A spot of Mark Haddon bother
By Tamara Lee
Mark Haddon bothers me.
He is broadly talented, as both an artist and a writer of several genres. And he can walk the funny-tragic walk in his novels like few others. (Richard Russo is one of those few, so he kind of bothers me too.)
I’ve recently finished Haddon’s A Spot of Bother, although initially I was rather reluctant to enter into a world of a man described in the blurb as ‘going insane.’ Haddon’s world of the insane, though, manages to be simultaneously comedic and unnerving, much like his fantastic debut, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, is both amusing and sad.
And this talent is why I love-hate Haddon.
As I read Bother with my writer’s eye (apparently there is only one in the idiom), my envy grew. Haddon interweaves several main characters’ lives, nicely segues POVs and characters’ miscues and reluctant growths—in some cases that fear of growth is quite literal and horrifying. Teetering ever so dangerously close to melodrama and yet, by way of brilliant internal monologue, never quite succumbing.
Eventually, I had to close that writer’s eye and just read for the pleasure of it.
The tragicomic novel is the kind of read I have been gagging for lately, and I couldn’t wait to get that tiresome sleep over with so I could waken and see what else the nutty family Hall was getting up to.
Haddon is humorous without a bing-bang drum roll, and perceptive without a spotlight illuminating his every insight. This subtlety is best captured in the character of George, the complex-riddled patriarch. Haddon creates a bumbling, lovable malcontent we ache for, even whilst we laugh at him.
‘He lay down and rolled into the shallow drainage ditch where the grass dipped before going under the fence. His coat was green. If he lay still they might not find him.
It was snug in the ditch, and surprisingly comfortable. Interesting, too, to find himself looking at nature from so close up, something he had not done since he was a small boy. There must have been forty or fifty species of plants within his reach. And he knew the names of none. Except the nettles. Assuming they were nettles. And the cow parsley. Assuming it was cow parsley.’
Hilarious, right? Well, okay, you have to read it in context: the inside/outside, private/public theme, and how it all goes horribly, amusingly wrong for this so-called proper British family. George would be mortified to learn he is so unforgettable. Especially as he considers how to properly kill himself.
‘If he drank enough whisky he might be able to summon the courage to crash the car. There was a big stone gateway on the A16 this side of Stamford. He could hit it doing 90mph with no difficulty whatsoever.
But what if his nerve failed? What if he were too drunk to control the car? What if someone pulled out of the drive? What if he killed them, paralysed himself and died of cancer in a wheelchair in prison?’
A Spot of Bother is the kind of novel you read knowing the film rights have been sold, and with any luck will be produced by capable folks. Folks who will be able to capture the inner hell of the characters where all the best funny dwells.
Several critics have booed at the novel’s predictability, at its occasionally obvious direction in plot and crises. I think such criticism is missing the mark, as it were. This deceptively ordinary novel about seemingly ordinary people consumed by rather everyday problems reveals just how extraordinary personal growth can be.
Now, before you think this review is all flowers and candy, I do agree Haddon could have tweaked the cliché knob a bit, though the device is pointedly, poignantly, used. But that is a mere niggle.
In the end, I was left wondering, How often is a writer’s sophomoric effort (nearly) as good as his great debut? (Michael Chabon, you’ll get your angry love-letter from me one day, too, you.)
And soon enough, I’m sure I'll head back to the novel with my writer’s eye, maybe even both of them, to see if I can find out just how Haddon does it. Curses.