October 5, 2016: “The Pier Falls” by Mark Haddon

Hello, Story366! Today I asked my students about last night’s vice presidential debate, if anyone watched it, and like my question from earlier this week regarding Westworld, not a soul in my class had watched the debate. I get it for Westworld—poor college students, living in the dorm, no HBO—but the VP debate? A lot of my students are politically aware, many of them active in the election as volunteers (mostly, though, for Bernie Sanders, like most college students). Still, not a single person? I sometimes wonder what these young people—most of my students are traditional-types—you know, do. They don’t watch major TV premiers of sci-fi shows. They don’t get into politics. As an educator, I feel like I need to be down with the young people, and talking about short stories and changing diapers isn’t going to cut it. Is there a subject I can broach that would connect us? I’d love it if you put some ideas in the Comments section. To note, once, I walked into class and said, Hey, today on Instagram, I saw a nude selfie of Kim Kardashian! combining a couple of things I figured they were into. All I got was a bunch of weird looks. So, if that’s your plan, don’t suggest it. I already tried that.

Today I read from Mark Haddon‘s new collection The Pier Falls, out from Doubleday. Haddon is a British writer and is the author of a few previous books, all of which have been well received, books that have won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction and have had Tony-winning plays adapted from them. Despite this, I haven’t read any of his work before, but was happy to discover him, like so many other authors, via Story366. I was excited to see what The Pier Falls had in store for me, so I read a couple of stories (which is the best way, in my opinion, to gauge someone’s writing) and will write about the title piece here.

“The Pier Falls” is a story that delivers what it promises, as it’s about a pier collapse, one that seems to be based on a combination of a couple of real-life pier collapses in England, the Clevedon Pier and the West Pier. Neither of those collapses could be considered disasters of the level of Haddon’s fictional pier, as the former happened during a stress test and the latter when it was already closed down. It felt like it was based on a real event, though, Haddon fictionalizing some famous English tragedy, but no. I guess that’s a testament to his skills.

In any case, “The Pier Falls” is a straight-up disaster story. Haddon depicts the events of the tragedy as they unfold, focusing his lens on one person or incident at a time, dozens of little incidents happening simultaneously (this pier is massive and was crowded). Haddon begins with one rivet failing, followed by another, each remaining rivet taking on exponentially larger loads until a whole section of the pier falls out from under the visitors. People fall from deadly heights, heavy pieces of wood and metal strike them, and sometimes both happen at once, victims fall into the water, crushed before they can drown. The whole time, Haddon puts a clock on the event, reporting how many people die after so many minutes, starting with fifty-eight dead after five minutes and then adding one at a time, the people whose deaths he describes in the most detail. People die tragically, violently, and ironically, but Haddon humanizes them, if but for an instance, before their final fate.

This type of story calls for an omniscient narrator, which is pretty hard to find in contemporary short stories, but is the only way to tell a story like this. It’s widespread mayhem, how it moves around from character to character, death to death, recalls Ron Hansen’s classic story “Wickedness,” about that blizzard that kills a small town in Nebraska. The opening of Saving Private Ryan, too, Spielberg moving around Omaha beach, depicting a large tragedy by accumulating smaller tragedies. What a way to attack a short story, a montage of events adding up to a great one. If my graduate students are reading this, they’re probably thinking I’m going to make them try it. And that’s because I probably will.

I like the stories I read in The Pier Falls, including “The Pier Falls” and “The Gun,” a story about a couple of kids who steal a family pistol and, well, Chekhov’s gun, etc. Mark Haddon seems to be good at intense, as both piece, to different degrees, depicted impossible situations, impossible for the characters and readers alike. Haddon has such a strong, distinct voice, I’m curious as to what else he does. Good thing there’s seven more stories right here in front of me.