Mark Haddon made his name with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, published in 2003. It was a rare beast, that perfect crossover book that appealed to younger readers and adults alike, a bestseller, and – if that wasn’t enough – universally praised by reviewers.
The authenticity of the voice was remarkable: a 15-year-old boy with Asperger’s, who loved lists, patterns and truth. It also played with genres, flirting around the edges of murder mystery, as well as being a coming-of-age tale of sorts.
Since then he has followed it up with A Spot of Bother (2006), The Red House (2012) and, most recently, a collection of short stories, The Pier Falls.
More than half of these stories have been published or shortlisted for awards, but there is no sense that the others are stocking fillers, quickly edited to pad out a collection. Each is a fine piece of work.
The Pier Falls opens with the title story. It is a blow-by-blow description of an English pier collapsing – a bird’s-eye view of a disaster that becomes a metaphor for so many of the other stories in this collection.
It is the moment of unravelling that fascinates Haddon, and then what we make of our lives after that unravelling. Although a perfect set-up for the stories to follow, and absolutely impressive in its technique, “The Pier Falls” is the least remarkable in this collection. There is something of the young boy playing with a toy: wow, let’s see what happens when this pier collapses and all these bodies are strewn everywhere. It becomes more a catalogue of disaster, a one-trick pony that just shines a light on the event itself, too distant to allow us to feel the emotional resonance. But perhaps this is the whole point – it doesn’t matter who we are, disaster can strike at any time.
The stories that follow bend much closer to the characters who inhabit them, examining the choices we make in the face of this unravelling of our lives, and sometimes the consequences of these decisions.
Two standouts in the collection are “Bunny” and “The Gun”.
“Bunny” is the tale of a lonely, morbidly obese man on a housing estate, befriended by Leah, a woman who went to school with Bunny, left the estate and then returned.
It opens with:
He loved Mars bars and Kit Kats. He loved Double Deckers and Galaxy Caramels and Yorkies. He loved Reese’s Pieces and Cadbury’s Creme Eggs. He could eat a whole box of Quality Street in one sitting and had done so on several occasions, perhaps more than several.
It is an opening that speaks to the neediness and hunger in so many of us.
The story that follows is tender, unsentimental, unpitying but compassionate at the same time – a beautifully observed portrait of an unlikely friendship that comes to a surprise conclusion.
“The Gun” is another extraordinary portrait. Again set in a bleak estate on the edge of town, this is the tale of two young boys who discover a gun, or more particularly, the tale of Daniel who makes a choice to not follow Sean all the way into a life that would no doubt unravel into a dismal adulthood. It is absolutely anchored in the world of childhood terror, and the scenes of dragging a deer carcass up to Sean’s flat are visceral and horrifying. This is a tale of clinging on, desperately, in a world where it is so easy to lose your grip on the pole and slide.
Haddon is not only masterful in re-creating the world of the English housing estate, he has no trouble summoning other worlds – a fantasy island, outer space, and even a colonial adventure story set in a jungle.
“The Woodpecker and the Wolf” is set on a space ship. A promised vessel from Earth is not going to join them with fresh supplies and, gradually, each of the characters die. The ending of this story is exquisite, appearing to float in the liminal space between death and life.
“The Boys Who Left Home to Learn Fear” is the classic boys’ own adventure tale that goes horribly wrong, with one stiff-upper-lipped adventurer left to diarise his own demise.
It is not only Haddon’s remarkable capacity to range through genres that is astounding, the success of these stories rests on the absolute truth of the voice in each of these tales. Whether Haddon is writing about a princess left alone on an island, or a woman who has left her lover and returned to her childhood home to put her mother’s life in order, there is a sureness of touch and conviction in every character he creates.
Despite this virtuosity, the only let-down in this collection is the monotone theme that can make for narrative predictability, curious in an author who has such a range of voices and genres he can draw upon.
And yet perhaps this is a strength, too; without this unifying theme, the collection could have ranged all over the place, anchorless.
Sometimes I also yearned for a slightly less polished performance, a little mystery, the gap in our lives that cannot be explained. It is nitpicky, I know, but, for me, it is the difference between great writing and sublime writing.
Instead, most of these stories have a definable moment when the world starts to unravel. Whether we are rich, poor, full of swagger or self-doubt, there will be an instant when our lives have the potential to turn to dust. Sometimes the heavens wreak vengeance on us for a wrongdoing or a tragic flaw; at other times there is no reason for the disaster that awaits us.
But in that moment, the choice is ours to make, whether we accept the moment with dignity and courage, or flounder and flail, is a decision over which we have power. EF
Jonathan Cape, 336pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 21, 2016 as "Mark Haddon, The Pier Falls".
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