Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 14 July 2018

"The Pier Falls" by Mark Haddon (Vintage, 2017)

Stories (averaging about 40 pages) from New Yorker, Granta, and 2 stories long-listed in the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Awards.

  • "The Pier Falls" - a pier disaster coldly recounted as mini-stories, though "The boy is in some kind of private hell which he will never entirely leave" (p.9) is internal.
  • "The Island" retells the Minotaur story from his sister's point-of-view. She's left to rot. She's having trouble sorting reality from hallucination. The first four paragraphs begin with "She's dreaming".
  • The first three paragraphs of "Bunny" begin with "He loved". Overweight Bunny is befriended by troubled Leah, who proposes to him then kills him for his own good. I didn't think much of it.
  • "Wodwo"- a list of attendees at a family event, with potted descriptions. Then a bit of magic realism, then the main character's linear downfall and a strange ending with fantasy elements. Interesting.
  • "The Gun" has a good plot. At the end a man returns 40 years later to the scene of a childhood incident. The most conventional story so far.
  • "The Woodpecker and the Wolf" - one by one people on a (Mars?) space station die. Communications are managed so that neither the people of Earth or the people on the Space Station know what's going on elsewhere. Clare gives birth, is saved, and returns to Earth. I kept wondering why Earth didn't send an unmanned supply ship.
  • "Breathe" - Carol, who lives in the States has a sudden urge to return home to England unannounced, breaking into her mother's house. Is her mother dead on the mattress? No, but she's going downhill and is a widow now. Carol cleans her - "She removes her mother's shoes and socks. She peels off the soled blue cardigan and unzips the dirty green corduroy skirt. Both are heavily stained and patched with compacted food. She takes off her mother's blouse, unclips the grey bra" (p.259). Carol's sister (who's been helping her mother) resents the intrusion and criticism. Carol, unable to sleep, conveniently thinks through her life - "She'd got into Cambridge to read Natural Sciences, driven in equal parts by a fascination with the subject and a desperation to put as much distance as possible between herself and this place. A doctrate at Imperial and a postdoc in Adelaide. Jobs in Heidelberg, Stockholm ... working her way slowly up the ladder towards Full Professor" (p.263). We then learn that Carol has left a lesbian relationship with a dying woman. She clears the house our, starts a bonfire. At the end she's dreaming or hallucinating, or the genre changes, and/or the fire gets out of control (Compare with "Flight" from Tessa Hadley's "Bad Dreams" collection, 2017).
  • "The Boys Who Left Home to Learn Fear" - an expedition (Victorian?) is battling through the jungle. One by one they die. Not for me.
  • "The Weir" - a recently separated man saves a woman who tries to kill herself in water. As he tidies her up he considers "The thrill of unwrapping someone for the first time" (p.333). She seems ungrateful, but they continue meeting for coffee for years - "Twelve years. Once a fortnight or thereabouts. He tells her about the divorce and Maria's remarriage to a man nine years her junior, about a series of internet dates which range from the bizarre to the slightly sordid to the very nearly but not quite right. He tells her about the melanoma on his back which he discovers late and which scares the living daylights out of him for the best part of six months" (p.344)

It was a more interesting read than I expected - I did want to keep reading on. He uses lists. He slows time down ("This is how it begins" (p.4), "And this is when it happens" (p.118)), itemizes an activity, then whizzes through 30 years. Sometimes (in "Wodwo" for example) the plot becomes predictable linear - you can't beat destiny, I suppose. He surprises us as life does, without hints or fore-shadowing. He's happy to present unlikely events and inexplicable or out-of-character behaviour. He slides into other genres. There are passages of semi-consciousness. There's lots about dying in water.

Other reviews

  • Alex Clark (exuberant, lusty exercises in juxtaposition: intimacy and estrangement, exoticism and domesticity, innocuousness and malevolence, the cataloguing of minute detail and the expansiveness of the zoomed-out lens. ... Leah, one of several grown-up children in the collection who return to an unsatisfactory parental home ... But nowhere do all these themes come together more brilliantly than in the collection’s centrepiece, “Wodwo” ... It is one of the best new stories I’ve read for years ... “Wodwo”, like many of the pieces here, also disrupts narrative time by throwing forward to characters’ fates, undercutting our investment in their present with a chilly wave to the future. My favourite such example, in “The Gun”, could almost stand as a capsule review of this terrifically compelling collection)
  • Colin Barrett (The Pier Falls is risky writing precisely because it dispenses with so many of the resonance generators fiction usually trades in: identifiable characters in whom the reader can become invested, meaningful narrative progression, resolution and so on. ... Haddon [] is gratifyingly leery of the crutch of interiority. He prefers to define character by action, and duly plunges his protagonists into a variety of extreme circumstances. ... Wodwo is the longest story and one of the best, starting out as a slightly too sneering comedy of manners, turning abruptly, violently supernatural, before becoming something unclassifiably elegaic and eerie ... Motifs carry over from story to story – diazepam, elderly parents suffering strokes – and imagery and language echoes too. )
  • Lee Polevoi (It's difficult to recall encountering another work of short fiction as well-crafted and emotionally devastating as the title story in Mark Haddon's new collection, The Pier Falls. ... Each story displays the range of Haddon’s imaginative powers, complemented by the author’s urge to keep things happening (in itself, a not-altogether-common trait of short fiction))
  • Tim Martin (opens with a story about the death of 64 people in a seaside accident and moves on briskly to other tales featuring starvation, dismemberment, evisceration, euthanasia, suicide, amputation, shooting, poisoning and incineration. ... Several stories pay indirect homage to mythic or literary forerunners. “The Island” offers a refracted paraphrase of the story of Ariadne on Naxos ... “Wodwo”, one of the longer stories, provides another twist on an existing tale, in this case the 14th-century romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. )

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