Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Friday, 24 June 2011


Bed UK

I don't get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day – Linda Evangelista, misquoted[1]

Why? It’s not a big question. It is, however, the key question of David Whitehouse’s novel, Bed. Sometimes doing nothing is the only thing to do, the right thing to do. Doing nothing isn’t always being lazy or uncaring. A mother who does nothing while her child struggles to cope with some task is probably desperate; desperate to run to their assistance, but what does she do? She stands there and watches them fall, fail, perhaps, over and over again because, as her own mother probably told her, “You’ve got to learn to do it for yourself.”

When Malcolm Ede decides one day not to get out of bed his mother and father have “the biggest argument” his younger brother, the book’s narrator, had ever overheard:

‘Stop cooking for him, waiting hand and foot on him, and he’ll have to get out of bed. Don’t you see?’ Dad had said. Not for a second did he consider that this might actually happen.

‘He can’t starve,’ Mum said, her voice shaped powerfully.

‘He won’t starve.’

‘He’s my son and I’ll look after him if he needs looking after.’

‘You’re a fucking martyr, you are!’

‘Go up in your loft. Don’t you worry about anyone else.’

The next morning I asked Mal to stop. To get out of bed and carry on. I reminded him about his flat. About his job. About Lou. I begged him. But it had begun. It had most definitely begun.

Seven thousand four hundred and eighty-three days later Mal is still in bed and a lot has happened in the twenty years since he first decided to abandon his previous life, his job, his flat, his girlfriend (Lou), move back in with his parents and crawl back into the single bed he occupied as a boy growing up. For one thing, he has grown, considerably . . . gigantically! And in all this time his mother has done nothing; nothing apart from continue to take care of his every need. Of course his demands on her have also grown because eventually he can do nothing bar feed himself. His father has also done nothing; nothing apart from hide in the loft doing whatever it is that he does up there because no one is allowed up there, especially when he’s working on whatever it is he’s working on. Mal’s brother has done nothing; nothing apart from trying to get on with his life, a life where no one knows him for who he is anymore; people stop him in the street and say, “Aren’t you Mal Ede’s brother?” Lou does nothing, nothing apart from erecting a tent in the family’s garden and taking up residence therein hoping that this display of . . . love? solidarity? I don’t know . . . might have some effect.

So there’s a lot of nothing going on in this book; nothing apart from waiting to see what happens when Mal finally gets out of bed. The blurb on the back of the book says:

Twenty years in bed. Mal’s death is the only thing that can save this family, because his life has destroyed it. And here I am, at the end, sharing this room with him. The room we began in.

But, why? It’s not that no one thinks to ask him why but for years the only people he will have anything to do with are his immediate family. When Lou comes calling she is sent away empty-handed. He refuses point-blank to speak to her. It’s left to his brother to communicate with her:

Lou arrived eventually. Her eyes were tropical spiders, red rings with faint black legs.

‘Why?’ she said.

I said I didn’t know.

‘I love him,’ she said, and then she wept.

Every last ounce of what was inside me squeezed up inside a tight rubber ball and bounced around my body.

I watched Lou leave, back to her father. So did Mum, through a slit in the curtain.

The next chapter jumps to the end of the first year.

In this short time Mal had become our sun, our lives in his orbit. The rings we were forced to travel around him were getting smaller and smaller, pulled further in.

This is the first time the press come calling. They’re not allowed entry; in fact the only thing they go away with is the realisation that no one appears to know why he is doing what he’s doing (not doing?). Still, it makes the next evening news accompanied by some footage “taken from over the garden fence, of [his mother] trimming Mal’s toenails.” Not long thereafter the first fan mail arrives, if you discount the love letter Lou passed to Mal’s as-good-as-nameless brother to hand onto Mal but which ended up in the rubbish:

It was purposely pressed into the rotting meat and bones at the bottom, soaking up the unloved juices of that evening’s meal. But not before I pressed it to my own cod-tinged lips just in case.

