Comedy Without a Gimmick, Conventional Yet Nimble

Mark Haddon’s debut, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, was a mystery story told from the perspective of a young man with autism, an audacious and inventive conceit. Mr. Haddon’s new novel, A Spot of Bother, is an entirely conventional comedy of manners. No matter—the genre may be tired, but the writing is fresh, funny and wise.

Fastidious and mild-mannered, George Hall is the recently retired manager of a playground-equipment company. He enjoys small, satisfying comforts: building an art studio in the backyard; sketching; using the home espresso-maker. (“Indoor camping. A bit of an adventure.”) Life isn’t perfect. George is occasionally irritated by his wife, Jean, who, unbeknownst to him, is having an affair with an ex-colleague of his. He’s also troubled that his son Jamie is gay, and that his daughter Katie, a strong-willed single mother, is dating a man, Ray, who reminds him “of being with his older brother’s friends when he was fourteen, the suspicion that there was a secret code of manhood to which he was not privy.” All in all, George doesn’t much worry: “The secret of contentment … lay in ignoring many things completely.” But when he discovers a lesion on his hip (eczema, though he’s convinced it’s cancer), he realizes there’s something that can’t be wished away: death. And when Katie decides to marry her troublesome boyfriend, George finds that other things aren’t so easy to ignore, either. Before he knows it, he’s crouched in the fetal position on the floor, wracked with fear, lowing like a cow.

George’s psychological crisis provides the novel’s broadest comic moments, but as things fall apart, Mr. Haddon deftly chronicles the befuddlement of each and every Hall.

For Jean, the trouble begins with the announcement of Katie’s engagement, which upsets the delicate rhythm she’s settled into with her lover, a man who wears expensive aftershave and takes walking holidays in the Pyrenees.

Katie isn’t exactly sure why she’s marrying Ray. They have nothing in common. She speaks French, has studied philosophy and appreciates modern art; Ray is “good at mending the cassette player and cooking fried breakfasts.” The engagement, she suspects, is something she’s fallen into.

Jamie, meanwhile, doesn’t fall into anything: He’s planned his life carefully, keeping everything—his work, the gym, his boyfriend Tony—in tidy cubbyholes. “The compartments were there for a reason,” he thinks. “It was like a zoo. You could mix chimpanzees and parrots. But take the cages away altogether and you had a bloodbath on your hands.”

A bloodbath is exactly what the Halls get—and what they need. As a family, they’re divided by many little problems and share one big one: a pathological aversion to acknowledging what’s bothering them. (The oblique quality of the Halls’ speech is inadvertently exaggerated for the American reader by Mr. Haddon’s British idioms: Characters are “chuffed,” emotional jags are “wobbles,” and so forth.) Some of this reticence is cultural—the stiff upper lip of the British bourgeoisie—and some of it is a more complicated mixture of fear and laziness.

Discussing one’s troubles is “unseemly,” George tells his psychiatrist. (The psychiatrist, a proper Brit, nods in agreement.) George wouldn’t even be speaking to a psychiatrist in the first place if his wife hadn’t insisted. And his wife wouldn’t have insisted if she, in turn, hadn’t been browbeaten by her daughter, who simply doesn’t want to deal with her father’s nervous breakdown: “Christ,” Katie thinks to herself. “Parents were meant to sort this stuff out for themselves. She didn’t want this on her plate.”

But Katie can’t escape her family any more than George can rid himself of his “cancer” by trying to snip it off with a pair of scissors, or Jean can wish away Jamie’s homosexuality by booking him and his partner into a hotel instead of letting him sleep in his own room when he comes home. And eventually they all discover that even if they could ignore each other, they wouldn’t want to. As Jamie puts it: “There’d been a moment, in Peterborough, shortly after Katie punched him, when he realized that he needed these people. Katie, Mum, Dad …. They drove him up the wall sometimes. But they’d been with him all the way. They were a part of him.”

If all this sounds predictable, well, it is. Mr. Haddon has no tricks up his sleeve this time around. The Halls are a normal family, dealing with mundane worries, and the novel they inhabit is your average comedy of manners: Several plotlines skewering domestic life collide, combust and resolve—with a big, happy wedding at the end, enlivened by a flash of drama. But Mr. Haddon is a good enough writer to raise A Spot of Bother above the ordinary. His dry, nimble style is pitch perfect, capturing the hectic anxieties of a family constantly teetering on the edge between respectability and humiliation; his restraint balances the excesses of the family high jinks. It’s a style that, like the Halls, operates by omission and understatement.

Ray, the one character who doesn’t fit the mold, an oafish former rugby player with a working-class accent, is a paragon of decency. Unlike the Halls, he has no use for indirection, and he isn’t afraid to face unpleasant facts. It finally dawns on Katie that Ray is “the kindest, most dependable, most honorable person in her life.” Ray’s no good at “chatting,” we learn early on. But he’s very good at speaking. What he says is simple and true: “I love you, wife.”

Some things are worth saying, no matter how conventional.

Louisa Thomas is on the editorial staff of The New Yorker.

Comedy Without a Gimmick,  Conventional Yet Nimble