I can recall with tremendous clarity how surprised I was by Mark Haddon’s debut novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. It wasn’t that the story was anything spectacular—it was a quirky sort of bildungsroman, at best—but what made it so excellent was the way Haddon had told the whole thing, convincingly, from the perspective of a young autistic boy.
There’s nothing quite so unique about Haddon’s sophomore novel, A Spot of Bother. It deals largely with old storytelling tropes that we’ve heard before, but it manages to do it in a way that’s still uniquely funny. I think perhaps that says something about Haddon’s skill as a writer.
“A spot of bother” is a bit of a double entendre1: it’s a quintessentially understated English phrase for an undesirable occurrence (even disaster), but it’s also a literal spot on the hip of George, our retired 62-year-old protagonist, who at the novel’s beginning quite clearly begins to lose his mind. He thinks, for instance, that his spot of discoid eczema is cancer, and despite the assurances of his doctor, his mind is suddenly filled with thoughts of mortality. Meanwhile, his son is gay, his daughter is marrying (again) a man her family dislikes, and George’s wife is having an affair with an old colleague. So what makes this different from a soap or a trashy serial?
There’s something perhaps imperceptible about the novel that manages to catch me. In all honesty, it reminded me very much of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, which was a disturbing(ly normal) portrait of a midwestern family that is simultaneously close and estranged, as the gruff patriarch descends into madness, the addle-brained housewife housewifes herself into oblivion, and a couple of disaffected spawn watch with disgusted interest from the sidelines (except replaced “Midwestern” with “British”). However, The Corrections was ultimately sad, frustrating, and tragic: at the end, Franzen delivers a crushing existentialist blow and lets his readers know that age ravages all, and there is little we can do to escape our fate or even make the world stop and notice. As you might guess from Haddon’s general tendency to comedy, this book isn’t quite like that: in fact, I would dare call Haddon new Nick Hornby. In fact, I might even dare to say that Haddon out-Hornsbys Nick Hornsby.
Since the narrative viewpoint jumps from person to person, it’s difficult to pinpoint a main character in A Spot of Bother, but if I were to base my choice on which character had the highest amount of dramatic irony associated with his character, it would most certainly be George. He’s a bit of a bumbler; truth be told, his problem with madness is never clearly defined or satisfactorily solved; it might be that Haddon is trying to make a point about the ambiguity of such things. After all, George is clearly going insane (hallucinations, &c.), and yet his life remains a great deal simpler than the lives of his family, whose own lack of clarity and distorted self-image and judgement are clearly just as dysfunctional as imagining the floor at a tilted angle, and yet it is George who is debilitated and George who is medicated and George with whom Haddon finally makes a rather stilted plot device near the end, striking a blow against the iconic British reserve.
So, what to say about A Spot of Bother. I’m not sure Haddon lived up to the ingenuity of the his debut novel. There were a lot of familiar tropes in this one, rather shamelessly borrowed from our collective consciousness of soaps, serials, and sitcoms. None of this is to say that it wasn’t a raucous, incredibly entertaining read.
- Curiously enough, though this phrase is French in origin, the French do not use it.[↩]