August 2011

A very large tale

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British journalist David Whitehouse has built his first novel on a crazy premise: A young man, flush with life and deeply in love, decides that pursuing adulthood in normal terms is a complete waste of time. Rather than succumb to the drudgery of being a grownup, this eccentric freethinker decides to return to his childhood bed and never get out again. To push the premise even further, Whitehouse imagines that, after 20 sedentary years, his disillusioned character has become the fattest man in the world. 

Those with weak constitutions should be forewarned that the descriptions of this enormous man—the narrator’s older brother Mal—are truly disgusting. Mal is compared to a sausage stuffed into a too-small skin. After being trained as a butcher, our narrator unsentimentally imagines a professional dividing his brother’s flesh into fatty steaks. While Whitehouse’s merry revelry in the grotesque could be something of a turnoff, the story’s momentum keeps pages flipping.

The story is told in two parts. The first begins on day “Seven Thousand Four Hundred and Eighty Three” of Mal’s tenure in the sheets. He is clearly near death. The second storyline flashes backward and attempts to explain—or at least observe—Mal’s path from his tyrannical childhood (in which he stole center stage of every family scene) to his morbid adulthood (in which Mal continues to be, as Whitehouse puts it, the planet around which his family orbits). Into this mix enters Lou, a waiflike woman whom both brothers love.

Ultimately the story becomes a pleasure as we learn that the younger brother and the older brother may not be as different as they first appear. Mal, whose “rebellion” earns him a cult-like following, also emerges as an insightful and surprisingly daring character in his own right. While Whitehouse’s treatment of women, all of whom seemingly exist only to serve the men, might be criticized, the ideas that drive this story and the originality with which it is executed make Bed well worth reading.

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