Some people can find happiness in simple living, while others will never be satisfied with a perceived “ordinary” life. David Whitehouse’s debut novel, Bed, depicts a family with one son attempting to achieve greatness through as little effort as possible, uniting and destroying his family around him.
In a sleepy corner of England, Malcolm “Mal” Ede decides on his 25th birthday that he’s never going to leave his childhood bed. He stays in that bed and balloons to 100 stone—1,400 pounds—with a grotesque body described in sickening detail by his nameless narrator brother. He’s so large that he takes up several mattresses put together. The walls in the house are knocked down to accommodate him; his father is pushed to living in the attic, while his mother acts as nursemaid and cook in a trailer parked on the lawn.
Telling his story alternately through flashbacks from the brothers’ childhood through adulthood and brief snippets of a day 20 years after Mal resigns himself to bed, the narrator watches as his highly ambitious brother hogs the attention spotlight. When the narrator quietly falls for Lou, the pretty girl with a typically complicated family, he’s crushed when she starts up with Mal, and even more despondent when after a few years together, she still pines for Mal once he refuses to rise from his bed.
Bed moves in small, quick motions through a slow, largely static plot. The book covers many years with a quick pace aided by short chapters, but that structure throws a wrench into any kind of lyrical rhythm Whitehouse achieves. There are a few small, soaring memories of the narrator, Mal, and Lou taking a trip to the seaside on a whim, or recollections of Mal’s youthful penchant for removing his clothes in public places, but these stop dead when the story shifts back to Mal after 20 years of immobility.
Though the big question of “why?” is bluntly obvious from the start, the subtle way Whitehouse teases out the insignificance of Mal’s answer lends gravity to a sedentary action with little dramatic weight. Mal’s inaction kicks up a media frenzy that characterizes his malaise as protest, but Bed doesn’t ever give over to the Manuel Uribe factor—the Mexican man once the most obese man in the world. Instead, Whitehouse’s novel is quiet and focused, eschewing a big canvas for small strokes with a few characters.
Credit Whitehouse for never reducing Mal to a plot device through the flashbacks, keeping him from becoming like Bonnie, the mother in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. The plot is simple and unburdened by excess, but ultimately a bit too sparse and empty. In spite of Mal’s gargantuan size and indelible mark on his family, Bed is light, getting across a simple point with a low degree of difficulty.