My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
After attending several writing workshops in recent months, I’ve noted the popularity of fragmented, stream-of-consciousness writing among men of a certain demographic. White, aged somewhere between skinny hipster and the first thickening of the waistline, well-educated, enamored of morose, Sisyphean humor à la David Sedaris or, oh let’s say, Mark Haddon. They write to a beat, disguising punchlines of angst in scattered phrases that connect like poetry but which strive to convey plot and character. It sounds really cool when read aloud; you get lost in the riffs and the rhythms of postmodern paragraphs. But I’m not convinced it makes for good story.
When a writer of Mark Haddon’s skill approaches a story using similar techniques, you can count on something pretty remarkable. For within the randomness of phrases, the phrases that fall away to ellipses, the ellipses that join ever-changing points of view, you are presented with warm, nutty, tortured and scarily familiar characters.
And the characters are what I adore about The Red House. In his latest take on Tolstoy’s famous “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” Haddon reunites a mildly-estranged sister and brother in a house hidden in a remote Welsh valley. For the week’s holiday at “The Red House,” the siblings bring their spouses and children. Everyone’s emotional baggage is packed tight with hang-ups, hurts, secrets and silliness.
The children sparkle with complexity and empathy. Their individual storylines and the prickly and sweet ways the author brings the characters together and plays them against each other rings true. I’m far less enamored of the relationships between the spouses, but the interactions between siblings- and spouses-in-law are hilarious and painful – hilariously painful – because they are so real. How awkward and anxious we are with those whom we are forced by blood or marriage to spend time. How often they are people we would never choose to befriend, but we have to figure out a way to love them, all the same. Haddon is a master of making readers fall in love with his characters, despite our better judgment.
There is no central protagonist or narrator of The Red House. The points of view shift rapidly between the four adults, three teenagers and an eight year old boy. Haddon explores their thoughts and in doing so, reveals their characters. It’s not difficult to keep up or make the switch between voices; rather, it’s a thrill being on the Haddon emotional rollercoaster.
But honestly, the fragmented paragraphs, the jittery sentences, the lists, book excerpts, the contents of a second-hand shop just don’t work for me. Fortunately, Haddon eases up on the clutch as the book continues, and the jerky ride smooths out, but I admit to a fair amount of skimming through these bits. They’re boring. They read like those “Now, let’s share our work with the class,” moments when the bespectacled software designer wearing threadbare checked Vans spins out his clever three hundred word response to a writing prompt. It sounds just awesome, but is utterly incomprehensible and bears no resemblance to a story.
I’d go for 3 1/2 stars here. It’s a good read. You can sift out the pretentious parts if you’d like. They aren’t my thing, but they may be yours. The rest, we’ll probably agree, is purt near pitch perfect.