he took to bed serves to tie the physical and the metaphorical together. The book moves quickly, and it served as an inspiration to get up and do something.  While I'll definitely be watching for more from Whitehouse, I don't imagine reading his books in bed.   

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