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So Real By Margaret Black

A Spot of Bother

By Mark Haddon

Doubleday, 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 family story.

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 it will.

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.

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