Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Book 44: Now, now, Nick Harkaway, don't get jealous I still like you a lot too man.

Mark Haddon has become one of my favorite writers, and that's interesting because each of his books has been so different from the last.

The first Haddon book I read was The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Nighttime, which was a truly remarkable book told from the perspective of an autistic boy who is investigating the death of a dog in his neighborhood. Not only is the story good, but it seems to me that Haddon nailed how (at least some) autistic people think. (I read the book well before the boys were diagnosed, but thinking back I can see many things he got right, at least about people like my boys; autism is probably one of the most varied conditions a person can have.)

Then I read A Spot Of Bother, which was a comedy (?) about a man who thinks a spot on his body is going to kill him.  I'm partial to British literary comedy, but even so the book was enjoyable.

The Red House was the third book for adults Haddon's written (he also has written 19 kid's books and a volume of poetry) and again I liked it: this was a dysfunctional-family-on-holiday book, another of a genre I like; it was different in tone from his first two; each book in fact was so different that if you didn't know they were written by one man, you'd probably not guess it.

So I had high expectations for The Pier Falls, although it's a rare short story collection that lives up to advance billing. (Off the top of my head, the collections I can think of that are worth reading the whole thing are The Illustrated Man, 100 Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses, and Vampires In The Lemon Grove.  There are probably others but those are the only ones I think of when I think good (or great) short story collections.)

The Pier Falls exceeded -- by about a million miles -- every expectation I had for it.  These are some of the best short stories I've ever read, ever.

The stories in general are mostly what might loosely be thought of as fantasy for the most part, but that's a broad brush to paint with. There's one pure scifi story and a few that seem to be no genre at all, other than 'literary', which is sort of a category I guess.

The opener, The Pier Falls, shows the collapse of an amusement pier in England, and reads like a news story, but a story that conveys emotion as a wallop of fact.  From there comes The Island, about a princess who helps a captive escape only to be abandoned by him on a deserted island.  Both of those stories are gripping and memorable. The third, Bunny, is where Haddon really pulls out all the stops: this is a 'non-genre' story of a man who has become essentially housebound as a result of gaining too much weight, and is sort-of befriended by a woman who has moved back in with her dad after a bad marriage.

Bunny evinces the spirit and tone of the book as a whole: most of Haddon's stories are whipsaws, stories that pit action and emotion against each other, or which keep the reader constantly shifting loyalties about the characters.  The princess in The Island, and Bunny's friend in Bunny are two good examples: as the story goes on, Haddon reveals little details about these characters that change them from sympathetic to un- and then back, creating people that you want to hate but can't help but feel sorry for.

Wodwo continues that. I had to look up what the title means; it means wild man in a sort of old English, and was the title of a poem by the guy who was married to Sylvia Plath.  The story is a wonder: it begins as a family-gathering-at-Xmas story with all the usual bits of that and then takes a wild left turn when a man with a shotgun comes into the party -- and then takes an even wilder turn after that.

In The Gun two boys find a gun owned by one of their older brothers and take it to a small woods near them; the story captures perfectly the horror of a childhood day that would include a gun-- then ends not at all the way you'd think it would.

Along with the way Haddon makes you like and then hate his characters, his endings are almost uniformly perfect and unexpected.  Too many short stories leave endings ambiguous, making them feel like excerpts, or they go for a twist (why do so many short story writers feel like there must be some sort of twist? Sometimes I feel as though all short story writers learned at the Shymalan school of plot.)  Haddon's don't suffer from any of them: they end and the ending is almost always not one you would have predicted -- at least by the time the full story has happened.  Each story just keeps moving into territory you wouldn't have expected. It's like walking through a strange city where every street is amazing but none of them lead to where you thought you were going.

The Woodpecker and The Wolf would've been my favorite story of the bunch except they all were my favorite stories of the bunch.  This one is about a trip to Mars, and it avoids the usual claptrap that books about Mars have these days. I've tried reading two different Mars-based books this year (one by Kim Stanley Robinson and one called Finches of Mars) and given up on them because they're just technojunk. Books about Mars seem like they're all meant to be user manuals, scifi writers playing scientist and trying to prove how realistic they can make it by describing in depth every freaking thing down to the light switches.  When this story was set on Mars I thought it'd be more of the same, but it's not. It's absolutely not. The only mention of technology at all is there to drive the story and make it make sense; the story is about a group of colonists sent to Mars to live in a small pod as a sort of advance expedition. The second set of Marstronauts has an accident on the way, though, and the third launch is delayed until someone figures out what went wrong with the second -- which the people already on Mars figure means they are going to die because they can't make their supplies last until the third mission reaches them.

Woodpecker had what I thought at first was a happy ending but then the more I thought about it the less sure I was that it was happy. So far through each of the stories there wasn't a happy ending among them.  The stories are sad in the kind of enjoyable way a good sad or frightening story can be, but it meant I couldn't read them all straight through.

Which is probably good anyway: reading a bunch of short stories in one sitting can dilute them. But these aren't stories to read when you're already feeling down.

Breathe is a strange story about a woman who quits her job and flies back home to find her mom suffering from a sort of dementia; it's another one of those left-turn stories that keeps doubling down on how unsettling it is until the ending just makes you suck in your own breath.

The Boys Who Left Home To Learn Fear is another great one. Like his books, none of Haddon's stories seem all that similar to each other. This one is a 'Victorian' adventure story -- a group of rich kids in Victorian England have set out on a trip to try to find out what happened to another family's kid, spurred on by a map drawn by the only survivor of the earlier expedition -- a map that he also drew a minotaur-like beast on.  It's a fantasy story in which there are none of the typical fantasy elements, which doesn't prevent it from being a gothic fantasy horror jungle adventure.  It's the kind of story that's so good you want at first to have it expanded into a book, a set of books, even -- but then you realize it's that good because it's so short.

The collection ends on the only story with what passes for a happy ending. In The Weir a man, recently separated, sees a girl jumping off a bridge with a backpack full of stones, and dives in to save her. He does, but when he calls an ambulance she runs away, only to look him up later.  It's a sad little story that's sad only because as the story unfolds you realize that the story you're being told is the high point of the characters' lives -- and it's not much of a high point, at that.  But the ending manages to be kind of hopeful, or at least accepting.

Haddon is the kind of writer that makes me envious. He isn't showy, and isn't (so far as I know) very well-known. Instead, his books and stories are perfectly crafted quiet masterpieces, the kind of books that stay with you for a long, long time.  I can recall bits of Curious Incident and A Spot Of Bother years after I read them, and I can remember the feel of them, too, how much I liked them. (The Red House I remember less clearly but that's no fault of its; it's just that in its setting and manner it's similar to a lot of other books I read.)

These stories might be his high point, though. This is one of my favorite books so far this year.

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