Bed USYou would think considering Mal’s size and the fact that he’s forced so many people to put their lives on hold and attend to his needs that the book would also revolve around him as the centre of its universe. Yes, he looms large in it (if ‘large’ will suffice) but he is not its focal point: that would be . . . at this point I stopped and thumbed through the book but I’ll be damned if I could find Mal’s brother’s name and that’s not simply because he’s the narrator; no one ever seems to refer to him directly by name; in fact the only time he get’s called anything it’s ‘Mr. Ede’ which was of no help at all. This book is primarily about Mal’s brother, his love for Lou and their love for Mal. I wondered why David had chosen to keep him nameless:

Mal's brother spends the duration of the book, over four decades, in Mal's shadow. Everywhere he goes people ask him if he is Mal's brother. Robbing him of an identity of his own seemed to heighten that sense of his having an ability to establish himself away from Mal. People get his name wrong at points... that was just something I found funny to do to a narrator.

This book could have easily been called The Fattest Man in the World because that is what Mal becomes, an enormous turkey that his mother effectively spends “[t]he latter years of her life … basting … lifting it, turning it and coating its flesh without the reward of a hearty meal.” The descriptions of Mal’s condition (and conditions – he is not a well man by the end) are graphic. Whitehouse describes how his ring disappears inside the fat on his finger and how the bedclothes have begun to bond with his body. It’s not always comfortable reading especially if, like me, you tend to steer clear of those Channel 5 shows about unfortunate individuals with gross physical deformities like tree trunks for legs. But as often as we’re drawn into Mal’s orbit – the story jumps between past and present – this is still Mal’s brother’s story. This is what David had to say about the novel’s title when I asked him:

Ha. No, the title was Bed from the very beginning. I never considered it a book about the fattest man in the world[2]. It's a book about family and home. It just so happens that the world's fattest man is at its centre.

BedWe begin with the brothers as young boys. Even then Mal draws the eye, not for doing nothing, but for what he does do, much of which involves public nudity. I did wonder at the start if Mal had something wrong with him but other than being a bit on the eccentric side, there is nothing up with him. The first time Lou sees him he’s not in class, he’s standing out in the pouring rain after which he marches “straight into the office of the headmaster and demand[s] to have a lesson on the subject of rain, before passing out on the carpet.” When asked – in the hospital recovering from pneumonia – he does have an answer this time:

‘Seeing how wet I could get,’ he said.

Okay, not the cleverest of answers – it belies a certain innocence – but at least he had an answer and he has an answer why he decided to take to his bed. We don’t learn it until page 293 of a 296-page book but it’s a perfectly reasonable reason. My question was: When did Mal think of it? Come to think of that, when did David Whitehouse think of it? I decided to ask him:

The answer came as I was writing the book, at least in part. His actions are a reaction to a disillusionment with mediocrity, with adulthood, with the broken promises of childhood – that was clear from the outset. That is what the book was always going to be about. So that, in one respect, is 'why'. But there needed to be something else, something in his actions that meant Mal wasn't just some kind of tyrant. An element of altruism, if you like. So that's what I had to arrive at, how that was portrayed, and it wasn't until some way into the book I found that which was altruistic that could be taken from his experience was possibly something good for his family. … Mal had that as answer from the outset, even if I didn't.

So where did he come up with the premise?

The idea came from me being unemployed and with no money to really do anything, finding myself being happy in bed. Clearly, as a fan of not meeting bailiffs, this couldn't continue. But I began to fantasise about what would happen if it could. And I'm interested in societal dropouts. I imagined taking to bed being the purest form of that. I think it’s a very brave thing to do, in a way, dropping out. I've always wished I was brave enough. I liked the idea that going to bed could be a form of rebellion.

The Bookseller called this novel “momentous”. It certainly has its moments although I’m not sure that “momentous” is the right word for this book. “Momentous” suggests something . . . ‘mountainous’ keeps coming to my mind, something to be scaled but it’s really not that kind of book. It’s not a grand book. Let’s face it, a lot of its (in)action takes place in a bedroom. It’s a chamber piece and, well, you just don’t call chamber pieces “momentous”. I prefer how the reviewer in The Observer put it: “Sad and funny and pretty brilliant, too” and I have to agree with that: that hits the nail on the head. Is it perfect? No, but I’m not sure I’ve ever read a perfect novel. I’ve certainly never written one.

My own personal gripe is that I would have liked a bit more of that first year. We jump from day four to the end of the first year and I had questions, practical questions, procedural questions: when did he stop going to the toilet or bathing for example? Considering how short the chapters are – there are eighty-four in the book – a couple of pages could have dealt with that but that’s me being nit-picky, that’s all. This is an excellent book. As soon as I got my review copy I made a start on it and I’m usually quite good at taking books in their turns. And, of course, once I’d started I couldn’t put it down. I felt guilty about griping so I gave David an opportunity to respond:

That's a fair gripe I think. In response, it simply never occurred to me as such. Also, I never wanted to describe him 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 dehumanise 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.

