Mark Haddon’s New Novel Plays With Narrative, to Narrative’s Detriment
In author Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time, he found inspiration from an unreliable narrator. In that case, it was a teenager living with Asperger’s Syndrome. Through that character’s eyes, an unremarkable event became a mystery and the people around him became equally puzzling. The novel proved a blockbuster, albeit overly praised. Once you figured out the perspective of our narrator, once you “got him,” the story lost interest. I found the hit stage adaptation more satisfying.
Before that breakout, Haddon was a modestly successful writer of children’s books who dipped a toe into television. After, he branched out into all sorts of areas. He tackled Down’s Syndrome in a radio play and TV movie, he wrote an adult novel revolving around mental health, he delivered short stories (some highly acclaimed), and even wrote poetry. Despite some good reviews here and there, it’s fair to say Curious Incident was looking unrepeatable.
Porpoisefully Retelling the Myth
Not anymore. The Porpoise plays with an ancient myth that inspired the play Pericles, Prince Of Tyre by William Shakespeare (and George Wilkins, or so the scholars say). It’s one of those legends that proves more horrifying the more you actually pay attention. In it, a King’s wife dies in childbirth, and he becomes obsessed with the daughter that survived.
The King wants her exclusively for himself but can’t say so aloud. So he welcomes suitors once she comes of age. But if they can’t solve the King’s riddle, he immediately executes them. One suitor realizes the King’s unnatural desires, but of course can’t voice the truth, so he delays and then flees for his life. Most retellings follow this bold adventurer as he dodges King-sent assassins, falls in love with another woman, and so on.
Haddon read this story and thought, hey, what about the women? His retelling doesn’t see the King’s daughter as a plot device but as a full-blooded person trapped in an almost unimaginable horror. Haddon does the same for the woman our “hero” falls for, finding her journey just as exciting as the man’s.
So The Porpoise is ready for the #MeToo era. But is it good? Not quite. Haddon needed something else to complicate the telling. Instead of a uniquely unreliable protagonist, he devised a narrative structure that darts back and forth through time.
The Porpoise begins with a strand set in the modern era. The King is now a wealthy billionaire, and his Queen a world-famous movie star. When she dies in a plane crash but their unborn child survives, the billionaire keeps the girl cloistered away from the tabloid media and prying eyes. Haddon is quite good at showing the father’s love slippery-sloping into obsession and then rape.
Come Sail Away
Just as a “suitor” appears and bodyguards chase him off, the story jumps to ancient times, where the suitor is on a ship fleeing a mad King, desperate for safe harbor. This strand is clean and uncomplicated in the telling as the suitor’s next love interest takes center stage. Her adventures include an accidental burial at sea, and she later survives and flourishes in a small town as a priestess. Meanwhile, their daughter grows up in a royal household and finds herself targeted by a mad Queen jealous of the girl being more popular than her own child.
And then the narrative jumps again, this time to Shakespeare’s era. The Bard’s likely collaborator on Pericles, Prince of Tyre was a vile innkeeper and pimp who once beat a pregnant woman. Here, that man, George Wilkins, is dying, surrounded by servants and hangers-on who clearly don’t give a toss for the bastard. The ghost of Shakespeare appears and leads Wilkins towards his destiny in the afterlife, an uneasy prospect at best for such a man.
Haddon is essentially retelling the tale two (or three) times and that allows him to offer up multiple endings that are variously righteous, sad, and happy. While he handles the narrative structure capably, it gets in the way of a simpler, better book.
The modern setting, which focuses on the King and his imprisoned, abused daughter is fine but never quite catches the imagination. Every time we left it, I was disappointed, not because it was so good but because I’d been holding out hope it would soon come alive.
The relatively brief passages set in Shakespeare’s time are both the best-written and the least necessary. Standing on its own, this section would make a fine short story but it serves no purpose here.
But Haddon sets the bulk of The Porpoise in the classical era. These sections boast a clean, uncomplicated voice. He delivers the story from a modern perspective, giving the women their due, without lapsing into undue moralizing. It doesn’t rise to the heights of Madeline Miller’s Circe or The Song Of Achilles, but, on its own, it wouldn’t have been too far off either.
Haddon will probably enjoy his biggest hit in years with The Porpoise. But if he gets out of his own way and trusts his writing to stand on its own without any narrative games, he might just break the surface of the sea more often and with more grace.
(Doubleday, June 18, 2019)