Friday, September 2, 2011

A Review of Bed by David Whitehouse

UK edition (l.); US edition (r.)
Asleep he sounds like a pig hunting truffles in soot. It isn't snoring, more of a death rattle.
"A Pig Hunting Truffles in Soot" is the name of British author David Whitehouse's Tumblr account. It comes from the first line of his debut novel, Bed, which is written from the point of view of the brother of the fattest man in the world, Malcolm Ede, who weighs 100 stone, or around 1,400 pounds. Bed is many things, including slight (it feels like a stretched-out novella), turgid, overwritten, occasionally beautifully written, and not all that successful in its significance, but it is also notable for leaning on indulgent, horrified depictions of a very fat man to give it meaning.

Published in August in the US and earlier this year in the UK, Bed got its publishing contract after winning the To Hell With Prizes contest in 2010 for best unpublished work. For two years before that it sat in the drawer of an agent at William Morris after being turned down by "every publisher in the country." Now it is a finalist in The Guardian's Not the Booker Prize contest and the film rights have been sold.

Most reviews, whether middling or glowing, praised the writing in Bed, acknowledging it as the biggest advantage in this book that is "...ultimately a bit too sparse and empty...Bed is light, getting across a simple point with a low degree of difficulty" (The Onion's A.V. Club). The New York Times called the book unsuccessful but acknowledged the author's gift with words: "Mr. Whitehouse’s great talent for outlandishly clever description is not matched by a gift for storytelling." The Guardian had something of the opposite reaction: "...[T]oo often this writerly exuberance strains for an effect it doesn't achieve, leaving the novel cluttered with unnecessary flourishes, and extended metaphors that collapse under their own weight. Which is a shame, because once you've got past the sentences, Bed is a satisfyingly complex meditation on what it means to need and be needed." But most reviews were along the lines of the San Francisco Chronicle--"Whitehouse's prose is pure sparkle"--or the Boston Globe: "gorgeous writing lifts a story that could feel quite heavy, even dull and sleepy, into something that soars." The starred Publishers Weekly review said: "A masterful balance of displaced emotion, black humor, and reportage, this accomplished debut offers an offbeat insight into the lives of a family dealing with morbid obesity."

To what is Whitehouse's eye and pen turned? Many things, but the extended metaphorical riffs, the sustained passages that seem to propel this choppy book and have his attention, are the descriptions of Malcolm's--Mal's--body. Three paragraphs down from "a pig hunting truffles in soot," Whitehouse picks it up again:
Those photographs you see of whales that have beached and exploded, split by the buildup of gases inside, the thick coating of blubber that blankets the sand, that's what Mal looks like. . . . He has spread out so far from the nucleus of his skeleton, he is an enormous meat duvet.

. . . Peppered with burst capillaries, a truck-size block block of sausage meat packed into a pair of cheap tights. The fat has claimed his toe- and fingernails, his nipples have stretched to the span of a female hand, and only something with the tenacity of a biscuit crumb could meander through the folds of his tummy. There must be enough for a full packet of biscuits in there by now. In twenty years Mal has become a planet with its own charted territories. We are the moons caught in his orbit, Lou and Mum and dad and me.
That last bit goes to the main point of Bed. Mal was an unusual, uncontrollable kid, prone to shedding his clothes in inappropriate situations, and dominated the life of his family. He grows up, gets a job, has his girlfriend (Lou) who loves him and sees his specialness, but he suddenly cannot take the mediocrity that adulthood, only recently embraced, brings:
"I work in a chair. I fight on a computer game. When I vote, it changes nothing. What I earn can't buy anything. Maybe my purpose is to give purpose to others."
The morning after his 25th birthday Mal opts out of life and refuses to get out of his bed. All he does is eat, fed by his compulsively care-taking mother, and he abandons his girlfriend, with whom his brother is also in love. Mal becomes a media sensation, and brings an American, Norma Bee (a large, laughing black woman who veers dangerously close to a Mammy type), into the narrator's life, a woman who herself had a husband whom she fed in bed as he grew bigger until he died. That is: It is not at all obscure what will happen to Mal by the end of Bed. If the words "death rattle" in the second sentence didn't make it clear, the unnamed brother also says in that first chapter: "Mal's death is the only thing that can save this family because his life has destroyed it."

