Once in a great while a book will emerge from nowhere to acclaim. Last year, when British author David Whitehouse submitted a manuscript about an obese man and his brother to the first To Hell with Prizes Award, it was unanimously selected by the judges as the winner for best unpublished work of fiction. Now, hitting the States, we called the novel Bed "a morbidly funny and unusual story about a man who decides to demonstrate his dissatisfaction with the modern age."
Read another great excerpt from the new short-story collection Fantastic Women.
Here, short excerpts from chapters one and four:
Asleep he sounds like a pig hunting truffles in soot. It isn’t snoring, more of a death rattle. But for that it is a quiet morning, the morning of Day Seven Thousand Four Hundred and Eighty-Three, according to the display on the wall.
The peace is punctuated only by the crashing of a crow into the patio door. This almighty clatter doesn’t wake Mal, who continues to produce great growls from deep within his chest. They echo in my ears like the sonar conversations between dolphins and submarines.
Mal weighs a hundred stone, as they predicted. That’s big. That’s more than half a ton. Those photographs you see of whales that have beached and exploded, split by the buildup of gases inside, the thick coating of blubber that blankets the sand, that’s what Mal looks like. He has grown and swelled across the bed, two king-size and a single tied together. He has spread out so far from the nucleus of his skeleton, he is an enormous meat duvet.
It has taken him twenty years to become this big. He isn’t even the color of skin any more. Peppered with burst capillaries, a truck-sized block of sausage meat packed into a pair of cheap tights. The fat has claimed his toe- and fingernails, his nipples have stretched to the span of a female hand, and only something with the tenacity of a biscuit crumb could meander through the folds of his tummy. There must be enough for a full packet of biscuits in there by now. In twenty years Mal has become a planet with its own uncharted territories. We are the moons, caught in his orbit, Lou and Mum and Dad and me.
I lie in bed next to him, listening to the great honks his lungs make as they work their hardest to fart a little more air from his mouth. Just the dull, constant drone of it, like having your ears packed with wet bread.
Every rise of his chest triggers a seismic shudder through the room. The ripple of his flab sends waves across the puddle of his body. I ride them, nothing to do but stare out over Mal’s fleshy expanse, the enormous blistered coffin that trapped my brother inside it, to the garden where I watch the bird coat the glass. Maybe it saw Mal as it flew by and mistook him for an enormous trifle.
Twenty years in bed. Mal’s death is the only thing that can save this family because his life has destroyed it. And here I am, at the end, sharing this room with him. The room we began in. Or at least a fraction of it.
Dad told me once, ‘To love someone is to watch them die.’
Mal liked to be the first person to do things. Not just the first person in the house, or the first person in his class, but the first person in the entire world. There is a limit to the things you can be first to do when you are a child. He used to ask, “Has anyone ever . . . ?” Mum would say yes, if only to stop him trying to walk across the bottom of the sea. She learned this lesson on a rare occasion when she chose not to listen to him. Five hours after she had palmed him off with an absent-minded “no,” the policeman that came to placate her worst fears spotted Mal naked on the roof, clinging to the television aerial. It was the middle of the summer. The fire brigade came and carried him down, much against his will. I’d hoped they’d have to shoot him with a tranquilizer dart like a bear that needed urgent medical attention, and that he might roll all the way off and land in a dustbin.
Soon, to limit the chances of him presenting himself to danger, Mum hit upon the idea of speech. She told Mal that there were almost infinite combinations of words that, if you were to string them together, you would almost certainly be the first person to have uttered in that order. For six months Mal would bark endlessly unintelligible chains of words just to be the first that ever had. Most came from a dictionary, he didn’t need to know what they meant.
“Disbelieving diagnosis ferocious atrocious hegemony telephony gripe, never never never, eat fruit until it’s ripe.”
“Pinecone overthrown on the throne phone home moan drone blown bone time lime zone, oh my haven’t you grown.”
It pleased her. Mal always gave, but in his own way.
Her devotion was a blanket that smothered but was warm nonetheless. Her life had been sacrificed for the bettering of those around her. In another time, with a candle, a billowing blue dress and a ferocious war fought on a smoky field, she would have been the most popular nurse with every doomed soldier that passed through her charge. But instead she was born to us: her mum, who I could barely remember; Dad; Mal. She’d swung between them on vines, tending them, loving them, leaving with nothing for herself. And now that her mother was dead, and Dad had begun to retreat, to Mal she had devoted herself fully. She knew how to do nothing else.
Excerpted from BED: A Novel by David Whitehouse. Copyright © 2011 by David Whitehouse. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.