Saturday, June 21, 2008

Mark Haddon - A Spot of Bother ****

People going into Mark Haddon's latest novel, A Spot of Bother expecting anything like his smash-hit debut, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time are going to be sorely disappointed. And rightfully so, because if Haddon had reproduced the same sort of story as he did in his first novel, we'd all be complaining about how he was such a one-trick pony. In fact, I'm glad he got the unconvential work that is The Curious Incident out of the way first, so that he can now settle himself into what he really wants to do (and ultimately does anyway in The Curious Incident): study people.

One of my coworkers asked me if what I was reading was a detective novel. I'm not sure how they came to such an assumption (I don't have a pronounced taste for crime fiction, that I know of at least). I suppose there is an outside chance that they were familiar with Haddon's first book and made the assumption, but if that is true, I'd like to put a million dollars on the Pirates to win the World Series this year. But when they asked me about what kind of novel A Spot of Bother was, I said, "It's kind of a character study, about this guy who is having a mental breakdown." That guy is the main character, retired playground equipment salesman and constructor George Hall, who has found a lesion on his leg and convinces himself it is cancer, allowing his sanity to slowly crumble to dust.

This is the catalyst that sends the story initially into motion, but George's friends and family are all major players as well, and their characters are warped and molded and nurtured throughout the novel with masterful strokes. From George's wife to his children to his former colleagues, we are introduced to a sweeping cast who each exist within their own world of insanities. If anything, the characters are too painfully accurate--more than once I was brought to boil over their attempts to avoid reality. George in particular is seemingly afraid of everything and makes bone-headed decisions out of his fears. For awhile I was mad at Haddon for making George so unbelievably scared to go to the doctor about his lesion, until I remembered my great uncle who lives in a house that is literally falling in on itself (think the Lisbon House after the first suicide, only scarier) who hasn't been to a doctor since the 1980s despite hardly being able to get around the house in his deteriorating health. Oh, and he still drives too. But it reminded me that people really are that paranoid and that just because I would go to the doctor in an instant if I were convinced I had cancer, others would shy away worse than before and retreat into their own cracked psyche.

A Spot of Bother really takes on a lot (both in story and in philosophy) and comes out amazingly successful. A lot of critics have said it missed its mark, that it is boring and doesn't live up to his debut, but these are absolutely the same people who would be skinning him if he'd done another book with clip art on every page. If they'd take the time to actually think about the two novels, they'd realize that there are more similarities than differences. Haddon wants to see what his characters can take, so he pushes them into situations and lets them spiral out of control and captures whatever he can from that flaming trail. At the heart of both A Spot of Bother and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, that is what the story focuses on. With his latest work, he just does so in a more traditional but much more all-encompassing way.

In just two novels, Mark Haddon has proven his impressive range, all the while remaining focused on what he ultimately wants to achieve in his writing. I'm excited to see what he does next. Hopefully, whatever it is, it will have a better paperback cover than A Spot of Bother though. Seriously. I waited so long to buy this to see if I could get a second edition but then just couldn't put it off any more and had to settle. This has to be one of my least favorite book covers of any that I own. Alas.

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