A Spot of Bother
By Mark Haddon
One of the principle reasons that George Carlin remained a relevant comedian well into his later life is that he never once compromised his freedom of speech for the comfort of others. Carlin's brand of social commentary pulled no punches and he was more than willing to spell out the inconsistencies in our system and within ourselves. Although his primary purpose was to entertain an audience, he certainly left his audiences with a lot to think about. A good deal of his celebrity had to do with the ability to make his audience uneasy about the things he said. In the paraphrased words of Louis C.K. , good comedy takes people to dark places and makes them laugh about it. Or, to put it more succinctly, good comics joke about things that people just don't joke about.
Just ask Tig Notaro.
Good comics understand that everything can be funny in the right context, even issues as categorically unfunny as rape, abortion, cancer and death. I tend to agree with Carlin. Comedy is all about delivery and timing. In the right hands, anything can be rendered not comedy. But it's a tricky business, comedy. If the subject matter is handled in any way incorrectly, the crash and burn can be spectacular. Just Michael Richards.
To be sure, comedy in literature isn't at the same level as stand-up comedy. Carlin, Notaro and C.K. have to make an audience laugh with a degree of consistency over a one/two hour period without fail and much of that has to do with pace, timing and delivery of the comedy. Ask an untrained comedian to get up on stage and do a Jerry Seinfeld routine verbatim and I suspect they'd bomb. Writers, I think, garner a little more forgiveness from their audience. That's not to say that writing comedic novels is a breeze. The same pace, timing and delivery inherent in stand-up exist in writing, it's just that readers can choose to put a book down quietly and walk away mid build. They just don't work under the same stressful conditions.
When literary comedy is done right (Shakespeare's comedies, The Importance of Being Earnest, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) it is virtually impossible to put the book down mid-stream (lest you break the rhythm). In the true Carlin tradition, Mark Haddon hit the comedic nail on the head in 2003 with his novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. It was poignant yet hilarious novel told from the perspective of an 11-year old autistic child. Certainly, in most circumstances, autism isn't anything to joke about. Just ask the parents of autistic children or those that work with them. Yet Haddon handled the subject matter with both tender gravity and brutal levity, finding the perfect balance between what was acceptable and hilarious and what was unacceptable and categorically un-funny.
I have to imagine that when Haddon took the challenge of writing a comedy about a mentally disabled child he did so with the utmost care to walk the razor's edge. Building an empathetic cast of characters helped immensely. The novel was a commercial and critical success and deserving of the accolades it has received. Mark Haddon had written a comedic novel about a subject that people don't joke about. I'm not sure whether George Carlin ever read the book, but I'm going to imagine he would have enjoyed it.
In his latest (as of the writing of this blog-post) novel, A Spot of Bother, Haddon tries to do with dysfunctional families and mental illness what he did with autism. A Spot of Bother is a story of a family that doesnt seem to communicate all that well. George, the father, is very quickly loosing his mind, his wife, Jean has been carrying on an affair with a colleague of her husband for 15 years, Katie is the emotionally unstable daughter who is poised to get married for the second time and Jamie is the emotionally distant homosexual son. The family makes my family seem like a walk in the park by comparison. A bunch of things happen, there's quite a lot of blood, irrational behavior and a few good laughs along the way. But it doesn't work.
While there are moments of awesomeness in this novel (George rationalizing that cutting a growth off his leg with a pair of kitchen scissors, for example), A Spot of Bother doesn't really follow through in the same manner as A Curious Incident did. In fact, it falls way short. I tried to pinpoint the problem and the best I could come up with was that they elements he used in The Curious Incident that made it such a pleasure are absent in A Spot of Bother. And I don't mean to judge Haddon's book based on his previous success. That's not fair. It's just that the comparison sort of works with what I'm trying to convey, and this is a bit more about my point than it is about Haddon's novels. Bear with me.
First, in A Curious Incident, Haddon created a wonderful cast of characters in which the reader could relate. This is not so in A Spot of Bother. The entire Hall family are so entirely unlikeable. It's hard to relate to dysfunction if you can't relate to at least one of the characters involved in said dysfunction. The characters are universally selfish, self-absorbed and rude. One wonders how they were all able to find any success in the working world and life in general with those character traits. The parents, George and Jean, continuously allude to Katie's fiancee as being "inappropriate," but I struggled to understand why. Ray seemed like a legitimately wonderful man with very few character flaws. I couldn't understand why anyone, anywhere would dislike the guy and yet the entire family and a few friends seems to instinctually understand he is perhaps wrong for Katie. I thought she should consider herself lucky. I got the impression that the editors (or Haddon himself, edited out an entire section where we would all understand what was so wrong about Ray.
Which gets me to Ray. His one and only moment of irrationality seems so entirely out of character from the rest of the book I figured it was tacked on to create a couple dozen extra pages of drama. Actually, a lot of stuff seems to be tacked onto this book then forgotten. The story was full of unresolved holes. Did Katie get fired for taking the day off work? What happened to Graham after his and Katie's talk? What about the guy that went blind? Perhaps these were examples of how self-absorbed the characters are, but I kept waiting for the repercussions of their actions to catch up with them and they never seemed to.
Don't get me wrong, Haddon is a great writer. He is articulate and his style reminds me a lot of Douglas Adams (which is a good thing, obviously). It's just that instead of taking the reader into dark places and make them laugh about them (i.e. mental illness, cancer, fear or death, etc...), Haddon simply takes us to dark places, drops us off, says a few quick words and drives off, leaving the reader to wallow in the pathos left in his wake. There seems to be a half-hearted attempt to make light of the subjects and a sort-of but not-quite attempt to create a comedy of errors as a frame, but it all seemed to fall flat on its face. This wouldn't be all that bad, really, if Haddon was treading on safer ground. But it left me with the distinct impression that he had little to no empathy for those suffering from real mental illness or those coping with a truly dysfunctional family.
Given the fact that he wrote The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time I give him the benefit of the doubt. Some of the dialog is quite astute and there are some really funny scenes interspersed throughout but the novel was hardly chortle-worthy. By way of comparison, it's not Michael Richards embarrassing himself on stage, but it's certainly not Carlin-esque either.
It's just that this novel left me saying: "Meh."