Friday, November 18, 2011

Bed / by David Whitehouse

The 45th birthday of Malcolm "Mal" Ede's life marks twenty years since he climbed into his bed, his childhood bed, the one at his parents' home, and never left it. He now weighs over half a ton and his bed is now three beds--two king-sized and one single--tied together. Even though Mal can't get out of bed, can't even move, he really doesn't want to. He's satisfied to stay put, a choice which has attracted some oddly favorable attention. His condition has fostered a sort of perverse notoriety with a cult of followers convinced he's making a bold statement about modern life. Meanwhile his family, his mother and father, younger brother and fledgling girlfriend, passively stand by, observing the "truck-size block of sausage meat packed into a pair of cheap tights" that he's become.

Why won't he get out of bed? As a child, Mal was always the one who "liked to be the first to do things", the one with the wondrous curiosity about life who never felt that anything abnormal was unacceptable. He'd stand in the rain all day staring upwards until catching pneumonia. He'd go nude for hours, sometimes days at a time, refusing to wear clothes, even on outings to the supermarket or the park. And while his father, a morosely put-upon figure--"Dad didn't work, he toiled"--cursed his son's peculiarities and made solid attempts to rectify his behavior, he lost too many battles to Mal's willful insistence. The boy just wouldn't conform to standards; he loved the novelty of different experiences. But over time as the whimsicalities of childhood gave way to the mundane responsibilities of adulthood, Mal's spirits faded and his spunky resolve to live differently turned to disillusionment. Any incentive to live at all promptly went with it. His ultimate decision to remain in bed permanently, an act much enabled by his incredibly accommodating mother, was simply a reaction to what was expected of him as he grew older. The situation hasn't been popular with everyone of course. Along with his father, Mal's younger brother, who used to love but now loathes his morbidly obese counterpart, can't help but wish ill on his elder sibling--"Mal's death is the only thing that can save this family because his life has destroyed it".

With a well-crafted story narrated in first person by the protagonist's unnamed younger brother, Whitehouse has debuted a novel which is not only rich in acerbic wit and humor, but soul-searching in its existential implications. Bed isn't all satire, nor is it a serious allegory or gimmicky fable. It's a subtly poetic anecdotal piece highlighted by the obligations of familial love under extreme circumstances. As the narrator jumps back and forth in time, relating how all of this came about, we're introduced to a family very much like any other middle class English household where the natural developmental characteristics of children failed to apply to someone. Mal's condition (note the pun on the name) may be clinical depression or some other mental disorder (Peter Pan Syndrome possibly) though it's never indicated. But details of his life, the origins of his behavioral irregularities and his steadfast determination to remain immobile aren't so odd as to warrant exclusive attention. Mal's simply a product of his own, sound choices and his family's the affected party, something the book elucidates with incredibly amusing drollery and candor. (FIC WHITEHOU)

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