Thursday, August 18, 2011

The elephant in the room...

by David Whitehouse

Human beings are, by nature, curious creatures. Every now and again I’ll hear a story, and I simply can’t imagine the circumstances. Certainly this is the case when I hear about the life (or unfortunately more often, the death) of a profoundly morbidly obese individual; someone literally unable to shift their own weight. How does a person get so big, I’ve wondered. Who enables this? How is a person so immobile for so long that their skin FUSES with the fabric on which they rest?

David Whitehouse’s auspicious debut novel deals with just such an individual, but I don’t want to give the impression that this is some sort of salacious tabloid story. On the contrary, it’s a portrait of a family viewed through the eyes of the younger son. This first-person narrator is never actually named, beyond being “Mal’s brother,” so fully is his identity subsumed.

Malcolm Ede was an unusual and difficult child. How much of it was attention-seeking (public nudity will do that), and how much was the attention merely a by-product of other forces that drove Mal’s behavior? It’s hard to know, because we’re not inside Mal’s head. Their life together is viewed through the prism of his brother’s eyes. And this is what he sees, “His idiosyncrasies amplified his achievements. When he swam, it seemed he swam farther than anyone else. An outsider on his own terms, he was free to build his own rules around him, rules that no one but him could hope to understand. Not even me. I was carried in his slipstream…” And perhaps because of who and what Mal is, his brother is the type of person who, when addressed by the wrong name, won’t bother correcting you.

At the present time, Mal is 45 and his brother is 43. They are both currently sharing a bedroom in their childhood home. For Mal, and for his family, it is “Day Seven Thousand Four Hundred and Eighty-Three.” That is, it’s been 7, 483 days since Mal last left his bed. He refused to get up on his 25th birthday, and there he has lain for the past 20 years. Eating. Today he is the fattest man in the world, and there are estimates that he weighs over 1,400 pounds! Says his brother, “He looks like an enormous sea monster caught and displayed in a Victorian museum of the grotesque.”

So again, how does this happen? Who enables this? Says his brother, “I look into Mal’s eyes every day. There is nothing wrong with him. He isn’t mad. He wasn’t mad when he was a child, he isn’t mad now as a great big deflated hot-air balloon of skin. This isn’t what we need to discover. You can’t get the right answers unless you ask the right questions. And there is one. Why?” There are no simple answers to these questions, but in the telling, we will learn of the entire Ede family’s history together, told from the boys’ early childhood, moving forward in time, with interludes in the present day.

Mr. Whitehouse’s story-telling ability is excellent. He will frequently reference something out of context, making the reader sit up and pay attention until the explanation surfaces. The book is short at 256 pages, and most of the 84 chapters are only a few pages at most. It’s a quick read, and I found myself more and more compelled by the story and invested in the characters as I went along. It’s all so dysfunctional, including the romance at the heart of this story, but I cared about these people.

“Mal grew bigger and wider and rounder and heavier. Like a colony of ants, we worked and lived and fed around him, pretending that everything was normal, which in the strangest of ways it was.” The elephant in the room.

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