Robert Burton, in his delirious diagnostics manual The Anatomy of Melancholy , described "hypochondriachal or flatuous" melancholy as occasioning "fear and sorrow, sharp belchings, fulsome crudities, heat in the bowels, wind and rumblings in the guts, vehement gripings, pain in the belly and stomack." George Hall, the newly retired protagonist of Mark Haddon's queasily comic novel A Spot of Bother, suffers all these indignities when he determines that a patch of eczema on his hip is actually a virulent cancer. Consumed by intimations of his own mortality and distrustful of the sops of doctors (though he does enjoy the valium prescription), George afflicts not only himself, but also his wife and grown children.
Like Haddon's splendid debut novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, narrated by autistic teenager Christopher, A Spot of Bother also encumbers its main character with a psychological disorder. Hypochondria, however, isn't nearly so singular a syndrome as Asperger's and the meticulous charting of George's emotional weather sometimes wears. Christopher's obsessive reflections didn't appear indulgent, but George's meticulous mental and physical inventories (rendered in a third-person narration) often do.
Haddon catalogs in squirm-inducing detail. George, examining himself in the bathroom mirror, finds that "every square inch held some new terror. Dark brown moles, wrinkled like sultanas; freckles clumped into archipelagoes of chocolate-colored islands. . . . His skin had become a zoo of alien life forms." Though he mercifully interrupts George's torments with chapters devoted to other members of the family, these sections function mostly as reprieve, never inducing the same stomach-churning immediacy or interest. Haddon reserves all the best comic and dramatic set pieces for Georgethe toast he offers his daughter on the occasion of her second marriage is the icing on the wedding cake of George's lapses. His champagne-raised address to the happy couple: "We're all going to die."
A Spot of Bother
By Mark Haddon
Doubleday, 354 pp., $24.95
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