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'Curious Incident' author Mark Haddon publishes second novel and hopes for another blockbuster

'Curious Incident' author Mark Haddon publishes second novel and hopes for another blockbuster

There is a disconcerting scene in Mark Haddon's new novel, "A Spot of Bother," where the protagonist, a 61-year-old man sinking softly into a genteel retirement, tries to hack off a skin lesion with a pair of scissors.
"The appalling incident in the bathroom (without a dog)," as Haddon calls it _ a joking reference to his first adult novel, "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" _ graphically conveys retiree George Hall's unraveling emotional stability.
With sales of 10 million and rising, "Curious Incident" _ a darkly original tale about a boy with Asperger's syndrome (an autism-like disorder) _ was a blockbuster, and Haddon could be forgiven a little authorly pride, or even posturing, in his second offering.
But "A Spot of Bother" _ published in the United States by Doubleday and in Britain by Jonathan Cape _ displays the same spare, nonjudgmental style; the author says if he keeps the prose tight and eliminates his own voice, the reader is freed to "fill in the spaces themselves."
"I worked hard not to make it a clever book," he told The Associated Press over a cup of coffee in the pale late summer sunshine on the bank of the River Thames outside London's National Theatre.
"I didn't want to be affected. I wanted this book to belong to the people in it. There is a lot I don't say, so that the reader gets to be involved. I wanted to be really honest. I wanted people to say, 'Yes, that is what life is like.'"
The people in the novel are George's family, a standard nuclear unit, who hail from the stifling, stultifying streets of a small town in eastern England. We enter their world as George is trying to buy a suit for a funeral and finds the lesion. He refuses to accept his doctor's reassurance that the mark is harmless, preferring to believe it is cancer, and his world _ and sanity _ begin to fall apart.
At the same time, George's divorced daughter, Katie, announces she is to marry her builder boyfriend Ray _ disapproved of by the Halls. He also discovers that his wife, Jean, is having an affair. Meanwhile, their son, Jamie, is grappling with his inability to commit to his boyfriend, Tony.
There is a great deal of quiet desperation in these pages, although the characters try to keep their lives on track; the book's title is an apt _ and punning _ description of their very English take on events.
"George realizes he has got nothing to do until he dies. He is suffering horrible anxiety," says Haddon. "There are probably thousands of people who are in that situation."
He says he wanted to show two types of constraint: "There is the social straitjacket, but there is also the sense that you only have one life."
Although it is essentially character-driven, the book also has a lot to say about "humdrum provincial life" and its petty prejudices, which Haddon knows first hand from his boyhood in Northampton, central England.
George and Jean at first cannot accept Ray, not because he is a bad man, but because, as Haddon puts it, "he is not one of us."
Haddon cleverly subverts this by making Ray one of the book's most sympathetic, solid characters.
Another engaging character is Jacob, Katie's 2-year-old son, who is beautifully realized in all his childish ways; Haddon says Jacob is based directly on his older son, Alfie.
"A Spot of Bother," is also full of the darkest wit.
The scissors incident was not designed to shock, says Haddon. Rather, "I set out to be funny, I have a very black sense of humor." Similarly, he has George make a speech to Katie's stunned wedding guests in which he announces histrionically, "We are all going to die."
Katherine Rushton of the British industry paper "The Bookseller" said after "Curious Incident" that Haddon "is considered to be gold dust" by publishers and booksellers.
"But he has a very hard act to follow," she said. '"Curious Incident' took a lot of people by surprise, both for its sales performance and its originality. The second time around, people are going to be expecting that originality again."
She said Haddon is wise to go for a different, solely adult, market this time. "Curious Incident" crossed genres and was published with different covers for the adult and teen markets, an unusual move.
An agreeable figure with an engaging manner and a twinkling smile, Haddon, 43, still seems a little stunned by the success of "Curious Incident."
Was it scary to have to follow a book like that?
"It is only intimidating if you think you are a household name, a big deal," he says, grinning broadly.
"Curious Incident" has bought him a bigger house _ "and I can now buy exotic fruit at Marks & Spencer. But I have not gone wild. I am not a different person." And he still lives in Oxford, west of London, with his wife, Sos Eltis, an academic, and their two young sons.
"Curious Incident" has won no less than 17 prizes, including the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction and the Whitbread Book of the Year Award. A film is planned, to be written and directed by Steven Kloves, director of the 1989 film "The Fabulous Baker Boys."
There has been much public comment that "A Spot of Bother" did not make this year's long list for Britain's prestigious Man Booker prize. But Haddon is philosphical, pleased at even this publicity. "It seems I have benefited more from not being on the list than I would have if I had been listed!" he says.
Anne Roman of bookseller Borders Group Inc. said "A Spot of Bother" is a "much anticipated title" that will benefit from the success of its predecessor, and is already a Borders top title.
"There is definitely a knock-on from 'Curious Incident,'" said Roman. "There is a good-sized marketing campaign behind it and we are featuring it up front in our stores."
Educated at Oxford and Edinburgh universities, Haddon has written more than a dozen children's books as well as screenplays and radio dramas. He also produces vivid abstract paintings and last year he published a well-received volume of verse, "The Talking Horse and the Sad Girl and the Village Under the Sea."
That's because he must remain creative, and loves trying different forms. "I need to write, but not in some pathological way," he says. "Maybe I'll spend next year being an artist instead."
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On the Net:
http://www.markhaddon.com


Updated : 2021-02-27 12:46 GMT+08:00