That said, I'm aware that it's fairly graphic at points. A fine line I guess.

One last thing to think about: when David’s agent at William Morris, Cathryn Summerhayes, sent this book out “to every publisher in the country, confident of landing a deal … the manuscript was roundly rejected by everyone.”[3] What can I say? They’re idiots. But obviously that’s not the end of the story:

Summerhayes would not forget the book, and when she heard of something called the To Hell with Prizes award, in which agents were encouraged to submit the best unpublished novel currently languishing in their bottom drawers, she entered it. The very same manuscript that had been turned down by everyone three years previously proved now, according to a judging panel that included a novelist, a playwright, an editor and a bookseller, to be the unanimous winner. Whitehouse received a cheque for £5,000, and then watched bemused as his book became the subject of a fierce bidding war.[4]

I would be curious to learn what happened to the runners up, because if Summerhayes hadn’t been so diligent one of them would have won. Just a thought.

You can read the opening to the book here but I think this extract is more interesting because it doesn’t focus on Mal.

And can I just take a moment comment on the clever British cover? This is classy book design. The US cover is okay but the UK one is inspired. What adds to its classiness is that it’s embossed; the collar and the buttons are raised. It feels good. Very well done.

Let me leave you with the UK trailer to the book. The US trailer can be viewed here. The only difference is the book cover.

BED by David Whitehouse - UK trailer from James Lees on Vimeo.


David WhitehouseDavid Whitehouse was born in 1981. His journalism has appeared in Sunday Times Style, the Independent, Esquire, Time Out, Observer Magazine and has won awards from The Times and the Evening Standard. His first short film, The Archivist, screened at film festivals including Seattle and Berlin. In a Q+A on the Simon & Schuster site David reveals that one of his previous jobs was writing lonely heart ads and if he was only allowed to eat one thing for the rest of his life he’d choose Walkers Salt and Vinegar Crisps. Bed is his first novel and he lives in London.

This is what he’s up to at the moment:

I've just finished the script for a short film called Ending which shoots in Scotland in the summer with Sigma Films. It's about the last four people in the world, who all happen to be bored teenagers. And I've started, though only recently, a new novel called Mobile Library. It's early days. Seems I have forgotten how to do anything.

Oh, and he does have an older brother who is neither bed-bound or obese.


[1] She actually said: “We don't wake up for less than $10,000 a day.”

[2] In the book Mal’s weight is estimated at “a hundred stone” (1400lbs). At the moment the world record is held by Manuel Uribe who, at his heaviest, weighed 1235lbs. At birth a baby elephant will weigh about 250lbs, if that puts these figures in perspective.

[3] Nick Duerden, Is an award the only way to guarantee an author's shelf life?, The Independent, 9 June 2011

[4] Ibid


awyn said...

Another great review, Jim. The character "Mal" reminded me a bit of Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener," ("I would prefer not to" being his stock answer to performance of duties or engagement with life). Intentional inertia, so to speak, where the persons most affected are the ones forced to witness/deal with the consequences of one person's personal decision. I like the way you always include dialogues with the author about the writing. Thanks.

Jim Murdoch said...

I like to talk to authors when I can, Annie. Being one myself I appreciate just how much work often goes into these book, months and months at the very least if not years of someone’s life with all the highs and lows that go with that, and then for me to come along, spend a couple of afternoons with their work and assume I’m in a position to judge what they’re doing on behalf of all the different kinds of readers out there and get it right is a bit much to expect. There are things I’ll notice and there will be things I’ll miss but a couple of times recently I’ve said what I thought and given an author an opportunity to respond and they’ve put a whole other spin on my comment. Unfortunately I don’t always have access but where I can I like to make some use of it. A good point about Bartleby the Scrivener too.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Enjoyed the review, Jim. Will check out the book.

Thanks for commenting on my post on Inspiration. I feel your comment was worthy of a blog post by itself. You inspired me to make a post on your comment. Loved the way you spoke about not waiting around for one's muse, but getting onto writing.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’m glad you liked the review, Rachna. I think you’ll find it a worthwhile read. As for the comment on your blog, you’re welcome. I look forward to seeing the post it inspired.

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