Book review: ‘The Pier Falls’ by Mark Haddon (2016)

“I wish this story had a happier ending” one of the narrators in this new short story collection sighs. Having shot to literary fame on the back of the ultimate optimism of his hit The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night-Time, it seems Mark Haddon is all out of happy endings. The millions enthralled by that fiendishly clever modern fable may be surprised by the unremittingly morbid nature of this skilfully assembled and tonally consistent anthology of death and desolation.

The award-winning titular story is a vividly evoked account of a tragedy at a beachside town in the 1970s which eventually claims dozens of lives. Marked with a restrained tone and sustained mood of eerie calm, it is classically beautiful even in its depiction of smashed bones protruding from skin and drowned bodies disappearing beneath the raging water.

Another standout, ‘Wodwo’, hits similar aesthetic heights, etching out the various arrivals of family members at a picturesque English Christmas, where fallen snow “blots and softens the top of every object like icing on a plum pudding”. Internecine rivalries and long-held acrimonies bubble beneath the surface in a finely detailed portrait of a somewhat tense but generally unremarkable family gathering.

The story then pivots seamlessly into something far darker as the revelry is interrupted by a stranger with a gun, who issues a challenge to restless alpha male Gavin a la the Green knight to Sir Gawain. The surreal incident throws his life into chaos over the ensuing year as he throws away his career and relationship and descends into isolation, codeine addiction and homelessness.

Here, Haddon achieves something that is not quite magic realism, but an inspired,
disquieting blend of dirty realism around a mythical catalyst event, with convincing psychological detail used to render an extraordinary story palpably real.

Other stories depart from the here and now, only to find more emotional desolation; one tale sees an Athenian princess abandoned on an island, elsewhere a failed mission to Mars turns into a mass suicide.

Throughout, Haddon proves a heady stylist alive to moments of beauty even in the midst of despair. When a depressed man comes across a woman attempting suicide on a morning walk with his dogs, he records her jump from the edge of a weir with grimly poetic panache: “It is both more and less real than anything he has ever seen…Her blonde hair rises like a candle flame”.

‘Bunny’ is similarly dark, focusing on a massively overweight man who has dropped out of society, filling his days with trash TV and video games. He meets Leah. Like many of the characters here, she is so deep in a rut she has forgotten what sunlight looks like. She seems to have missed her chance to escape a dead-end town and abusive relationships, feeling “there was comfort in being hurt in the old, familiar ways”. She starts to act as a carer for Bunny; they bond over their cruel mothers and disappointing lives. But the equilibrium of their relationship proves tragically fragile.

As with ‘Wodwo’, both ‘The Island’ and ‘The Gun’ show an abiding interest in the mechanics and physicality of violence, how shooting a gun blows someone back, the particular spatter of blood. The former sees two boys making a formative trip out into the woods with a weapon while the latter recounts the princess’ grisly meeting with Islanders with stomach-churning exactitude.

Equally queasy-making is ‘Breathe’ where Carol returns home from America to find her elderly mother living in a derelict state after her husband died. The daughter’s sudden return and involvement in cleaning up her mother’s filthy house angers Robyn, the sister that remained local when Carol moved overseas, presumed never to be seen again.

Far too many contemporary short stories are bound by ennui and lack urgency. The Pier Falls presents an action-packed, unpredictable antidote to this malaise. Every story here has the power to give the reader a jolt, with Haddon’s pristine and stately prose only heightening the power of each violent upheaval.

Whether in a council estate, adrift in deep space or stalked by demons ripped from ancient mythology, these people are all hopelessly alone, hunted by the inevitability and randomness of death.

Gig review: Walter Martin, Sam Shinazzi @ Newtown Social Club, 29/5/16

After a career playing organ and bass in the much-loved The Walkmen, Walter Martin began his solo career with a children’s album, We’re All Young Together. He credits the creative left-turn for unlocking something in his writing and it’s easy to see a directness which carries over from that project to the low-key, autobiographical songs of most recent record Arts and Leisure.

Another songwriter known for working in an autobiographical register is support act, Sam Shinazzi, playing tonight as a two piece with guitarist Adam ‘T-Bone’ Taylor. The set includes ‘Bones’, all vulnerability and intimacy and ‘The Day We Met’, a stirring ode to friendship and memories. There’s also the whisky-soaked ‘Closing Time’, which Shinazzi describes as his bid to be featured on cult TV show Nashville. Some slivery guitar work on a cover of The Cure’s evergreen ‘Lovesong’ ends the set. Shinazzi’s shows are always a treat, full of heart and an unerring knack for bittersweet melody.

Undaunted by a small Sunday night crowd, Walter Martin is a good-natured presence, chatting amiably about the inspiration for each song and looking every bit a performer content with the niche he has carved out for himself. He begins with ‘Jobs I Had Before I Got Rich & Famous’, which takes a wryly funny look at his life selling roses and mowing lawns before a chance encounter with a famous pop star changed his direction.

