256 pages, Canongate
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
Sometimes I find myself wondering whether the folks who are employed by the big name publishers to design book covers are actually expected to read the book beforehand. I know we're told not to judge a book by its cover but, let's face it, we all do. Nine times out of ten, it will be the jacket design and the blurb on the back which will persuade us to hand over our money.
I've recently transformed my novel, “The Sound of Shiant”, into a paperback and spent a lot of time (and money) discussing how the cover should look with the designer. I'm glad to say that he read the book first and was able to create a kick-ass cover which effectively captured the spirit of the book (see how I managed to slip a plug for my own book into a review – shameless, eh?). I wish the same could be said about “Bed”.
The bright and breezy design on the UK paperback cover of this book suggests a light-hearted read. The colourful image of a young boy's feet clad in stripy socks, surrounded by toy cars, a Rubik's cube and other detritus of youth hints at a coming-of-age novel. Indeed, when I first looked at this book, my heart sank a little. Light-hearted, coming-of-age novels don't interest me in the slightest. They tend to irritate more than they amuse. I don't recall adolescence being a particularly light-hearted experience and I resent anyone who peddles such falsehoods. It was for this reason that I put off reading David Whitehouse's debut novel for so long. The book was a present and I decided I'd save it for a rainy day rather than following my initial response and using it as kindling for the fire.
A couple of months passed before “Bed” worked its way to the top of my “to read” pile but when it did, I gritted my teeth, took a deep breath and opened that irredeemably middle-of-the-road cover. It wasn't long before I realised that there was a huge disparity between the novel's cover and its actual contents. The logic-gap at work here is akin to using a picture of a fluffy rabbit to advertise “Jurassic Park”. This book's cover isn't just a misrepresentation of the novel itself, it has nothing to do with it whatsoever. I can only assume that the executives at Canongate books were up to their necks in strippers and money at the time of approving the design, chemically blinkered by the nose-bag full of cocaine strapped to their over-stuffed faces.
Contrary to what Canongate would like you to think, “Bed” is not a light-hearted, coming-of-age novel. It is, in fact, a darkly comic story of a bed-bound, morbidly obese man and the sort of overbearing, smothering love within a family that allows such monsters to develop. See? Not a Rubik's cube in sight.
The novel's unnamed narrator is the younger brother in the family. However, the book's central character is the narrator's older brother, Mal. As a child, Mal dominated the family dynamic with his outlandish behaviour (such as wild tantrums, endless nonsensical chatter and a stubborn refusal to wear clothes). As a young adult, Mal settles down. He has a job, a girlfriend and seems to be moving towards independence. Then, on his twenty-fifth birthday, Mal refuses to get out of bed and becomes the centre of attention for the family once more. In time, Mal becomes a vast, flabby planet about which the other family members are forced to orbit.
Mal's brother grows up in the shadow of his larger-than-life sibling. Family holidays and trips to the theatre are ruined by Mal's behaviour. Such is Mal's reputation in the neighbourhood that folks refer to his brother simply as “Malcolm's brother”. Indeed, this is merely one of the many clever tricks that Whitehouse slips into the narrative to further obscure our sense of who the narrator really is. It is as though Mal is such a dominant figure within the family that his brother is able to creep through life (and the novel) without having to step out of the shadows.
We learn that he is in love with Lou, Mal's ex-girlfriend. We follow his travels to America with her. She is trying to let go of her relationship with Mal whilst he is trying to break free of the invisible chains which keep him inexplicably bound to his family. When they finally consummate their relationship and the reader is given the faintest flicker of hope that Mal's brother might actually be taking a step in the right direction, he receives a phone call from home informing him that Mal has suffered a non-fatal heart attack. No matter what the narrator seems to do, the shadow of his brother looms large over everything.
Guilt, particularly within familial relations, plays a huge part in the novel. Almost all of the characters are burdened with more than their fair share of emotional baggage. The boys' father is a life engineer who is haunted by the memory of a grisly accident in a South African mineshaft. Seemingly unable to cope with watching his elder son grow fatter and fatter, the father retreats to the attic where he tinkers with a mysterious engineering project. The boys' mother is one of those peculiar sorts who only feel alive when looking after someone else. When Mal refuses to get out of bed, rather than tell him not to be such a silly sod, she relishes the opportunity to dote on her eldest child and happily tends to his every need.
Whitehouse's novel is undoubtedly a well-written book. Although the subject matter might be somewhat dark, this isn't an enormously heavy-going read. There's an underlying streak of cruel humour at play here. Perhaps it is because we never really get to know the narrator that we are able to follow his story without getting dragged into a pit of depression. Despite the weighty themes, the narrative moves along at a decent pace and Whitehouse juggles the past and the present within the novel without allowing the timeshifts to slow it down. If I have one criticism of the book it would be that Whitehouse relies rather too heavily on similes and metaphors, some of which drag on for so long they lack the dramatic impact the author seems to be trying to achieve.
Extended metaphors aside, “Bed” is a remarkable book. It is just a shame that Canongate saw fit to wrap it in such a misleading cover. The sort of people who will really get a kick out of this would be put off by the scent of cheese which lingers around the book's brightly coloured jacket. Similarly, those in search of the light-hearted coming-of-age story suggested by the cover will recoil in horror at the graphic descriptions of the hideously bloated Mal and his weeping bed sores.
Hereward L.M. Proops