We have clues about what this is all supposed To Mean: Whitehouse said in a Publishers Weekly interview that, "There was an extra feeling of inertia around [my family] because of the debt my parents were in, and Mal's decision to go to bed and not get up is a metaphor for that." I think I might be more likely to buy this idea if Whitehouse didn't mostly give it impetus with outside-in and smells-of-the-lamp descriptions of what it means to be very fat. Whitehouse carves up Mal's body as meat for metaphor. Very little time is devoted to the transition, told in simple periodic flashback, from skinny Malcolm to 1,400 pound Malcolm--he is just--boom--a fat man, the fattest man in the world, and no longer a person. Malcolm says much less once he is fat; he's mostly described.
And then there are creams and medicines. Lotions to rub on his sores and serums to massage into his skin, all of which Mum did on her own. The latter years of her life were effectively spent basting an enormous turkey in the oven, lifting it, turning it and coating its flesh without the reward of a hearty meal.

The visual stimulus of watching Mal be bathed wrenches my stomach up into my esophagus. He looks like an enormous sea monster caught and displayed in a Victorian museum of the grotesque.

His arms are thicker than my legs. Four times as thick. Five or six, maybe. They look like rolled ham. Mal sheds skin, snakelike, with every move. Each morning he nests upon a fresh coat of it. His fingernails are thick, cracked, yellow and shiny like laminated lumps of cheese. His huge torso is contoured with stretch marks the length and thickness of a cowboy's leather belt. I imagine them tearing.
Whitehouse, a former magazine writer and editor who says in every interview that he's "always preferred making stuff up to reporting fact" (a perfectly reasonable thing for a novelist to note, but it jumps out at me), got the idea for the book, he says, watching shows on TV: "Almost every programme was about people who couldn't get out of the house because they were too big. I watched all of those documentaries and was fascinated by the grotesqueness of it and the sadness." When asked about his research, his response wasn't that different:
I watched a lot of documentaries and did a bit of reading on the topic, but I never wanted to get too forensic. I wanted it to feel like a description of something totally alien and abstract, something impossible to imagine.
A lot of the descriptions of Mal read rather like the casual (well-crafted, but casual) comments of somebody watching a documentary on TLC. The attitude of the book is more intentional than that, though. In another interview Whitehouse said:
...I never wanted to describe [Mal] as a human – or at least I wanted to avoid doing so as much as possible. That's why I stayed away where possible from issues about the toilet etc. I didn't want it to seem graphic and real. The whole notion of going to bed and becoming the fattest man in the world is so strange, so abstract, that I tried where possible to dehumanize it in terms of its physicality. I guess the emotions I describe related to the act are human, but in my physical descriptions of Mal's metamorphosis I could be describing a planet, or a strange sea creature. Something difficult to imagine. I never wanted it to be that explicit. [sputtering emphases mine]
This quote makes it pretty clear, if the book's orgy of metaphor didn't, that Whitehouse feels it's fine to dehumanize a fat person to make a point--that it's not in fact necessary to do anything else. "Dehumanize it in terms of its physicality"? Is that "write whatever hateful thing I want and call it abstract, because somehow if the character is fat then it's not necessary to see a person in it"? His descriptions of Mal are extremely graphic and real, they are just not clinical. Somehow Whitehouse thinks they're not graphic, or perhaps that they're only to be expected. And while going to bed for your life might be unusual, being fat is not, but either way Whitehouse is definitely choosing to see it as such. He works to keep Mal alien and unknown, a shitty and lazy thing for a writer to do. His body means everything, and nothing.
I am taken aback as I am every morning by the deterioration in the health of Mal's skin. Where once was florid boyishness is now a ruddy, mean-spirited mess. The lack of fresh air has turned his face into a miserly wallet for dirt and sweat and grease. The resultant clusters of immature acne glisten at the sides of his nose, growing like a coral reef across his chin and down his neck, blinking in the sunlight as they slowly marinate in their own juices.

