‘Bed’ is about Mal, a man who weighs a hundred stone and hasn’t got up from his bed for the past twenty years. Yet, the book is not about being fat. Just look at the author’s photo – what would HE know about being fat?
If you are looking for some sort of self-help motivational book then I wholeheartedly recommend ‘Run, Fat Bitch, Run’ by Ruth Fields. Read ‘Bed' if you want a piece of good contemporary literature about people who are just not very good at life. I know I could now say ‘but who really is?’, but that would just be a clever bon mot, because really, most people I know seem to handle this whole living business a little better.
The characters of ‘Bed’, mostly Mal’s family, are weighed down, literally and metaphorically by his heavy presence. He has become their centre of gravity and they are not able to set themselves free.
Mal himself is less of a character and more of an inanimate object casting shadow on the lives of everyone who comes close to him, he is the elephant in the room, so to speak, impossible to ignore but not to be discussed or questioned.
Of all the family members, it’s the mother who is most devoted to him. He is the apple of her eye. It’s like in this Anne Sexton’s poem (surely the world must be ending if I am quoting poems in my reviews):
“The unusual needs to be commented upon . .
The Thalidomide babies
with flippers at their shoulders,
wearing their mechanical arms
The club-footed boy
wearing his shoe like a flat iron.
The idiot child,
a stuffed doll who can only masturbate.
The hunchback carrying his hump
like a bag of onions . . .
Oh how we treasure
their scenic value.
When a child stays needy until he is fifty —
oh mother-eye, oh mother-eye, crush me in —
the parent is as strong as a telephone pole”
Mal has always been special to his mother, wayward as a child, difficult as an adult, he gives her purpose. Handling him has become the essence of her life. And why does he decide to never get up after he’s turned twenty-five? I suppose to escape the fate of his peers, who ‘get older and start drinking. They meet someone and get pregnant. They work and work and work. Buy a house and sit in it in silence listening to the baby cry. Have another to keep it company. Waking up early, going to work, packing lunch, coming home, watching the television, paying the bills, thinking they’re happy, having another baby just in case. No thanks.”
Quite right, “if this is life, then why get out of bed?” Only this isn’t life. Life is all that happens in between. Life is what you make of it. It is hard to be happy and it requires greater sensibility. It is easier to give in to nihilism and decadency but this is not a noble way out. Mal might be convinced that him giving up on life will give someone else (that is, his mother) a purpose in life and therefore he is a hero, but he goes about it all wrong. Lou, Mal’s girlfriend has the same need to give meaning to the lives of her loved ones but she is doing it in a constructive way. She brings people up, rather than dragging them down with her.
‘Bed’, despite its grotesque, tabloid hook, is a quiet, understated novel and I believe it was ghost-written. I happen to have met David Whitehouse and he is ironic, blunt, very fond of obscene gestures and generally quite obnoxious. There is no way in hell he would ever write anything borderline mushy like this:
“I saw it on her face that day, a look like her heart would float upward through her throat, topple from her mouth, clip her front teeth on the way out and drift into the sky.”
If this sounds like your cup of tea, give this book a go; it’s a very strong debut. My only minor complaint is that the first person narrator, Mal’s nameless younger brother, becomes omniscient at random. It doesn’t happen very often but often enough for me to notice.