The title story of The Pier Falls by Mark Haddon (Vintage, £8.99), 347 pp.) is a harrowing account of how an idyllic seaside afternoon in the 1970s turns to tragedy. In spare, compelling prose, Haddon describes the initial warnings as the rivets holding the pier together progressively fail. ("There is a faint tremor underfoot as if a suitcase or stepladder has been dropped somewhere nearby.") He describes in merciless detail the fracturing of a summer afternoon into fragments, neatly chronicling each death and the aftermath as normality slowly settles over those left apparently unscathed. ("None of the survivors sleeps well. They wake from dreams in which the floor beneath them vanishes. They wake from dreams of being trapped inside a cat's cradle of iron and wood as the tide rises.")
Haddon's prose captures the way in which trauma is observed from the inside: slowly, but too fast to fully register; completely, but only in hindsight. Another word for this is shock. As Naomi Klein has recently written, "A state of shock is what results when a gap opens up between events and our initial ability to explain them."
Britain in 2017 feels similar to the disintegrating pier in Haddon's story, shuddering as the rivets joining us to the EU are worked loose, the fissures in our society are thrown into ever-sharper relief, and international politics seem more and more threatening. It's the shock that many of us experienced last year in the sweaty early hours of June 24, watching the numbers move like a tide, rolling upward until, as the dawn broke, the result was confirmed.
Many of us experienced that feeling of shock again in November as we watched Hillary Clinton's chances of being President go from being assured, to doubtful, to impossible. A feeling which deepened in January as Trump's inaugural speech made clear he intended to govern as he had campaigned: boorish, aggressive, chauvinistic.
Most importantly, it's the feeling as we watched the flames sweep across Grenfell Tower. Knowing what the inexorable progress of the wall of fire meant – as human beings, unable to stop ourselves imagining ourselves in the place of those inside – but powerless to stop it.
It's a feeling I've revisited many times this summer, as different journeys have taken me past the tower: blackened and silent, the sun still catching on glass that has not been shattered, a grim negative of the neighbouring towers. ("A moment's weakness had caused this horror, the way a single spark from these struck flints bloomed into the fires that surrounded her.")
The footage from Houston this week has brought that feeling again. Watching the waters rise and the roads disappear beneath the floods should remind us that we are always vulnerable to the environment we build through and over (instead of around and with). The levees and dams have creaked and overflowed, and the bonds of society have proved correspondingly frail. Looting and unrest have necessitated curfews, as stretched civil authorities focus on the crisis. President Trump's response, ("The storm, it's epic what happened. But you know what, it happened in Texas and Texas can handle anything.") encapsulates the dogma of small government and its failure to appreciate the importance of collective action to avert rather than manage times of crisis. ("He's never thought it this way, that lives are held in common, that we lose a little something of ourselves with every death.") In situations like this, the heroism of individuals needs to be backed by the state rather than left to fend for itself. We cannot allow ourselves to be flattered for our self-sufficiency by those whose job is to prepare.
In India, Bangladesh and Nepal, far worse flooding seems to be producing a different reaction to similar problems. The Times of India shows crowds working with rescuers, bringing food and helping to clear rubble. At root, though, the complaints are similar too: "Why does nothing change? Why are we left to fend for ourselves when they had weather forecasts warning them of extremely heavy rainfall?" asked one Indian columnist quoted in the Guardian. The residents of Grenfell know the feeling, as did the inhabitants of New Orleans in 2005.
In Britain, meanwhile, we continue to make our own weather: working toward "freeing" ourselves from the EU. The Brexit negotiations have resumed and it's clear that this government is determined to ignore the reality that 27:1 make for unhealthy odds. On Ireland, on the single market, on the customs union, on free movement; the position of Her Majesty's Government is that cake policy must remain separate from eating policy.
A spokeswoman for the Prime Minister said this week that the government was determined to try and discuss the future trading relationship alongside the withdrawal deal, despite the insistence of the EU that this won't happen. As any country that has negotiated EU accession could tell you, negotiating with the EU on these matters is not a negotiation as conventionally understood. In accession negotiations, the only question is when, not if, individual countries would accept EU law and regulation (this, by the way, is a powerful practical argument for remaining). In our case, we lit the blue touch paper by triggering Article 50 and now require all 27 member nations' agreement to blow it out again, even temporarily. British inability to understand collective behaviour is quite profound (at least among politicians, who are usually happy to talk about what they claim people want but often less keen to engage with what they need).
Internationally, meanwhile, the Prime Minister arrived in Japan at an interesting moment, her plane presumably virtually banking to avoid a North Korean missile. Asked about the escalating (or at least not subsiding) crisis in South-East Asia, she termed the launch "outrageous" and suggested that the UN Security Council should resolve the problem. Collective solutions are good sometimes, it would seem, though the structure of the Security Council gives Donald Trump (along with Vladimir Putin and Xi Jingping) a veto on any solution, so it's likely to be a question of state-to-state solutions in the end.
Haddon's stories have at their core an awareness that traumatic events alter our histories, both individual and collective. ("Today will be different, not simply shocking but one of those moments when time itself seems to fork and fracture and you look back and realise that if things had happened only slightly differently you would be leading one of those other ghost lives speeding away into the dark.") He skilfully evokes the sensation of escape and the chill of privilege it occasions. ("Everyone can feel the thrilling shiver of the Reaper passing close, dampened rapidly by the thought of those poor people.")
The stories also underline, however, that those forks and fractures are constructed of choice. Some choices are positive: in the final story, The Weir, a lonely divorcé rescues a young woman from suicide by drowning, forming a friendship that sustains them both. Mostly, though, the choices of Haddon's characters are negative. In Wodwo, Gavin, a venal middle-class TV presenter, shoots a stranger who interrupts a family Christmas. The stranger makes a macabre recovery, promising to return the following year: Gavin struggles to cope with his actions, becoming homeless before being found by the same stranger and sent back to his family home to interrupt the next Christmas. He approaches the same French window, seeing the changes wrought by the year in his family. And then they look up: he has become the stranger, even to himself. ("The intruder light clicks on. He knocks twice on the glass. As one his family turn to look at him.") What could he have done differently? What can we do differently? Who's making the choices? We need answers but first we have to ask the questions.