Mark Haddon’s first book for adults (which children also loved) was The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-time, which by being deliberately affectless (the narrator-protagonist has Asperger’s) reduced us to puddles of tears. The Pier Falls, a collection of stories, employs a similar very clear, pitilessly detailed style to destroy the reader. The title story is a minute-by-minute account of a disaster which kills dozens of holiday-goers. We look on in horror and fascination, and in the seconds that remain of these strangers’ lives we understand that they are just like us. Another story, The Island, retells the myth of Ariadne, the Minoan princess who helps Theseus to slay the minotaur, only to be abandoned by the hero on the island of Naxos. (The story of Ariadne really bothered me when I came upon it as a child in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology: How can a supposedly noble savior turn out to be an ungrateful asshole? As I grew older I learned the answer: Humans are like that.) Haddon’s version brings us face to face with Ariadne’s terrible loneliness. Unsought solitude is the curse shared by the characters in this collection, and while I would not recommend it to anyone in search of a cheerful diversion, I prescribe it to readers who are feeling glum, disheartened, depressed. (And, of course, fans of excellent writing.) You think you have it bad? Read this.
So that’s the unplanned theme of the week: awfulness and compassion. I direct you to Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, which feels like a fishbone in your heart that you can’t dislodge. Casey Affleck stars as Lee, a handyman who has endured unspeakable tragedy and cannot forgive himself. We see this silent, angry, broken person and somehow feel affection for him. For Chrissakes, Lee, come on. His brother (the ever-dependable Kyle Chandler) offers him the possibility of a new life, and his ex-wife and nephew (Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges, both wonderful) want him to take it, but he’s locked up so deep inside himself that no light can get in. The amazing thing about Manchester by the Sea is that for all its bleakness it’s also funny. During the most awful moments there are bursts of humor that bring up the absurdity of being human. (“It’s not a good disease,” says the attending physician. “What’s a good disease?” “Poison ivy.”) Watch it.