We’re introduced to the Edes on Day Seven Thousand Four Hundred and Eighty-Three, according to the only calendar that matters to the family anymore — that is, the number of days since Malcolm, after going on a real birthday bender, crawled into his childhood bed and, at the tender age of twenty-five, refused to leave. Now, two decades later, he’s the fattest man in the world. He weighs half a ton, “a hundred stone” in the vernacular of author David Whitehouse, a London-based journalist, filmmaker, and now, with the debut of Bed, a novelist. Having difficulty imagining the sight of a man so bloated that he requires two king-sized beds rafted together to support him? “Those photographs you see of whales that have beached and exploded, split by the buildup of gasses inside, the thick coating of blubber that blankets the sand, that’s what Mal looks like…He has spread so far out from the nucleus, he looks like a meat duvet…Peppered with burst capillaries, a truck-size block of sausage meat packed into a cheap pair of tights.” Malcolm requires an iron stomach to vacuum up the constant parade of dishes his mum cooks up for him, a non-stop gastroblitz of fats and sweets. Readers may find they require equally strong stomachs to digest page after page of such spectacular self-indulgence.
Our narrator is born two years after Malcolm, and the fact that he goes unnamed throughout the book tells you much of what you need to know about the boys’ uneasy relationship. In literature, as in life, second-born sons spend a great deal of time living in the shadows cast by their older brothers. When they decide to stop awing and emulating, and don identities of their own, terrible dramas ensue. (See: Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, and best yet, Christian Bale and Mark Wahlberg in last year’s The Fighter.) It doesn’t help any that Malcolm, as a child, was a logorrheic, petulant imp — a nice departure from fiction’s recent habit of making all nine-year-old boys precocious savants — who refused to wear clothes, terrorized family vacations, and delighted in keeping his mum and dad awake at night, sick with worry. Yet by middle school, where looks and popularity go to the undeserving, Malcolm is predictably charming, muscular, poised. “Next to him,” his younger brother reports, “I looked like I was assembled in the dark from spare parts.” Of course, none of this would feel so urgent were it not for a girl, Lou, who soon breezes into the boys’ world. Malcolm, the object of her affection, likes her, even loves her. His younger brother, hiding in the wings, is consumed by her. Life, unfair as it is, proceeds accordingly — work, marriage, holidays to the beach — until the morning Malcolm decides to hell with all that.
Whitehouse deploys an unusual narrative strategy, dividing the novel into eighty-four chapters, the longest of which is just several pages. Actions come in beats, like a stage drama, rather than protracted moments. It keeps the story moving, but occasionally we wish to linger a while longer in a scene before being whisked away to a new time and place. We glimpse Malcolm and his brother at every age, but rarely long enough to discern more than the roughest contours of their characters. When, on page two, your narrator announces, “Mal’s death is the only thing that can save this family because his life has destroyed it,” you’ve got some heavy authorial lifting to do. To care if the thousand-pound man-brat dies in the end, your readers must first feel some modicum of empathy for him.
What is Whitehouse trying to do here? His writing is too original to limit itself to parody, too sympathetic and diffuse to achieve satire. Instead, he is bravely wrangling an absurd conceit and hyperbolic plotline into a genuinely honest story about family. I say “bravely” because, as with any story illuminating a uniquely unhappy family, the closer the author gets to truth, the more the reader squirms. Powerful mirrors, such novels. For the Ede family, the ties that bind also imprison. Part of this is simple physics: moons don’t choose to orbit their planets. Malcolm’s id is the most massive object in the vicinity, and his twenty-year drowning drags everyone around him — mum, dad, Lou, and little brother — into his depressive depths. “To love someone is to watch them die,” the narrator’s father, a mine engineer who’s cleaning out his own demon cellar, instructs him. Do we extend the same poetical sentiment to someone who is hell-bent on committing suicide by heart disease? For better or — more likely — for worse, yes. Really, what else is a mother to do? Self-sacrifice can be an ugly thing, though, and Malcolm’s mum is as much his enabler as his caretaker. (The nasty implication being, about mothers in general, that they play the former to ensure their job security as the latter.) She sponges his privates, clips his toenails, and wipes his ass. But to announce, as the narrator does, that “It was her love that was killing him,” is merely to note that many are complicit in the affair.
Indeed, how are any of us to answer for modernity’s vast oceans of cultural malaise? This is the razor’s edge we ought to strop with our novels and their characters. Malcolm is a do-nothing cause célèbre. His story inspires the media bonanza of the century, and a cult of followers pitch tents on the family’s front lawn, staging a kind of rally-cum-death-watch. But Malcolm’s obesity is a wholly personal decision — unlike most of the one-third of Americans who suffer the same fate — born from radical disillusionment with adulthood. Whitehouse is at his best when parsing Malcolm’s emotional descent, painful as it is to witness. Lecturing his brother, he struggles to make sense of growing up: “Why would so many people stick to a plan that hardly ever seems to work? …Why would you chase something that turns out to be so fucking awful so much of the time? Looks like a let-down to me.” Spoken like a true fifteen-year-old. It calls to mind Japan’s hundreds of thousands of hikikomori, the young men (and some women) who lock themselves into their bedrooms and withdraw from the social milieu entirely. Little wonder that this happens at just the age when the acute, exquisite pain of living — really living — begins. Bed, in its promotional literature, purports to deal with “the broken promises of adulthood,” and to Malcolm, that’s just how it feels: like a betrayal. He’s blind to the accompanying liberation. It turns out that there are no promises, but that’s not a death sentence. It’s a life sentence.