Drawing on his travels around the world and his half-forgotten college studies in art history, these are charming songs of self-deprecating wit and unexpected detail. In songs like ‘Michelangelo’ and the almost spoken word ‘Watson and the Shark’, there’s a joyous attitude to the world of art galleries which offer a refreshing perspective on an often stuffy scene.

He also plays a couple of songs from a forthcoming record of vignettes about musicians, including the striking ‘Lana’, written from the perspective of a concerned brother observing Miss Del Rey’s heartbroken songcraft from afar.
The night wouldn’t be complete, however, without something from his children’s record and he obliges with the lullaby ‘It’s a Dream’ and a gorgeous rendition of ‘Sing To Me’, a tale of clumsy playground love. The sparse but enthusiastic crowd coaxes one last song from him, new track ‘I Wanna Be a Country Singer’ and as with everything he played, it proves small in scale but immensely likable.

Book review: ‘Cambodia Noir’ by Nick Seeley

A hard-bitten photographer, once idealistic and feted for his work, Will Keller now finds himself adrift in Phnom Penh. Notionally working for a local newspaper, he stumbles from one grisly photographic assignment to the next in a numbing haze of sex, drugs and alcohol. His main interest, he explains, is taking photos of corpses; the dead pay better.

In the midst of another punishing bout of self-medication, he is approached by a Japanese American woman calling herself Kara. She wants to pay him to track down her missing sister, June. The latter had been working as a junior journalist at the same paper as Will and rented out his room while he was in Laos. He discovers her diaries, a tortured but vague account of her attempts to break free of her past. Preliminary investigations reveal little, but Will suspects her journalistic investigations into the region’s smuggling and drug trade may have got her in trouble with the wrong people.

Coincidentally or not, the unexpected assignment comes hot on the heels of an unprecedented incident where the police turn on the all-powerful army. A four-star general is shot in the raid and the police uncover a large stash of heroin. Soon after, Will’s friend Bunny, a well-connected political operative, is gunned down. Will’s life becomes a waking nightmare, visions of these deaths and haunting memories of the human carnage he witnessed in Afghanistan becoming indistinguishable from his hellish reality.

In classic noir style, the story which unfolds is not one of light and shade, but shadows within shadows. Another noir staple is the potentially redemptive nature of the mission, which soon leads Will back to the enigmatic Kara. He is a skilful liar, but Kara is better. It soon becomes clear there are very good reasons this femme fatale is employing the services of Will rather than reporting her sister’s disappearance to the authorities.

He may not have any experience as a PI, but he knows where the bodies are buried; which hotels facilitate drug and paedophile rings, who can get a lock picked, a body exhumed or tap into police intelligence to run a background check on someone.

Soon, he needs all these resources and a healthy dose of rat cunning just to stay afloat. The case sees him dig into a darkness even this seasoned war photographer couldn’t have imagined and the mystery of June’s disappearance comes to completely consume him. It leaves him a broken figure: “I am blank, a film cell” he reflects. “I am the thing that records”.

Will emerges as an inspired, gruffly compelling narrator, like some Raymond Chandler hero hopped up on dexies and complaining about backpackers. He has a nicely acrid wit and is prone to moments of bruised philosophy, musing at one point that Tom Waits could have been Cambodian as he has the exact right timbre of pain in his voice.

Keller inhabits a Cambodia that is less a developing tourist trap and more the last gas stop before hell; everyone here is on the run and discovering the hard way that all the drugs in the world can’t kill their demons. It’s a fever dream of a backdrop, and the closest comparison is probably Nicholas Winding Refn’s ultra-violent and divisive Only God Forgives. Its prevailing mood of narcotic paranoia may well prove similarly hard to shake.

The debut work of Nick Seeley, a journalist with experience in both the Middle East and South East Asia, Cambodia Noir draws loosely on some of the political manoeuvring in the titular country. What is foregrounded, however, is a feverishly drawn but convincingly harrowing netherworld of exiles, a city where “every backpacker and junkie and psycho on the planet comes to die”.

Sentences are blunt, truncated, with pronouns and adjectives shorn off until they are left as nasty and lean as a sawn off shotgun. It’s a style capable of both ugly propulsion and surprising lyricism. Some of the influences are familiar: Ellroy’s staccato rhythms and unrelenting cynicism, Hubert Selby Jr’s piercing blasts of lyrical anguish, but assembled in a way that feels both novel and queasily effective.

Not absolutely everything works: there are a couple of contrivances that detract from an otherwise sturdy narrative arc. Similarly, there is an occasional tendency to tonal inconsistency, with the normally indurate Will suddenly spitting action movie dialogue a la McBain. But these seem minor quibbles in the face of Seeley’s vision, a fresh, vicious thing bound to haunt your dreams.