Friday 21 October 2016

A superb collection of stand-out stories

Short stories: The Pier Falls, Mark Haddon, Jonathan Cape, hdbk, 321 pages, €22

Published 08/05/2016 | 02:30

Triumph: Mark Haddon's collection is elegantly crafted.
Triumph: Mark Haddon's collection is elegantly crafted.
The Pier Falls

The Pier Falls is unique, certainly in my experience, in that every story is brilliant. Normally with a collection, even a great one, there are some stories you love, and a few which - though you might appreciate their quality, in an abstract sort of way - leave you comparatively indifferent.

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In dazzling contrast, Mark Haddon maintains an equal standard throughout, and that standard is solid gold. Maybe I can put it best this way: usually a reviewer will pick one story from a collection, to point at and say: "This is the stand-out, the one people will be reading in a hundred years." In The Pier Falls, though, any one of nine could be singled out as a genuinely great work of literature.

It sounds like I'm exaggerating; I'm honestly not, and it really is that good. The only story collection I've read which bests this one is Jorge Luis Borges' Labyrinths; and that's Borges, an all-time genius who was basically creating a whole new art-form, so the comparison is unfair and almost meaningless.

Funnily enough, I didn't have huge expectations for The Pier Falls. I didn't have any expectations, seeing as I'm one of very few people who didn't read Haddon's 2003 bestseller The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

Since then, the Englishman released two further novels and a book of poetry, none of which crossed my path. So, while I knew who Haddon was, I came to The Pier Falls unburdened by any prior experience, and thus, anticipation.

On a side note, this is often the best way to read a book - there's that lovely sense of being taken by surprise - but I don't think it mattered here anyway. The Pier Falls stands (no pun intended) on its own merits, and those merits are enormous. It begins with the title story, a tense account of a disaster in 1970, when an overladen and under-supported pier tears apart and crashes into the sea on a hot summer day. The relatively recent past also features in 'The Gun', in which a middle-aged man recalls a childhood incident that came to define him in unclear ways, and 'Breathe', where a woman flees a disintegrating career and romance for the home she'd sworn never to see again.

'The Island' is set further in the past, much further, telling a Homer-esque tale of abandonment and survival in Ancient Greek times. 'The Boys Who Left Home to Learn Fear' takes a Rider Haggard-style adventure story and refashions it into something crepuscular and unsettling.

There's also sci-fi: 'The Woodpecker and the Wolf', which reminded me a lot of 'Human Moments in World War III' from Don DeLillo's 2011 book The Angel Esmeralda (another outstanding collection of nine stories). 'Wodwo', meanwhile, edges towards fantasy with its circular narrative of horror and redemption at Christmas time.

The title story was longlisted for the Sunday Times award; the sweet, moving 'Bunny' came second in a BBC award. I don't think much of literary prizes anyway, for many reasons, and Haddon's failure to win makes zero dent on my regard for his book.

It's carefully and elegantly crafted: insightful, thoughtful, oblique, provocative, pulsing with energy and precision-tooled language. It is, simply, and ultimately, an absolute pleasure to read.

Is there an overall theme? Not on a superficial level, I don't think, but most of these stories capture a similar mood or ambience: the feeling of something vital remaining slightly out of reach, the sense of worlds and realities overlapping, the strangeness and dreaminess of existence, how unknowable it all is, in the end, and how mysterious. And how beautiful - not always, but sometimes, and maybe often enough.

Darragh McManus' novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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