I’ve come over all warm and fuzzy, and it’s not only because I’ve been overdosing on the Christmas chocolates. It’s really because I’ve just finished reading Mark Haddon’s A Spot of Bother. Haddon is the author of the hugely successful The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a tale of a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome who has to work out how there came to be a dead dog with a fork in it in the neighbour’s garden. It was marketed to both adults and children, won a slew of awards, was the book everybody was reading and talking about for a couple of years, and was voted best book-club book of all time by the Swindon Swingers’ Alternative Reading Group (okay, that bit I made up, but it was very, very, VERY successful, even in Swindon, where it is set).
Haddon is a prolific writer (and cartoonist and artist), and has written many children’s books and scripts for children’s TV. Although Curious Incident was intended for an adult audience, his publishers also marketed it to young adults. So A Spot of Bother, his recently published second novel, is arguably his first book for adults. It is immensely readable; like Nick Hornby, he has an ear for dialogue and how different kinds of people speak. The narrative rockets along in short, sharp bursts, during which he alternates between the points of view of the four main characters. I have read novels where this doesn’t work too well and you’re always struggling to work out who’s speaking next, but with Haddon this is crystal clear. I was briefly irritated with the flipping, but once I gave in to his style (deciding that it was like reading a fiction blog with four bloggers as main characters), I grew to enjoy it. The short sections and the ability to tie point of view so well to each character may be skills he has garnered during his screen-writing years, and he puts them to great use building up tension, which caused me flip faster and faster through the last section of the book, dying to find out what happened next.
The book’s plot – a father going mad, and the rest of his family falling apart in the run-up to a big family occasion (here, a wedding) – calls to mind to the plot of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, where there is a father going mad, and the rest of his family falling apart in the run-up to a big family occasion (in this case, Christmas). Both write with wit and insight, but there is a crucial difference in their styles.
Recently Dorothy was talking about different types of prose, and how writers usually fall into one of two camps – either the Hemingwayesque camp of spare, sparse prose where each word counts or they adopt the more Dickensian style of lush, wordy, descriptive prose. Where Franzen’s prose is funny, lush and lyrical, Haddon’s is equally funny but far leaner. Here is Franzen on his character’s incipient madness:
By the time he’d established that his daughter, Denise, was handing him a plate of snacks in his son Chip’s living room, the next moment in time was already budding itself into a pristinely ungrasped existence in which he couldn’t absolutely rule out the possibility, for example, that his wife, Enid, was handing him a plate of feces in the parlor of a brothel …
And here is something from Haddon, also on the main character’s increasing (in this case, imagined) dementia:
There was oily water in his windpipe.
He put his head between his legs.
He was going to throw up.
He sat back.
His body went cold and the blood drained from his head.
He put his head between his legs again.
He felt as if he were in a sauna.
He sat up and opened the little window.
The woman in the mauve raincoat glared.
As a reader, I would usually place myself in the Dickens/Franzen camp of tidal, roiling prose that washes over you, but I do love Haddon’s style. He has a strong sense of the ridiculous, which always appeals to me, is not scared of being gruesome, and is brutally matter-of-fact about sex. While his prose may be sparse it is not scant, and he fleshes out his themes of communication, fidelity, fear of dying, fear of commitment and just plain fear most satisfactorily.
It’s also resolutely English (it’s set in Peterborough, which I know, as well as London), where the characters drink tea often, don’t say what they mean, feel embarrassed about their feelings, drop hints and feel let down when their hints aren’t taken. The book is full of understatements, such as the title itself, which make the characters failure to communicate with each other even more poignant. I couldn’t help feeling if it was set in Germany, where people are extremely, scarily frank, there wouldn’t be much of a novel. But in Haddon’s expert hands, the Englishness is real, not twee, and the characters have to scrabble through fear and social embarrassment in order to find a new way to talk to each other.
I hope this book will be very, very successful too. Even in Peterborough.
(Cross-posted at Virtual Red Tent.)