The Pier Falls by Mark Haddon, 2014
The magic trick:
Imaginative, detailed fake journalism
Striking story today – and I’m not sure that’s entirely a good thing. Haddon, best known for his also striking and maybe not entirely good novel The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time, conjures a colossal failure of infrastructure into being, giving us a richly detailed play by play of a pier collapse in 1970 Brighton.
The method is akin to the podcast The Memory Palace, where a historical event is given the novelist’s storytelling approach. Every minute event is personalized. No possibility of generating sentimentality is left untried.
But whereas The Memory Palace typically leaves me enriched, marveling at a world that has been made both larger and smaller at the same time for me by the show, “The Pier Falls” only makes everything feel lesser. The stacking of entire-lives-at-a-glimpse in the story failed to personalize the tragedy, but rather only made me increasingly numb.
Also, we should note the events portrayed in this story never happened, which shouldn’t really matter to me but somehow only angers me in a way I can’t really explain. Why did we need this story? A question I almost never ask about any story I read – but sprang to mind here throughout the text.
It is, however, a marvel of a certain kind of imaginative fake journalism.
And that’s quite a trick on Haddon’s part.
A Baptist minister offers the use of his church hall. Survivors are escorted by policemen and firemen over the road, up Hope Street, through a door beside Whelan’s Marine Stores and into a large warm room with fluorescent lighting and a parquet floor. The lid of a tea urn is rattling and two ladies are making sandwiches in the kitchenette. People slump on to chairs and on to the floor. They are no longer being observed. They are among people who understand now. Some weep openly, some sit and stare. Three children are unaccompanied, two boys and a girl. The parents of the younger boy have been airlifted to Shoreham. The other two children are now orphans. The girl saw her parents die and is inconsolable. The boy has concocted a story in which his parents fell into the sea and were picked up by a fishing boat, a story so detailed and told with such earnestness that the elderly woman to whom he is telling it doesn’t realise anything is wrong until he explains that they are now living in France.
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