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New Yorker Fiction Review #123: "The Weir" by Mark Haddon

Issue: Nov. 16, 2015

Story: "The Weir" by Mark Haddon

Rating: $$

Review: I am absolutely sure I've heard of Mark Haddon somewhere before but I can't remember where and even after the customary 13.2 seconds of internet research that I painstakingly put into each of my New Yorker short story reviews, I still can't figure it out. Anyway...WHO CARES if I've heard about him before. I believe in analyzing a work based on the words on the page and not whether the author is famous or from England or whatever. In this case, he is actually from England, but I digress.

We've got a good story here in "The Weir." An incident happens to a middle aged man during a rugged period in his life and comes to serve as a framework, a reference point, through which he comes to deal with the fundamental banality and yet sacredness of his own existence. Pretty damned good for just a few pages.

The incident? Middle-aged guy saves a young woman from drowning and takes her to his home, only to discover that she's got some not-insignificant mental problems ("Everything talks," she tells him when she wakes up on his couch) and is also, unfortunately, kind of a drip. The man is in the midst of a divorce and also dealing with the estrangement of his own son, just about the same age as the young woman.

Whatever the man is hoping for from saving the young woman--some extreme expression of gratitude, or some sort of deep inner connection that somehow saves him too in the process of saving her--he doesn't get it. He doesn't even get the romantic, tear-jerking re-conciliation with his son that he has wished for all these years. His wife also ends up marrying a man nine years her junior. Life's a bitch and then you die, I guess...

Middle-aged guy and the young woman stay in touch and meet for coffee regularly. And though their relationship does not "progress" beyond the simple sharing of what's going on in their daily lives ("Kelly" as she calls herself, doesn't seem to have much emotional depth) their consistent meetings serve a valuable function in the man's life, even if that function is only to allow him to air out his woes and concerns to another human being or maybe even just out into space.

There were a few choice phrases and nice fragments of wisdom in this story, but the following was my favorite:

"...they will all go down into the dark eventually. Him, Maria, Kelly, Timothy...And the last few minutes may be horrible, but that's O.K., it really is, because nothing is lost and the river will keep flowing and there will be dandelions in spring and the buzzard will circle above the wasteland."

Pretty heavy stuff from a story that begins with a tubtby middle aged guy throwing a tennis ball to his dogs. But I think what Haddon achieves here is to simultaneously tap into two really powerful and universal themes: the idea that life never plays out the way you think it will and, in fact, more often than not what you want to happen does not happen, and also that it's your own job to make meaning out of your own existence.

Only two "$" because middle aged man, unfortunately, is a bit of a cipher. In a story whose scope is
as broad as this one's is, you can't help but move things along quickly and risk that you're going to end up with an underdeveloped main character. Unfortunately, I think that happened here; the development of the character fell victim to what the broader point the writer was trying to get to, but at least he got there and the results were good.

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