If you want to understand trends in literary fiction, take a look at other
forms of storytelling—videogames, motion pictures, television, graphic
novels and the like.  The cinema in particular, exerts a sometimes
deadly influence on the novel, with the Newtonian pull of the larger
celestial grabbing the smaller one and holding it in its orbit.  This
tendency is inevitably amplified by commercial factors:  writers can
make more money from a film adaptation
than from the book itself, and thus often
have an eye on what might work on the
screen.

Even so, I can’t help but recall fondly those
writers who exploited specifically literary
effects, constructing novels that simply
cannot be adapted successfully to the
screen—
The Ambassadors, Ulysses,
Pale Fire, In Search of Lost Time,
Gravity'sRainbow.  Directors can try—
and sometimes do—to make these into
movies, but the end result will never do
justice to works where visual images are
subservient to psychology and prose style
trumps picturesque scenes.  

One of the most salient trends in the movie business is more frequent
scene changes, a rapid sense of pacing imposed sometimes by
the story, but more often by the editing process.  Until the 1960s,
the average scene in a feature film ran between two and four minutes,
but has fallen significantly since that time.  Data collected at the
cinemetrics.lv web site show a steady, irreversible decline in shot
length.  And if you think Hollywood is enamored with rapid pacing
and frequent changes in camera angle, check out some music videos.
No matter how short your attention span, the people who put together
these videos have a shorter one.

All of which brings us to the subject of Mark Haddon’s novel
The Red
House
.   I call it a novel, but it could just as easily be described as a
"film treatment."  Haddon has a track record of selling movie rights for
his stories, and this time he has delivered a novel that is plug-and-play
ready for Hollywood.  The book is structured as a series of discrete
scenes, each a few paragraphs long, that transpire over the course
of eight days.

Two siblings have brought their families along for a peaceful vacation
in the British countryside.  Richard is a doctor, aloof and self-satisfied,
on his second marriage, and quietly fretting over a malpractice lawsuit
that threatens to undermine his reputation and career.  His sister Angela
has her own worries and complaints. She is angry at Richard for leaving
her with the care of their late mother.  She grieves over a lost daughter,
stillborn years ago, and fears that the spirit of the dead girl has followed
her here, a shadowy presence reproaching her for maternal neglect.  
Angela is also concerned over her own mental state, oppressed by
the possibility that she is succumbing to the same Alzheimer's symptoms
that led to her mother’s demise.

Their spouses and children, who join these angst-ridden siblings, on
their idyllic vacation, have problems of their own.  Haddon has stacked
the deck here, loading up each character with two or three sticks of
psychological dynamite on short fuses—and then he lights a match.   
Richard's stepdaughter Melissa is sneaking out to smoke pot, and is
in trouble at school for bullying.   Angela's teenage son Alex makes a
failed pass at Melissa, and then turns his attention to her mother Louisa,
incurring the jealous anger of Richard.  Alex's sister Daisy also tries to
kiss Melissa, and is rebuffed, and then spends the rest of the book trying
to reconcile her attraction to other women with her comparable loyalty
to her church—a religious affiliation that irritates her non-believing
mother.  Etc. etc. etc.

You get the idea.  The conflicts and resolutions here are formulaic, not
much different from what you might see if you tuned into a random soap
opera episode.  But Haddon rises above banality through his skill at
dialogue, character development and humor.   In addition, the fast
pacing imposed on the narrative by Haddon's patchwork approach
imparts a manic momentum on the novel.  
The Red House may
ostensibly deal with a peaceful retreat in the English countryside,
but the prose pushes ahead like the M25 at rush hour.

I'm especially impressed with the human quality of Haddon's characters.  
The most damaging 'fault' of modern narrative—and I feel that the
geological implications of that word have particular resonance here—
surfaces in the irresistible urge of current-day storytellers to replace
the complexities of real humans with the rote actions of simplified stick
figures.  This tendency had its original epicenter in television shows,
where everyone is a stock character, but is now engulfing movies,
books, and other forms of narrative. The good guys are always good,
and the bad guys are always bad, and the nuanced complexities of
life, that fiction is best equipped to deal with, are increasingly buried
in debris.   Haddon reminds me of a handful of other modern novelists—
Richard Russo, Marilynne Robinson, Jonathan Franzen—who have
shown that family dramas don’t need to be so simplistic.  In
The Red
House
, he reveals his characters at their best and their worst, as well
as the various gradations in-between.  Even when the situations are
stock ones (adultery, courtship, illness, envy, etc.) the representations
here are never hollow.   

For any author this is an achievement, but especially for one who has
spent so many years writing literature for young adults.  The end result
is a book that, paradoxically, seems ready-made for the movie screens,
but also perfectly equipped to challenge the conventions that have
come to dominate that medium.  
Contact Ted Gioia at
tedgioia@hotmail.com

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The Red House

by Mark Haddon

Reviewed by Ted Gioia
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BY TED GIOIA

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