The biggest problem in Malcolm Ede’s younger brother’s life is...Malcolm Ede. 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.
Death arrives in the first sentence of Ann Patchett’s sixth novel, State of Wonder. Deep in the farthest reaches of the Amazonian rainforest, a middle-aged drug researcher who was sent there on business but has no business being there succumbs to fever, and the secretive field scientists he’s with dash off a quick note to the States. It arrives “a breath of tissue so insubstantial that only the stamp seemed to anchor it to this world.” How terrible a weight these things still carry. Someone must tell his young family. Someone must pack up his office. And someone must be sent back up the river to recover his body and find out what the hell is going on. When the Company in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness goes after its rogue and raging ivory trader, Mr. Kurtz, it sends Marlow, a veteran boat captain; his mission is the river. When Vogel, Patchett’s invented pharmaceutical giant, goes after its rogue drug researcher, Annick Swenson, a brilliant doctor who has disappeared into the jungle with millions of Vogel’s dollars while developing a radical fertility drug, it sends Marina Singh, a mid-level lab scientist and former Swenson student; her mission is the body, the drug, and the aging Swenson herself. It’s no vacation, but Singh desperately needs a dose of something exotic. “She was forty-two. She was in love with a man”—Vogel’s CEO, twenty years her senior—“she did not leave the building with,” and April in Minnesota is bleak. “The crocuses she had seen only that morning, their yellow and purple heads straight up from the dirt, were now frozen as solid as carp in the lake.” Patchett does not trade in weak women. (It’s the men, like Singh’s father, an Indian graduate student so absorbed in his studies that the family ate dinners on the floor, so as not to disturb his stacks of papers piled in the dining room, who are little more than shadows in Patchett’s work.) She subjects her women to terrible losses, and then lends them the strength to march forward in ways that are as heroic as they are practical. Singh is a winning narrator. Life has muddled her plans and substituted its own realities. An early marriage fizzled two years into her medical residency, so at thirty, she and her husband “bought their own divorce kit at an office supply store and amicably filled out the paperwork at the kitchen table.” A tragic accident at the hospital drove her from clinical medicine and sidelined her into a pharmacology PhD program. Having arrived, without intending to, alone at middle age, she might be permitted some bitterness. Instead, she wears her quiet self-composure like a charm, and if she suffers long nights of indecision about her mission to the Amazon, she doesn’t betray it. Feeling needed, she goes. Her boss and lover packs her off with a bundle of GPS technology and extra anti-malarials. He’s doesn’t want to stay in touch so much as he wants to keep her healthy and on a short digital leash. To borrow Wilde, to lose one employee is tragic—to lose two smacks of carelessness. Minnesota bookends the novel, but Patchett has written a Brazilian adventure tale. When she arrives, Singh’s passport is a “booklet filled with empty pages,” and she’s welcomed to the country by the disappearance of her luggage. Suddenly, luxury is a toothbrush and shopping in the market is an obstacle course of language and custom. By the time she leaves, months later, she’ll be wearing entirely new skin. Patchett captures well the essential loneliness and boredom of traveling solo; the foreign becomes exhausting, the heat devastating. Dr. Swenson stays in the field for months on end, and her gatekeepers in the port town where Singh is waiting are a pair of blithe young bohemians—house sitters who collect the doctor’s mail, smoke dope in her apartment, and stonewall inquisitive journalists. (“She was such a pretty girl. It must be hard, Marina imagined, for her to have no place to go.”) There is little to do but wait. As the pages pass, and the odd trio go on one field trip after another, we begin to forget why Singh has come in the first place. Then, like apparition, Dr. Swenson is back in town. Finally, we’re headed “down a river into the beating heart of nowhere,” the throttle on the boat—and on the novel—open full. History and art provide some useful examples of how things turn out when the white folks rush headlong into the wilderness, brimming with ambition and delusion, and Patchett slyly pays her dues. “Dr. Singh, I presume,” Marina is greeted when she arrives at the upriver research station. Fitzcarraldo, Werner Herzog’s 1982 film about dragging a steamship over a small Peruvian mountain, makes an appearance, as does Lost Horizon, the 1933 novel that invented Shangri-La. Dr. Swenson has been living among the remote Lakashi tribe for more than a decade, unlocking the secret to their astounding fertility, which allows women to bear children into their seventies. “Their eggs aren’t aging, do you get that?” an excited researcher asks Singh. “This is the ovum in perpetuity, menstruation everlasting.” Now there’s an idea that only a male drug exec could love. And though the stakes—and potential profit margins—couldn’t be higher, we don’t feel the tension build until the human dramas begin to play out at the station. Dr. Swenson is a tropical storm of genius and brio. She delights in adding exponents to the ethical equations at hand in the jungle. She preaches a gospel of absolute non-intervention— “They are an intractable race,” she lectures Singh on the Lakashi. “You might as well come down here to unbend the river”—even as she pricks their fingers, collects their spit, and swabs their vaginas. She issues demands, barks her thanks, and keeps her emotions stoppered in a test-tube. In perhaps their most tender moment, Singh visits an ailing Swenson in her quarters; the elder woman sends her away. “I know how to sleep, Dr. Singh. I don’t need you to watch me unless it is something you are trying to learn to do yourself.” Patchett has set herself an ambitious task. She begins far from home—Nashville, where she lives and writes—and moves steadily away from the known world. Her prose, as she established with Bel Canto and earlier works, is full of tenderness and insight; she writes of sorrow and invasive medical procedures with equal ease. Her language shows devotion to how the sentence unfurls across the page. She has remarkable skill, as a storyteller, knowing precisely when to cut away from a scene. She doesn’t write dialogue; she writes conversations, full of human surprise, humor, and outrage, which act in service to the many Big Ideas she’s probing—about aging and fertility, children and careers, ethics and abuse. Heart of Darkness had a post-colonial mission, well ahead of its time, and Conrad was swinging for the fences. State of Wonder has some questions, none of them as urgent, but compelling still. The jungle hides its secrets until the very last, threatening to swallow Singh altogether. The story is still roaring at full-throttle as she heads down the river, back to beautiful, mundane civilization and Minnesota’s summer raspberries. But escape is never so easy, and after what she’s seen, we doubt very much that her fevered dreams will leave her soon.