The press release accompanying the review copy of the new novel by Mark Haddon, author of the international bestseller The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, describes The Red House as “…a literary tour de force that illuminates the puzzle of family in a profoundly empathetic manner.”
Unlike so many publicity department press releases, this one is exactingly accurate, for Haddon’s new novel is indeed an impressive act of imaginative sympathy and is, as well, a tour de force. The problem, which will become immediately apparent to a reader earnestly attempting and possibly failing to get past the opening pages of The Red House, is that a “tour de force”, in the older and now little-understood connotation of that term, is a feat of brilliant skill undertaken specifically because it is difficult. It’s an act of dazzling showmanship, a sort of showing off, that in the process often sacrifices something more valuable than mere skill; tenderness, perhaps, or sincerity, or a beautiful and memorable simplicity.
Haddon, who clearly is at some level a literary prodigy, has taken on the challenge of telling the story of two interconnected British families who have come together for a week’s holiday by means of the inner thoughts and outer voices of each of the characters. These interior monologues do not alternate chapter by chapter—e.g., chapter one is either narrated or “thought” by the father, chapter two by one of his children, and so forth – but rather from page to page, paragraph to paragraph and sometimes line to line, conveyed sometimes in the present tense and sometimes in the past tense (for reasons that are not clear). Sometimes it isn’t even clear who’s thinking the thoughts on display.
Given that one family consists of a man and wife and three children, and that the second family consists of a woman and her teenage daughter and her second husband (who is the partially estranged brother of the woman with the three children), that’s eight different characters, plus a ghost-like ninth, that pop briefly into and out of the narrative and who, collectively, convey the story of what happens that week both among themselves and with offstage friends, lovers, relations, schoolmates, colleagues and adversaries – flirtations, seductions, unresolved grief over the death of a stillborn child, medical malpractice, bullying, physical and mental decline, attempted suicide, and much, much more. It takes a good “day” or two (for the novel is divided up into eight days, Friday to Friday) to get the characters, their cadences, and their relationships entirely straight. It isn’t “stream of consciousness” – it’s more like a thundering cascade.
Haddon compounds this difficulty (though I suspect in this case inadvertently) by structuring The Red House as if it were a theatrical work. As in so many plays, Haddon’s narrative functions as a sort of revelation machine, in which the first “act” (the first few days of the holiday) must be sat through before the steadily mounting pressure of two families with their old resentments and misunderstandings and sexual itches and unresolved grief, all trapped on one “set” (in this case, the vacation house) eventually forces everyone to confront each other, reveal their unacknowledged torments, and become transformed. But theatre is primarily external, notwithstanding the occasional memory play, and so this novel’s To the Lighthouse-influenced interiority (in interviews, Haddon is very open about his admiration for Virginia Woolf) often seems to be working at cross purposes with what one assumes is his overt attempt to force these characters to explode out of their inhibitions and finally come to terms with one another. Put more simply, this is a novel that reads like it should have been a play.
There’s something off-putting, too, about Haddon’s assumption that when people are thinking to themselves, whether in first person or omniscient third, they must do so in choppy, niggling, stop-and-start prose with abundant incomplete sentences, like a comic book character (“must reach detonator…running out of strength…can’t hold on….”) Here’s a teenage boy, in The Red House, sneaking a peek at a pornographic photo book in a village bookshop, just as a stranger brushes past him: “There were other human beings in the room. The man squeezed past and disappeared into Architecture. Alex stared at the photograph of the two women. He wanted to buy the book. He wanted to steal the book. He wanted to stay here forever. He had to put it down. He couldn’t put it down.”
At this point, I almost put it down.
But then Haddon writes a passage like this one, describing a rainstorm:
“Bruised purple sky, wind like a train, the landscape suddenly alive, trees bent and struggling, swathes of alternating color racing through the long grass, the sky being hauled over the valley like a blanket. An empty white fertilizer sack dances along the side of the hill. Windows hammer in their sashes, the boiler vent clatters and slaps. A tile is levered from the roof, cartwheels over the garden wall and sticks into the earth like a little shark fin. The bins chatter and snap in the woodshed, fighting the bungees that hold them down.
The relationships between the characters – especially a glossily beautiful, amoral teenager; her teenage step-cousins, one male and one female, who both attempt to seduce her; and the mother of the step-cousins, whose own mother just died and who appears to be slipping into the netherworld of early senility – are expertly and empathetically illuminated. The story itself, slow as it is to get started, picks up momentum in the latter half of the “week”, and the book, like a grey day that imperceptibly shifts into a looming storm, suddenly seems powerful and urgent. It isn’t possible to write a tour de force, after all, unless one is some sort of master. And that Haddon would appear to be, even though this book, which might have been better off as a play, is clearly not his masterpiece.