- - Thursday, January 26, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE PIER FALLS AND OTHER STORIES

By Mark Haddon

Doubleday, $25.95, 320 pages

 

Piers are to English seaside resorts as boardwalks are to American beaches, but instead of paralleling the water they poke out at right-angles from the shore. These tall, many-girdered structures house vendors of everything from ice-cream, to tropical shells, from video games to tattoo parlors, bandstands to fortune-tellers. Most were built decades ago when millions of urbanites spent vacations on local coasts. Now that so many people fly to the Mediterranean, piers are often neglected. In the title story of Mark Haddon’s collection “The Pier Falls and Other Stories,” one collapses.

The story begins quietly with a rivet failing. A few minutes later, a second rivet snaps. The pier falls by half an inch, then it collapses in a roar “like a redwood being felled.” Events unfold noisily, rapidly, but in Mark Haddon’s telling, like a slow-motion film with every detail brilliantly lit: “With a peal of biblical thunder, a wide semicircle of walkway is hauled seaward by the weight of the broken girders underneath. A woman and three children standing on the rail drop instantly. Six more people are poured scrabbling down the half-crater of shattered wood into the sea. If you look through the black haystack of planks and beams you can see three figures thrashing in the dark water, a fourth floating face down, a fifth folded over a weed-covered beam.” The details pile up mercilessly: each tragedy sharply in focus; each a stone in a monumental catastrophe. Much more than the disaster footage flashed onto TV screens, this relentless story etches itself in the mind’s eye. No reader will ever want to walk a seaside pier again.

Other stories in this brilliant volume are similarly built on the strategy of letting events unfurl from a tiny beginning. In “The Gun” a bored boy goes to visit a friend, who then shows him the gun hidden in an older brother’s bedroom; they take it out and go to the woods, then they shoot it and then … The story records the event as “one of those moments when time itself seems to fork and fracture.” In ‘The Woodpecker and the Wolf,’ a group of astronauts stranded on a space station, begin to die, one by one. Similarly, in “The Boys Who Left Home to Learn Fear” we see a group of gentlemen explorers — like those in Rider Haggard’s tales or real-life adventurers such as Peter Fleming — lost in a jungle, abandoning the camaraderie of their Oxford days in favor of the survival of the fittest.

As these stories spread out from their seemingly innocuous beginnings they expose some other unsuspected — or neglected — reality. At its most poignant it’s the reality of personality or family dynamics as in “Breathe,” the story of a successful academic returning from America to her English working-class home and coming face to face with the effects of her actions. The most powerful and evocative story of the book, “Wodwo,” begins with a conventional scene of a family with three adult children and their spouses and offspring assembling for Christmas Eve. Like all families, they have tensions, some of them focused on Gavin, a well-known television presenter, who thinks well of himself, and pretty much only of himself. Then a mysterious intruder arrives. He puts a gun on the table. Gavin shoots him, and life unwinds — especially for Gavin.

This story draws from “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” in which the medieval word ‘wodwo’ refers to mythic wild or mad men that live as threatening presences in the woods. In Mark Haddon’s story the title points to Gavin, but also, as in the 14th-century poem, to human behavior and experience, especially to the acknowledgment of weakness or failure.

Like the eight other stories in this volume “Wodwo” gets its power from the painstakingly described — and consequently vivid — details, ranging from the comfortable middle-class home where the family assembles, to Gavin’s adventures in the aftermath of that fateful Christmas Eve, and the horrifying physical effects of the shooting and its final consequence for Gavin. The jewel-like brilliance of the detail is literary virtuosity — enticing and rewarding in itself but at its richest in the raking light it throws on people and their hidden ways.

Mark Haddon is best-known as the author of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime,” which was adapted in a successful play. This new work will add to his already shining reputation. These short stories are anything but short in the skill of their writing and the effects of their reading. They are gripping but not page-turners. They demand and reward slow reading and attention.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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