I dream sometimes of standing on him, my feet disappearing up to ankle heights in his flab, schloop schloop schloop as I stepped, like quicksand.

...[a butcher] would need to dig for a long long time to find Mal's bones. Burst a spade with a sharp downwards jab through that dirty thin top layer of skin. Force the shovel with his foot through the sinew and the meat. Lift, drop and dig, spooning out the maggoty-white tubes of fat.

The growths and deformities caused by poor circulation chart a route up him to his knees, huge, flattened spheres of flab the size of satellite dishes, the bony caps long since buried.

Fulsome beads of sweat map Mal's emotionless face. On television he looks even bigger. His arms appear as bags of salt swollen to splitting. The physical stress of the occasion makes it too much for him even to hold his mouth closed. The lighting makes the insides of his cheeks glisten as the spit runs down them. His eyes are dust bowls, sunk back into his face like the ugliest of dogs.
Whitehouse is under no obligation to make the realities of being 1,400 pounds pretty or tell his story from any point of view other than the one he wants to--he's under no obligation to do anything in fiction, including make it realistic (the largest weight ever recorded for a human being was around 1,320 lbs.). But to make Bed a less tediously offensive (and better) book, he might have done more than look at a very fat person and say "You! I must have YOU for my metaphor!" The meaning in Mal's grand gesture is what's supposed to contextualize the idea of his size, and this gesture and his death are supposed to have (as Whitehouse has said) "altruism" in them, saving his brother and his family from their middle-class trap. But Mal's death feels to me, while inevitable, unkind. It's not altruistic, it's the story's creator killing something he thinks should die. Mal is sacrificing himself for his family, but Whitehouse is sacrificing Mal for us.

David Whitehouse
I wouldn't be working out all my reactions to Bed if I didn't rather bitchily note here--as the book jacket and its promos do not--that Whitehouse was for a period features editor at Maxim UK (and an editor at Peaches Geldorf's brief experiment in magazine publishing). The descriptions of Lou--the beautiful girlfriend Mal's brother inherits through Mal's death and sacrifice--can be just as indulgent as the descriptions of Mal (in a different way). Sometimes she ends up sounding a bit like a Maxim Girl write-up:
Lou was beautiful. Some people are so attractive that looking at them makes you feel as though your own skin doesn't fit properly, and Lou is like that. She has blond tumbling hair that wisps and frays as though she's washed it in the sea every morning, combed it through with the finest shells and rinsed away the foam in a freshly formed rock pool.
Despite that there is, as I said, good writing to be found in Bed if you feel like it. ("Home was always the same inside. Its exterior grew and shrunk depending upon how long I'd been away but indoors it was a precise mold.") The mind boggles, however, picturing what a film company will do with Bed. Given that Mal, once he's fat, doesn't do much but lie in bed and be described (literally) to death, that will leave us with--what? Lots of lurid imagery, I'm sure--the "schloop" of fat and swollen bags of salt--but what else? Not much, since Whitehouse's orgy of metaphors will be gone and all we will be left with is a character about whom, once you strip away the horrified language, the author doesn't quite know how he feels.


  1. Oh man, I'd never heard of this. Yuck. Thanks for taking the bullet. btw, is the name Mal Ede supposed to be pronounced "malady" or am I reading too much into it?

  2. Hahahaha (taking the bullet). Yer welcome.

    I am a dope, because I had only really noticed the meaning in "Mal" itself. I'm not sure if it's supposed to be read all of a piece like that or not! Good point, though.

  3. I was thinking that 'Mal' was literally bad enough, given that it's French for bad!