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.

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.

Book review: ‘The High Mountains of Portugal’ by Yann Martel

After the runaway critical and popular success of Life of Pi, Yann ­Martel’s long-awaited next novel was Beatrice and Virgil, a cluttered meta-fiction that, in part, followed a Martel-like novelist and his efforts to follow a blockbuster hit. It proved an unfortunate case of life imitating art, its sputtering story of a novelist producing an unsatisfying work being itself unsatisfying.

The High Mountains of Portugal splits the difference between the rapturous proselytising of Life of Pi and the structural trickery of its successor, returning to his best-loved novel’s theme of loneliness, loss and animal companionship, as well as worshipping the primal power of story­telling and parables.

Split into three (somewhat) linked novellas titled “Homeless”, “Homeward” and “Home”, a kind of playful literary triptych, the first section sees grieving museum worker Tomas venturing across Portugal in mad, ­single-minded pursuit of an ancient crucifix. Gradually losing heart and his sense of purpose, he draws inspiration from the journals of Father Ulisses, whose mournful remembrances of his missionary work in Africa turn into an inco­herent obsession with the idea of home.

Tomas is given as a gift one of the nation’s first automobiles, a strange and wondrous ­machine that he struggles to tame. Initially viewed as a cheerful curiosity by those he ­encounters, his voyage comes to take on a tragicomic tone as he is beset with various physical and automotive ailments. At one point, he emerges from his vehicle hunched and dirty, wildly scratching his unbathed body, a simian figure made a pariah by his unflinching quest for religious grace and solitude.

The story skips forward to the late 1930s, when a pathologist and his wife free associate about Agatha Christie novels and enter into an extended exchange of theories on the enduring appeal of her mystery stories. They ponder that only Christie and Jesus Christ, a figure constructed almost entirely from second-hand accounts, are chiefly concerned with the question of “What are we to do with death”. A woman comes to visit his offices, asking for an autopsy of her husband (who she is carrying in a suitcase), and he makes a macabre discovery, sending this thread of the tale spinning off into fantastical territory.

Finally, ageing Canadian politician Peter is jolted out of his ennui when he has a moment of connection with Odo, an intelligent and social ape, at a research facility. With his wife dead and his family having become a scattered and embittered mess, he makes the impulsive decision to buy the animal, abandon his plateauing career and head to the wild beauty of the country he moved from as an infant, Portugal.

 

Read the full review at The Australian: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/life-of-pi-author-yann-martel-heads-to-mountains-of-portugal/news-story/26baa10e32a72110b9c09d0e4d640d72

 

Book review: Number 11 by Jonathan Coe

In his notes about the movie What a Whopper!, reclusive, obsessive Roger notes the film is a “sort of sequel” and tags it with ‘Sequels which are not really sequels. Sequels where the relationship to the original is oblique”. That also sums up this book’s relationship to Coe’s peerless satire of Thatcher era Britain, What a Carve Up! In that postmodern classic, obscure writer Michael Owen was hired to write the biography of the villainous Winshaw family, who had managed to infiltrate numerous arms of British life: politics, the media, high finance, art collecting, arms dealing. They ended up meeting a grisly end, but like some hydra they’re back in Number 11, dominating Blair’s Britain and beyond.

A savagely, sourly funny writer who structures his novels like Escher paintings, this time round Coe takes aim at the dismantling of the welfare state, the poisonousness of social media and the ultimately facile nature of political satire, all within a panoramic framework where plot paths diverge and re-join in unexpected ways and seemingly irrelevant details become major turning points.

The gothic prelude sees childhood friends Rachel and Alison have a creepy encounter in the woods and find a tarot card showing a grotesque spider woman. In that same formative summer, Rachel becomes haunted by the suspicious death of biological warfare expert David Kelly, a kind of generational loss of innocence moment.

