By Mark Haddon
Doubleday. 320 pp. $26.95. nolead ends
Only two pages into "The Pier Falls," the first and title story in Mark Haddon's first collection of short fiction, the author is already describing, in devastating detail, the events of a pier collapse on the English seaside. The girders underneath, damaged in a storm months earlier, give way and send dozens of vacationers to their deaths in the cold, dark sea.
As powerful as the descriptions are, the emotional dislocation remains. It's an important feature of Haddon's work, and in this new book, it comes up again and again.
In 2003, the author gave us the wonderful character of Christopher in the novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Christopher is a teenage math genius on the autism spectrum, and Haddon renders his unusual thought patterns with gorgeous sensitivity and humor. Compared to that masterpiece, "The Pier Falls" - along with a few of the other stories - is disappointing. Rather than examining the idea of emotional detachment, the writing itself feels oddly detached, setting the reader up to expect a resolution that never comes.
But when he is good, Haddon is very, very good. "The Gun" is a vivid, arresting tale of a day's fun gone awry, and it demonstrates his remarkable ability to get inside the mind of a child - a place that we all occupied once, of course, but that most of us eventually forget how to access.
"Wodwo," one of the book's strongest pieces, is both believable and magical, and full of interesting ideas. An upper-middle-class family of grown children return to their childhood home for what they expect to be a typically unpleasant Christmas visit, but when a strange man shows up with a shotgun, the unpleasantness takes a less-typical turn.
Every one of these stories is about endings; most of them are quite literally about death. And most of those are deaths by smothering or drowning or freezing, the "dimming circuit board of the brain stem" before it goes out. It makes for claustrophobic reading, to say the least. But by framing death as the central fact of life, Haddon interrogates it in an attempt to understand our human nature.
Though best known for his fiction, Haddon is also a poet. "Wodwo" is in fact a reference to the Ted Hughes poem of the same name. In Hughes' poem, the wodwo staggers around the forest: "I seem to have been given the freedom / of this place what am I then?"
Haddon's characters aren't much different - and neither are we. We may hope for a resolution, a glimmer of understanding now and again, but it's useful to be reminded that those aren't guaranteed.