Bed by David Whitehouse

A review of the darkly comic literary novel Bed by David Whitehouse.

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If you’re the sort of person who is always on a diet, hits the gym regularly and yet still can’t resist the urge to engorge yourself in chocolate box binges, you might want to avoid this book. David Whitehouse’s debut offering Bed is a gross, no-holds-barred tale of Malcolm Ede’s twenty-year, bedridden descent into extreme obesity, peppered with peculiarly masterful descriptive prose which disgusts and delights in equal measure (“He was an enormous meat duvet”).

Told from the perspective of Mal’s younger brother, Bed is a blackly comic coming-of-age story, gawping into the impact crater of a dysfunctional family coming to terms with Mal’s enormous weight gain. Using flashbacks, we see Mal as a free-spirited young man, always upstaging his younger brother and pursuing his own rebellious whims, even ensnaring the affections of Lou, Mal’s girlfriend. Then, suddenly, on his 25th birthday, Mal simply refuses to get out of bed, succumbing to the belief that a life of work and drudgery is not for him.

Seemingly enabled by his mother’s love and slavish devotion, Mal is fed from his childhood bedside for many years, eating and seeking solace in idleness until he balloons to over 100 stone and becomes the world’s fattest man. Inexplicably, Mal’s newfound status as a media celebrity – and the fan mail that comes with it – only serves to rankle his younger brother, who not only wrestles with living in his brother’s shadow but also ponders the reasons why Mal has chosen this bizarre path for himself.

With deft skill at grotesque prose and grim metaphors, David Whitehouse writes with real panache, almost making morbid obesity mildly poetic, which is something I’d previously never thought possible. There’s also a notable sad, melancholy air hanging over this story, particularly around the family’s struggle to cope with Mal’s gargantuan size (including Mal’s girlfriend, who remains loyal to him) and their incredulity about the fat man’s motives.

Mal’s younger brother, in particular, has been secretly in love with Mal’s girlfriend for many years, so this adds an extra, unrequited subtext to Bed which plops a strange thematic poignancy into the eccentric soup of Mal’s mushrooming midriff. Ultimately, Bed seems to be about how one man’s selfish decision to opt out of social responsibility causes chaos for those who lacked the courage, and the fortitude, to challenge him until, of course, it’s too late.

It’s also, however, often funny and full of wit, with Whitehouse’s skill as a writer shining through in amongst the litany of graphic detail. It will be interesting to see how his talent evolves in future stories, but for now, Bed stands strong as a vivid, mesmerising primer on how Whitehouse takes stark subject matter and strikes a balance between odd humour and bold, hard-hitting realism. I would recommend it to anyone who isn’t afraid of saying no to that extra slice of chocolate cake!

Poet, humorous fiction writer and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.

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