The two girls go their separate ways, divided by a social media snafu. While Rachel ends up in Oxford, Alison makes her way in the art world, painting homeless people dressed as royalty. Meanwhile, Alison’s mother Val, a one-hit wonder pop star, tries to revive her fading fame on I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!, but finds only humiliation, the format being a poisonous reinstatement of the class system and public abasement.

The Winshaws make a more successful gambit for renewed fame in the art world with a prize in their name. Its first incarnation was to honour an artwork in any format, though that increasingly abstract idea was abandoned after one year it went to ‘That smell at your grandma’s house when you open a biscuit tin that hasn’t been opened in years’. Instead, they decide to pit the various existing prizes against each other and the result turns into a delicious satire of the prestige industry.

They’re also returning to prominence in the media with Josephine convincing her father to give her a newspaper column, though she needs some advice from her callous parent on the nuances of writing rage bait. When she tries to finger a “black, one-legged lesbian” as the straw man in one piece, he advises her that nobody would believe such a person exists. Simply casting the villain as Muslim, he suggests, will have the desired effect in provoking an outraged response.

Josephine’s right-wing ranting becomes a favourite topic for stand-up comedians the nation over, who promptly start disappearing. Enter the earnest PC Nathan Pilbeam, a bookish detective digging deep into Freudian psychology to uncover clues about the crimes. It’s a fine comic sequence in a career studded with them.

Coe has never been as darkly paranoid as he is here and he seems energised to produce some of his most brilliantly caustic satire. Eventually though, he seems as defeated as Alison watching her mother slide back into an abusive relationship: “Inside she was letting out a long, deep sigh of resignation. It was going to happen all over again”. In this waking nightmare, Britain is drunk-dialling its ex, and Coe is the friend slumped beside them at the bar, watching helplessly.

Book review: Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle (2015)

The singer-songwriter and lone permanent member of the incomparable Mountain Goats, John Darnielle has established himself as a writer of great empathy and thrilling rawness, a singular talent whose work inspires feverish devotion.

The transition from writing lyrics to fiction has proved an unusually seamless one. Wolf in White Van, Darnielle’s first full-length novel (he previously contributed the excellent Master of Reality novella to the 33 1/3 series), sees him climbing into the lightless, almost unpeopled world of Sean, a lonely and disfigured man.

Always an outsider, Sean spent much of his life in hospitals and rehabilitation centres after suffering a debilitating injury in his teenage years. Speaking has become physically demanding and people are repulsed by his appearance. So he withdraws into the cold comfort of fantastical worlds to distract himself from his isolation and chronic pain.

Read the full review: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/wolf-in-white-van-songwriter-john-darnielle-makes-a-game-start-as-a-novelist-20150209-137537.html#ixzz3VGYc5ltL

Book Review: Us by David Nicholls (2014)

At an ungodly hour one morning, Connie tells Douglas the thought of the two of them alone in the house together without their son Albie is “like a Beckett play”. Douglas hasn’t seen any Beckett plays, but senses this is not a good thing.

The pair have been married for 21 years and have planned one last family trip to Europe before Albie leaves to study photography, but Connie’s decision to leave Douglas once the trip is done turns their holiday into an increasingly desperate one.

Nicholls’ previous novel was the 2009 phenomenon One Day, which sold five million copies. Us taps into that same sad/funny vein, though this time there’s a sole narrator, the strait-laced Douglas, an earnest scientist who views dinner parties as “a pitiless form of gladiatorial combat”. When he is corralled into one such event, however, he falls for Connie. She’s completely different from him – cultured, vivacious and charmingly free-spirited, though sometimes intolerant of anyone not charmingly free-spirited in the exact same way she is.

Book review – ‘Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream’ by Neil Young (2013)

It wasn’t meant to be this way. Rock’n’roll was supposed to be a young person’s game. Live fast, die young, leave a pretty corpse, and all that. But with some of the best recent records being produced by elder statesmen such as Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie and the author of this remarkable tome, it’s clear that old theory is in need of revising. It may be better to burn out than fade away, but better still to just keep the fire raging

Originally appeared in: The Sun-Herald (click for full review)