Real By Margaret Black
Spot of Bother
354 pages, $24.95
Poor Mark Haddon. What’s an author to do if his utterly quirky
first novel (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time)
is a surprise rave success? He can’t use the voice of a 15-year-old
autistic savant again. Even his former oddball format would
require finding a plot and characters to support such playfulness.
Haddon opted instead for a realistic family drama, awash with
humorous irony, but sitting over an abyss of bleakness, and
I think that A Spot of Bother is an excellent second
effort, far better than your average tragicomic British dysfunctional
Recently retired George Hall has led a decent life. He’s been
married to Jean all these years, raised two children, run
his own outdoor-play equipment company (caused no harm there).
It’s just that despite Dr. Barghoutian’s reassuring diagnosis
of eczema, the scary-looking lesion on his hip has utterly
convinced him (“Dr. Barghoutian had misdiagnosed Katie’s appendicitis”)
that he’s dying of cancer. In his first agony of worry he
witnesses frumpy Jean making enthusiastic love—in their own
bed—with a fellow who used to work for him. Their daughter
Katie—argumentative, tough-minded single mom, raising small
Jacob by herself—has just announced that she is marrying Ray,
a working-class giant whose brother was sent to jail. “Half
Katie’s IQ,” Jean thinks, “and Ray still called her ‘a wonderful
little woman.’ ” Neither Jean nor George is looking forward
to the wedding they’re about to put on, especially since their
son, Jamie, a homosexual (“One didn’t want to dwell on the
plumbing but one could almost see it as a sporting activity.
Letting off steam.”), will want to bring his friend Tony,
and however will that go over with the less-tolerant members
of the family? The third-person narrative shifts points of
view among the principal characters, so we get everyone’s
take on things, which makes for a dizzying but three-dimensional
movie of what’s happening. For all the potential clichés,
these people are funny, angry, desperate, uselessly insightful,
and stupidly blind—in other words, for all their treading
of familiar territory, they are very convincing.
But what brings this particular version of a commonplace story
to a higher level is Haddon’s ability to dive, without blinking,
straight into the absolute terror of panic. George’s increasingly
frantic eruptions of fear impel him to horrific action, but
no one intervenes effectively. Each member of his family is
distracted by their own immediate concerns, and George’s habitual
self-containment constantly misleads them. “The secret of
contentment, George felt, lay in ignoring many things completely.
How anyone could work in the same office for ten years or
bring up children without putting certain thoughts permanently
to the back of their mind was beyond him. And as for that
last grim lap when you had a catheter and no teeth, memory
loss seemed like a godsend.” But some things won’t let you
forget them, and the bad end doesn’t always come as you think
Next to George, the most fully realized individual is little
Jacob. At one point he insists on watching a Bob the Builder
video in Grandpa’s bedroom, where terrified—“wobbly” is the
family underestimation—George has been hiding out. When Jacob
sees his grandfather weeping at the happy ending (Bob and
his friend Tom do get together for Christmas), Jacob asks,
“Are you sad, Grandpa?” George says that he is, and Jacob
asks, “ ‘Is that because you’re dying?’ ‘Yes,’ said George,
‘Yes, it is.’ He put his arm round Jacob and pulled him close.
After a couple of minutes Jacob squeezed free. ‘I need a poo.’
He got off the bed and left the room.”
Jacob’s a winner throughout, providing a kind of truthful
gravity that anchors what can sometimes be rather relentless
humorous irony, such as: “That was what it meant, didn’t it.
Being good. You didn’t have to sink wells in Burkina Faso.
You didn’t have to give away your coffee table. You just had
to see things from other people’s point of view.” Even a scene
of ghastly self- surgery is grotesquely funny—I mean really
funny—like a very black comic routine.
Katie’s conflicted feelings about getting married (does she
love Ray or is she simply choosing security and a good father
for Jacob?), Jamie’s belatedly recognition that he wants long-term
companionship, not just sex, and even Jean’s desire to have
something vital in her life are told with enough truth to
raise the drama above sentimental silliness. Only David, Jean’s
love interest, is a cardboard cutout.
The grip of the story, however, comes from George’s terror,
which is mostly mixed with wicked comedy, but not always.
“We spend most of our time on the planet thinking we are going
to live forever,” he begins (in a wedding toast no less),
but “we’re all going to die. We don’t realize how important
it is. This . . . this place. Trees, people, cakes. Then it’s
taken away. And we realize our mistake. But it’s too late.”
And although the story appears to end happily, with everyone’s
injuries or ills bandaged and relieved, the flaws that caused
the family members to fail each other persist. So, too, of
course, does the sheer wonderful thinginess of life, personified
in Jacob, but real enough among the adults as well. Although
everyone learns some things during this eruption of disasters,
George’s grimly heart-wrenching toast still holds true. This
novel is not the simple comedy it mostly pretends to be.