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The Ties That Bind: David Whitehouse’s Bed

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.

On Race, Class and the Hollywood ‘Whiteout’

In Sunday’s New York Times, inspired, I suspect, by Black History Month, movie critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis had a long piece on the glaring absence of black writers, directors, and actors in this year’s Oscar nominated movies. They refer to this phenomenon as a “whiteout.”  Some might say that Scott answered his own question—why there are no major movies this year by or about black characters (never mind the rest of America’s non-white racial panoply; Scott never mentions them)—with his rather insightful piece of a few weeks back, “Hollywood’s Class Warfare,” which argued that in the wake of the financial crisis, in the midst of mass unemployment, mortgage defaults, and forecloses, many American filmmakers became preoccupied by class, and that some of the best of this year’s movies (The Fighter, Winter’s Bone, The Town) were about working-class and underclass lives, the kinds of lives that the dominant American class mentality—we’re-all-middle-class-here—doesn’t acknowledge or examine all that often.

Yes, I know: there are still a great many statistics that demonstrate that race and poverty’s fault-lines still mirror each other, still have a causal rather than accidental relationship, and thus that class is not the new race: that race is the new race and the old race. But, it’s Hollywood we’re talking about, and we can’t ask them to attend to too many weighty aspects of American life at once.  So, at least for this year in American movies, the answer to the rhetorical question in “Hollywood and the Year of the Whiteout,” “Is class the new race?,” is yes: For Hollywood this year class was the new race.

That doesn’t mean that this year’s “whiteout” isn’t a problem. But neither the problem nor the answer to the problem are quite what the authors here take them to be, though they touch on the real answer fleetingly.

The problems with the argument? First, and most obviously, when there’s a whiteout year in Hollywood, black isn’t the only color that’s missing.  And, second, the solution to the whiteout is not, as is suggested, a new black indie cinema movement—a few new Spike Lee/Lee Daniels-style black moviemakers. Or, at least, that’s not the full answer.

My sense is that the way out of the whiteout requires something more subtle, something unprecedented. The answer isn’t just a new coterie of black directors making movies in the line of Do The Right Thing or Precious. More serious films about black American life in our yearly cinematic output would be great, don’t get me wrong. But there’s something else American cinema needs more now—something we’ve only had accidental and fleeting glimpses of thus far.

What we need are more serious movies with multiracial characters/casts that aren’t SCARE QUOTES MOVIES ABOUT RACE END SCARE QUOTES. We need more movies that simultaneously are and aren’t about race: movies that are dramas and comedies, about love, death, the usual human plots—and also happen to be about race. We don’t need only highly self-conscious, politicized movies about race, but movies that look at race the way Ben Affleck’s The Town look at class: askance—Affleck uses a popular genre, a crime-thriller, to smuggle a story that’s really about class onto the big screen. This is also how Lisa Cholodenko asks us to think about sexual orientation in The Kids Are Alright: The movie’s lesbianism is sort of incidental. The movie is about a marriage undergoing a crisis brought about by a daughter’s departure for college–oh, and the couple happens to be gay.  Cholodenko does not tell us that gay love, marriage, or family exist in a special category of experience unfelt and un-feel-able by heterosexuals: She tells us that the struggles marriage and children involve are a basic human experience, whatever the sexes of those involved.

I’m not saying that we as a nation have arrived at an idyllic, post-racial (or post-sexual orientation, or post-class) age in which we do not need MOVIES ABOUT RACE, but we could also use a less melodramatic, less strident cinema of race in the vein of The Kids Are Alright that’s just about sort of normal human plots inflected by the post-racial-ish reality that has come to define more and more of our lives.  Because in some American communities, in some American homes and workplaces—more and more, I think—a version of the post-racial age has arrived and it’s not because we have a biracial president. We’re married to and related by marriage to and work with and hang out with people of other races and nationalities, and at the end of the day our relationships with these people aren’t really all that different from our relationships with those of our own races. It’s sort of mundane, actually. Bi-racial marriages and friendships are actually pretty much like any other marriages and friendships most of the time.

Are there moments of fracture sometimes—a sense that your partner of another race is experiencing or feeling something you can’t? Yes, certainly. And are there strange moments in bi-racial relationships in which you suddenly feel as if your marriage/friendship is some sort of radical political choice—that you’re poster-children for something (usually caused by other people’s delighting in/awkwardness about your biracial-ness)?  Again, yes. And I hope that this new cinema I imagine would capture and explain such moments with the subtlety they deserve. But most of the time in interracial relationships, it’s all the same laundry-on-the-floor, bills, celebrations, in-laws, dishes, fights, compromises that the same-race couple next door are dealing with.  And I hope my new cinema would capture this too—how normal and humdrum inter-racial relationships can be.

This American experience has yet to make its way onto the screen, but we catch glimpses of it: A.O. Scott sort of touches on this idea of naturalizing race when he talks about 2009’s The Hurt Locker and its focus on “the volatile friendship between two soldiers, a hot-headed white bomb-disposal specialist played by Jeremy Renner and his cautious black sergeant played by Anthony Mackie.  Race in that movie was not a theme or a problem to be solved, but rather a subtle, complex fact of life.” This is what I’m talking about.  In an ever-increasing number of American lives it’s probably this kind of representation—race as “subtle, complex fact of life”—that feels most resonant. This understated mode (friends and coworkers first; incidentally, black and white) is a norm for more and more Americans and it should become a stronger presence in our movies.  Race, for some of us now, isn’t a be-all-and-end-all melodramatically determinative fact of life, but a fact nonetheless—one that inflects our lives in increasingly subtle, nuanced ways—ways that have only just begun to be reflected in our movies.

What we need now are not white movies with Benetton tokenism (think Harry Potter: Cho Chang and the Patel twins), nor movies that ghettoize racial experience. What we need now, if our movies are to reflect American life as it is lived by more and more of us, is not white or black, but multiracial, biracial—movies whose plots and characters show how people of all races, not just white and black, combine and intersect in more mundane ways (marriage, friendship, work) and how these intersections have their particular, subtle racially-inflected nuances but are also just that—friendships, work, marriages.

Surprise Me!

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