While reading these terrific tales one wonders how a single mind can create such diverse fiction as Mark Haddon has done here in his first collection. Best known for his innovative debut novel, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” (2003), Haddon has also written two other novels and many children’s books. But these nine stories are truly spectacular.
So much time and space are covered here, from the islands of ancient Greece and jungle exploration of past centuries to future interstellar travel to Mars; from summer pleasures in coastal Britain to winter holidays in the “curved rump of England.” Each of these stories grabs you with its lyrical prose and bold events, holds you tight and does not let go.
Written in a fragmentary reportage style, the title story is an intense description of a huge old pier whose structure can stand no more after its last supporting rivet pops, and sections begin to fall into the sea along with many people upon it. Haddon writes as an omniscient narrator might observe each unfolding detail of this disaster, with beauty, grace and terror. (“The man with the braces and the rolled-up sleeves is still alive but will not be for long.”) Lives end; children are orphaned; people are heroes; in an instant, everything changes.
In “The Gun,” when a 10-year-old goes for a walk with a friend who has a loaded pistol, the reader expects the worst, especially after Haddon tells us: “There will be three other extraordinary events in his life.” We believe the boy survives the story, but what happens next?
There are few happy endings here. In “The Woodpecker and the Wolf,” a small group of international space travelers on Mars is waiting for a second crew more than 400 days en route when death and disasters start occurring with terrifying regularity. Over time, questions arise about what is real and what is not, and little solace is found when truths are realized.
One of the oddest stories, “Wodwo,” starts with a normal, happy activity — a gathering for a family holiday in the country — but as Haddon warns us: “A family Christmas is a guaranteed generator of unease.” This, however, readers soon learn, is a vast understatement after an unexpected visitor creates long-lasting chaos with his mysterious appearance.
Despite the anguish, pain and suspense (“She vanishes into the foam”) of all these stories, Haddon gives his characters much empathy, tenacity and humanity. In the end, we are rewarded with tales and situations of great narrative strength and astounding imagination in which we could easily find ourselves but sure hope we never do.
Jim Carmin is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Portland, Ore.
The Pier Falls and Other Stories
By: Mark Haddon.
Publisher: Doubleday, 298 pages, $26.95