A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon

Read: 9 October, 2017

Recently retired, George is just starting to settle into his life’s new mode when he discovers an odd lesion on his hip. Though his doctor quickly dismisses it as ecsema, George is pretty sure that it must be cancer. And thus begins his spiral into depression as his family tries to cope while being utterly incapable of communicating with one another.

The writing style is casual, almost breathless, as each member of George’s family gives us direct access to their thoughts as they think them. It means that the narrative is always subjective, and sometimes even a little muddled as characters get drunk or high on valium or focus on details to the exclusion of the big picture. But having access to the perspective of all four members of the family balances out the narrative.

That said, Haddon has never met a metaphor he didn’t like. This was particularly noticeable at the beginning, before I had acclimated to the style. And, frankly, it bordered a little on the absurd at times.

The characters were strong, and it was interesting to see so much of them from both the inside and multiple versions of the outside. While the difference between the first and third person prespectives is a comedy gold mine, Haddon doesn’t take advantage. Characters remain fairly consistent regardless of observer, except where George’s mental illness is concerned (and then only because his inner thoughts are new, and therefore unfamiliar).

George’s illness hit a little close to home, making the first part of the book rather difficult to read. I’ve been ill quit a bit in the last 1-2 years, which has exacerbated my usual depression/anxiety combo. Having George’s thinking so neatly mirror my own put me into a sort of feedback loop that really wasn’t healthy. But while that was bad for me, it’s an endorsement of Haddon that he got it so right.

The “almost every problem would be solved if the characters would just talk to each other” trope is one that I usually find incredibly frustrating, but it didn’t bother me too much here. Perhaps because the characters understood the problem and were clearly trying to reach out to each other. But it did make the characters themselves unpleasant. They are all utterly self-centred and incapable of thinking of others. This is just annoying when they whine about being unable to relate to each other, but it’s sad when we see how it plays out in their treatment of Jacob – Katie’s toddler. It’s clear that his emotional needs are not being met, just as it’s obvious that Katie’s and Jamie’s weren’t met when they were children. So while the book largely ends on a high note, it’s also clear that nothing has truly been fixed, and that all the same issues will still be present in the next generation.

I’m honestly not too sure how I feel about the book. I’m always inclined to like what I read, and this book certainly had a lot to recommend it (the capturing of middle class britishisms, alone, gives the book a certain value), but I just didn’t enjoy reading it all that much. And maybe that has more to do with me than the book, and maybe I’m being unfair, but I just can’t recomend it. A book like this needs a lot more humour to give it some balance. Without it, it felt like we, like George, we’re just wallowing.

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Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green & David Levithan

Read: 14 February, 2016

Will Grayson, Will Grayson is the story of two teenagers who share a name and just happen to meet by pure luck in a Chicago porn store. Though they have very little in common when they initially meet, their lives soon become entwined through Tiny Cooper, the first Will’s best friend and soon-to-be the second Will’s boyfriend.

The premise is somewhat ridiculous (I’m being generous), and that’s largely why I waited so long to read the book (I went through my big John Green phase around 2012, when The Fault In Our Stars came out and pretty much everyone went through a big John Green phase).

There’s a lot about the book that I liked, but it didn’t really do it for me. Overall, this felt like a “I didn’t read it at the right time” problem more than a “this book sucks” problem. In any case, there are particular aspects of the book that I wanted to touch on:

A lot of John Green books have these moments where characters have these perfect monologues – they express themselves perfectly, they say exactly what the other character needed to hear, and it’s very scripted. And that’s okay. Because fiction doesn’t need to be real, it just needs to be realistic, and sometimes things are said because the reader needs to hear them. A not-insignificant factor in my surviving until adulthood was hearing fictional characters say exactly the thing that I needed to hear at that moment (I’m looking at you, Janeway). These monologues don’t feel fake in the sense that people don’t feel these things or need to hear them, but fake in the sense that so few of us have living people around us capable of saying them. That’s an important difference because while I might groan that yet another character is delivering a John Greenologue, I’m also crying because I am touched by it. That has value.

The chapters about lowercase-will were difficult for me to read. I was also a depressed teenager (complete with medication, though I was never able to find a brand/dose that actually worked without unlivable side effects) with no real friends and an online relationship. The early chapters, where will is deep in his online relationship, felt like a mirror. That life where he’s just barely hanging on throughout the day until he can get home and talk to that one good thing in his life, that was me. As I was reading, there was this uncomfortable humour sensation of “wow, I was such an asshole.” I mean, it’s not like I didn’t already know I was such an asshole, but it was still difficult to have to watch it all over again.

The problem is the plot. I understand the necessity of having Isaac turn out to be fake, but the assumption that online relationships aren’t real, that the person I’m talking to must be either a predator or someone playing a joke, made getting through my late teens very difficult because there was no social approval of my relationship. Not that teen romances get all that much respect anyway, but they’re usually at least acknowledged as legitimate by other teens. In our case, however, telling anyone about our relationship meant lectures about “how do you know he’s not some 50 year old pervert?” Even from people who had met him. Even later, when we were living together and people found out how we met. The “so how did you guys meet?” question still gives me anxiety. All this made me rather disappointed in Levithan for creating yet another brick of stigma against online relationships, for reinforcing the idea that they aren’t really real. Just once, it would be nice to read a book about a character like lowercase-will who has an online relationship and that online relationship’s fakeness is not at the centre of the story’s conflict.

The focus on appearance was bothersome as well. Lowercase-will, in particular, is vicious toward women (covered in pimples so big they could be bee stings?), while every male is cute (even while he expresses his astonishment that he could ever find them so because of their disgusting body). The other Will isn’t much better (Jane’s hair is too curly?). The descriptions of Tiny’s weight are relentless from both authors. As someone who, like Tiny, has always been overweight, and as someone who has been severely bullied for it, it was very difficult to read. To make things worse, I don’t see why it was necessary. Couldn’t they just acknowledge that Tiny was overweight without making it so central to his character? Without being so relentless in insulting him? I mean, every single time someone encounters or thinks about Tiny, his body is central. I understand that there’s a set up for the climax there, but overweight people should not exist to be life lessons for thin people. Not even in fiction.

They could have focused on Tiny’s manic make-myself-feel-valuable-by-always-trying-to-serve-everyone attitude instead without losing much. As with the relationship with Isaac, there’s a point where it felt like the authors were less trying to help teens transcend and grow through their harmful attitudes, and more just buying into them themselves (and thereby reinforcing them for their readers). I would have liked for them to show a little more care when fat-phobia is literally killing people, not to mention all the less visible harm a lifetime of bullying trauma, self-hate, and social exclusion can cause.

I liked the focus on friendship in the book. Yes, everyone kinda pairs off by the end, and yes, the Will/Jane relationship takes up a lot of ink. But, ultimately, the central relationships that are dealt with in the climax are platonic friendships. That’s pretty rare to see, and I think it’s a harmful aspect of North American culture that we privilege romantic relationships to the point where friendships are almost seen as casual entertainment while we’re waiting for the main event. I’m not sure how I feel about friend relationships being central in a book that is so much about homosexuality (like, couldn’t we have sacrificed a hetero love story in favour of friendship instead?), but I do still appreciate it.

Overall, the book was fine. Like most of John Green’s books, it was a fairly quick read with tears at the end. I thought the two authors did a great job of meshing their characters, and I appreciated Levithan’s more brutal style. I’m not sure I’d want to read a whole book like that, but it worked well interspersed as it was by Green’s silliness.

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