A good book
By Robin Abrahams
As noted, I like the dark side in the narrative arts. Which doesn't mean that I can't get into a good, optimistic, life-affirming story--it's just that so often such attempts are, not to put too fine a point on it, stupid. But if you want a book that will warm your heart without numbing your brain, you can't do better than Mark Haddon's A Spot of Bother.
I was somewhat embarrassed that I didn't know Haddon had written a second novel, because his first, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, is on my very short list of favorite books, ever. Curious Incident is so powerful that it took me a while to accept Spot of Bother on its own terms, and really appreciate it. Haddon does the near-impossible in Curious Incident, writing in the voice of a teenager with Asperger's syndrome determined to solve a very odd mystery. People with Asperger's don't usually think in story form, the way the rest of us do, which makes the novel quite the genre-busting tour de force.
Spot of Bother couldn't be more different. It's a traditional family melodrama crossed with farce, and there's almost no way of relating the plot that doesn't make the novel sound like a hopeless cliche. If Curious Incident was a voyage to a brainspace most of us could never occupy, Spot of Bother is an almost aggressive celebration of normalcy, culminating in a big family-reunion sort of event filled with slamming doors, heartfelt reunions, apologies, embarrassing speeches, missed phone calls, mistaken identities, and dancing past midnight. I mean, blech--you just know they're trying to line up Hugh Grant for the movie version.
But the book is brilliant, and so very much fun. Again and again, Haddon skirts right up to the edge of mawkishness, of predictability, and leaps nimbly over it and does something hilarious and unexpected and wise.
Here is my favorite quote from the book:
"And it occurred to him that there were two parts to being a better person. One part was thinking about other people. The other part was not giving a toss what other people thought."
Isn't that wonderful? That really is what it's all about, isn't it? I gave up my early dreams of becoming a novelist when I realized I would rather tell than show. (You're supposed to do it the other way when you write fiction, everyone says so.) But if I ever had written a novel, I'd wish it were A Spot of Bother.