Mary, my “virtual friend,” comes through again. Who knew that some of the more interesting book recommendations would come from someone I haven’t seen in 45 years, an ex-employee who contacted me out of the blue. She knows my taste in reading better than most, having before recommended The Ha Ha by Dave King and a couple of real classics, Stoner, by John Williams and Wallace Stegner’s The Angle of Repose.
Maybe she suggested A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon because like the protagonist, George, I’m retired. Dying is on his mind, not that death itself scares me. Perhaps the way we die might, but if I get lucky, one day I’ll just not wake up. The real problem is an existential crisis as the world goes on while I return to nothingness from which I came.
So I have to agree with Haddon who writes somewhat amusingly, most men of George’s age thought they were going to live forever….Obviously it would be nice to go quietly in one’s sleep. But going quietly in one’s sleep was an idea cooked up by parents to make the deaths of grandparents and hamsters less traumatic. And doubtless some people did go quietly in their sleep but most did so only after many wounding rounds with the Grim Reaper. His own preferred exits were rapid and decisive. Others might want the time to bury the hatchet with estranged children and tell their wives where the stopcock was. Personally, he wanted the lights to go out with no warning and the minimum attendant mess. Dying was bad enough without having to make it easier for everyone else.
Haddon is an English writer and one better be prepared for some very understated Brit humor to get the most out of this novel, not to mention place and cultural references that might not be altogether familiar to an American reader. As I read the book I had the vague idea of asking the author whether I could attempt to “translate” the novel into a screenplay, with an American setting and references – it seems to be so ideal for that treatment like the works of similar fellow novelists, Nick Hornby and Jonathan Tropper -- but alas the French beat me to it having already filmed it as Une petite zone de turbulences.
In many ways the novel reminds me of the much underrated Alan Lightman novel The Diagnosis which one could call a “pre-retirement” man’s nightmare of devolving into insanity, a Kafkaesque plight caused by the modern working world. Unfortunately, I read that novel before I started this blog so to reconstruct it here for comparison purposes I’d have to read it again. But I was aware of the main character’s dilemma as I read this book.
It is the post retirement world of George, who was a manufacturer of children’s playground equipment, which is the setting for a surreal illness of existential angst in A Spot of Bother. George is convinced that he has a cancerous lesion, one that has been diagnosed as eczema, so nothing to worry about, right? Wrong. A spot of bother, indeed.
His mind was malfunctioning. He had to bring it under control….He needed a strategy. He…drew up a list of rules:
1. Keep busy.
2. Take Long walks
3. Sleep well.
4. Shower and change in the dark
5. Drink red wine.
6. Think of something else.
George is a disconnected introvert, and suddenly as I write this I’m thinking of some of Anne Tyler’s men, particularly Liam Pennywell from her novel Noah's Compass. There are definite similarities.
Back to George’s story which is but one of four in this novel, revolving about each other as a diagram of an Atom and its components, a dysfunctional nuclear family and its offshoots. First, there is the story of George and his wife of many years, Jean. But Jean has a lover, David, with whom George worked, and thus a second story. Then there are George and Jean’s two adult children, each with their own tales of love. Katie is intent on entering into a second marriage to Ray, a blue collar kind of guy, generous and loving to Katie and her son by her previous marriage, Jacob, but not having the “approval” of her family (and she wonders, of herself). And there is Jamie, who has finally come out of the closet, bewildering his parents, madly in love with Tony, who has rejected him. Angst to the fourth power. But George is little touched by this as he slowly descends into a kind of madness, especially after secretly seeing his wife and David engaged in sexual intercourse on his own bed (it’s not a pretty sight and Haddon hilariously captures the moment and George’s reaction).
Yet at the heart of the story is George’s obsession with death which arises even when he is having fun with his grandson, Jacob. He’s amazed by the child’s skill with technology. Which was how young people took over the world. All that fiddling with new technology. You wake up one day and realize your own skills were laughable. Woodwork. Mental arithmetic….Maybe George was fooling himself. Maybe old people always fooled themselves, pretending that the world was going to hell in a handcart because it was easier than admitting they were being left behind, that the future was pulling away from the beach, and they were standing on their little island bidding it good riddance, knowing in their hearts that there was nothing left for them to do but sit around on the shingle waiting for the big diseases to come out of the undergrowth. Hilarious, but true!
The author writes with in compelling unpretentious style, cramming these stories into one hundred and forty four interconnected chapters (yes, 144 or about 3 pages each). Yet it’s a very readable, engaging work, full of droll humor and some pathos. It seems to gather momentum, exhorting you to read on. All these stories converge in the end, a little too neatly in my opinion. Although the book is not in the same league as the three novels I mentioned at the onset of this entry, Haddon is a talented young novelist, so perhaps his best is yet to come.
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