Interview: David Whitehouse, author
Daytime television inspired David Whitehouse's surreal slacker novel
• David Whitehouse's disillusioned hero, Mal, takes to his bed and balloons to 100 stone
BED is the book David Whitehouse never thought he'd see published. It's a story about families. A story about being exceptional. A story about a young man called Mal, who makes the extraordinary decision to take to his bed and never get out again.
Whitehouse, who turned 30 this year, always wanted to write for magazines, but when he achieved that dream, it turned out that he'd miscalculated. "It became apparent that I'd rather make stuff up than report on fact. Journalism, particularly magazine journalism, can be very staid, very formulaic. While there are some great pieces of journalism around, there are very few places for relatively inexperienced journalists like me to be able to do them."
As a struggling freelancer, Whitehouse had a lot of time on his hands and very little money, so he spent a lot of time in his flat. "I was literally sitting in bed thinking, 'I need to write something otherwise I'm not doing anything,' So I started this book. In bed. I did the first 5,000 words and sent them to William Morris, simply because they were the only agency I'd ever heard of, and they picked it up."
His agents didn't have much luck finding a home for the novel, which he finished 14 months later. "They sent it to all the publishers and I was completely convinced that I owned the world and everything in it," he says, with a self-deprecating laugh. "I was walking around town like I owned the place. And it turned out I didn't own the place. No-one took it on. It sat in my agent's drawer for about two years. I'd completely given up on it and forgotten about it, basically."
A second chance beckoned via a competition called To Hell with Prizes, run by a company called To Hell with Publishing. At last year's London Book Fair they announced an award for the best unpublished manuscript, inviting every agency to submit one contender. Bed won, and was picked up by Canongate. "It's a redemptive tale in that it proves it's about timing and good fortune," Whitehouse acknowledges.
Bed is narrated by Mal's younger brother. "He doesn't have a first name, but when people ask, my instinct is always to say David," says the author, which tells you something right there.
Mal is astonishing. He eschews clothes, sometimes disrobing during a dull lesson at school. Charismatic, he's opposed to doing anything that's expected and eschews all that's mediocre. He says, "Maybe one day you realise that everything you thought was coming to you, everything you'd been promised, just isn't going to happen. And maybe when you realise that, maybe settling down is just what happens. Maybe that's when you admit defeat."
To an extent, he's speaking for Whitehouse. "I've always been disenchanted with adulthood. It wasn't what I was promised it would be. Mal's reaction is to reject mediocrity. Everyone feels what he does, but no one is ever brave enough to act upon it ."
A side-effect of Mal's self-incarceration is that he grows to a whopping 100 stone. His body fuses to the mattress he hasn't left in years, and his internal organs are slowly crushed by adipose tissue. Yet all his besotted family can do is sit, watch, and wait – or so it seems.
"I liked the idea of exploring Malcolm as a planet, so it became a necessity for him to become monstrously, cartoonishly big. I was writing it three or four years ago, when I was unemployed and you get to stay home and watch really bad documentaries. Almost every programme was about people who couldn't get out of the house because they were too big. I watched all of those documentaries and was fascinated by the grotesqueness of it and the sadness. I always wanted this to be a melancholy tale. It deals with depression, and inertia. The weight allowed me to give it an extra dimension and to bring other strangers, such as the media, into it."
The book also explores the paradox that too much love can be a bad thing. Mal's mum spends her life feeding him – both keeping him alive and killing him. The narrator is temporarily crippled while testing an invention their father is building in secret in the attic. And Lou, Mal's girlfriend, cannot break free of the father she adores.
"Family is a very destructive force in the book," agrees Whitehouse. "I've got a very nice family but the characters are extensions of my parents, I guess. My mother will not stop feeding you cups of tea and biscuits if you visit, though she won't let you stay in bed all your life. And my dad, though a very caring man, is a quiet individual who's likely to go off and be on his own. I liked the idea of taking that to extremes. In those documentaries where guys get really big, their wives and mothers are often the people responsible for doing that to them. It is love, but a grotesque, mutant kind of love."
Whitehouse has a new novel in mind called Mobile Library. "When I was growing up in Nuneaton, my mum was a cleaner for a mobile library and I'd go in every Saturday and sit on the floor and read while she worked, which was great. The story is about a woman and a little boy, not related to her, who go away together in this mobile library, in an almost Thelma and Louise style journey across Britain."
He also has a sideline writing short films, and his script Ending will be made in Scotland over the summer. "It's about four teenagers – three girls and one boy – who wake up to find that there's no-one else in the world.
"By the time you join them it's been about a year that they've been on their own, so it's about four extremely bored teenagers and what they do when there's nothing else in the world to do."
If any of those teens are as funny, as inventive, and as endearing as Mal, then Ending might just be the start of something big.
• Bed is out now from Canongate, priced 10.99
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