Wednesday, October 26, 2016
Book Review: The Pier Falls
If I were to compare the craft of writing to the field of architecture, I’d say that Mark Haddon is like the Frank Lloyd Wright of the literary world. His writing is modern and graceful with some experimental elements, but it’s always structurally sound and high quality. Haddon is most well known for his 2003 book The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time, but he’s been publishing his work for over two decades and has a number of titles for both adults and children. His latest book is a collection of short stories called The Pier Falls and Other Stories.
The issue with many short story collections is the lack of relationship the stories have to one another. Sometimes I feel like a shopper at a bargain bin when I read these types of books, wondering if the contents of the bin even came from the same source. However, this collection holds together through several underlying themes, as well as the consistency of the writing. Haddon takes the reader to an equilibrium on the edge between mythology and modernity, showing the transcendence of the human experience through his characters. There’s a rational-spiritual dichotomy peeking through the prose at numerous points, but the text always feels real.
Because these are short stories, a number of different themes are explored in different settings. For example, in the title piece The Pier Falls the author explores tragedy by showing us both the horrible and the absurd manifested side by side as a pier collapses into the ocean. Individuals grasp for life or succumb to death as a Strauss recording continues to play over loudspeakers during the event, reminding victims that life will waltz on with or without them.
In the story The Island, we’re given a re-telling of Ariadne’s final days on the island of Dias. Unlike Homer’s Odyssey, this version is in first person and we get to hear Ariadne process the events leading up to her death as she struggles for survival.
The theme of Loneliness also comes up in several of the pieces, with each story examining a different facet of it. We see the complexity of human relationships as circumstances and situations molds these bonds. A particular experience may have a lasting impact which can bring people together or tear them apart from one another or themselves.
In The Woodpecker and The Wolf a woman goes to space to escape relationships, but then becomes pregnant. The space mission encounters troubles and the woman watches the other astronauts perish, including the baby’s father. The struggle for survival and the new life for which she now feels responsible causes her to reassess her relationships and what she valued in them.
Diazepam makes an appearance in several of the pieces, acknowledging our modern tendency to self-medicate. This theme of self-medicating is explored more fully in the story titled Bunny, in which a morbidly obese man feels that his hunger and disappointment are more painful than the consequences of his overeating, and so he eats. Lots.
Haddon is a modern writer that I strongly recommend to many would-be writers. His style is modern, functional, and graceful without being ostentatious. His work definitely falls under the label of "literary" and shows remarkable facility to move back and forth between verb tenses keeps the reader centered on the story without feeling the jerk between past and present. His characters are complex but not over-explained or overtly obvious. The plots are cultivated in such a manner as to appear natural and yet perfectly manicured at the same time. Writing should always reflect life, but literary writing uses language and plot structure to explore it more fully. Haddon accomplishes that in these stories.
Several of the pieces in The Pier Falls have been previously published in literary journals, so if you’re reluctant to plunge into the whole book you can find a few of these stories online. Whether you read a sample of these stories online or purchase the entire book is up to you. Regardless, I encourage individuals looking for some great modern fiction to read them. The writing feels effortless, as good writing should, but afterwards it also causes me to marvel at how well it’s put together. It’s the sort of book that easily gets me on the train without me first asking where it will go or when it will arrive. I know that I’ll enjoy the ride, and the scenery will be worth my time.