In Mark Haddon’s “The Porpoise,” Storytelling Is an Instrument of Violence and Solace
“The Porpoise,” the new novel by Mark Haddon, opens with a scene of spectacular violence. A man, flying a friend of a friend’s pregnant wife home to Winchester in his small plane, loses his bearings in a mass of cloud. He and the wife die, but the woman’s baby, a girl, survives. She is returned to her father, a rich recluse who is made more eccentric by grief. More bad things happen; the father preys on the growing daughter, Angelica; the tone is precise melancholy, muted outrage. And then the novel trembles and flips. A suitor, Darius, shows up—the writing becomes deliciously cinematic. Darius is a harbinger of cascading plot: fights, an assassin (not quite human?), an escape; the action flickers with a pleasant implausibility. Darius boards a yacht, the Porpoise, named for a creature that belongs fully to neither land nor sea. When he wakes from an uneasy sleep, his head swarms with someone else’s memories. He has travelled back thousands of years in time to become Pericles, the prince of Tyre.
These quick recalibrations—from contemporary realism to suspense to epic—convey bravura, a giddy sense of possibility, a love of story. Have we entered a zone of gods and monsters, or simply men? Haddon, who is also the author of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” declines to resolve such ambiguities. He is working from rich, if messy, source material. The medieval poet John Gower told the tale of Antiochus, a king who fell in love with his daughter after his wife died; Shakespeare popularized the legend with his play “Pericles,” which he likely co-wrote with his friend, the pimp and playwright George Wilkins. Pericles, prince of adventure, seeks the hand of Antiochus’s daughter but flees when he discovers her incestuous secret. Pursued by killers-for-hire, he sails around having exploits. After she jumpstarts the plot, Antiochus’s daughter disappears.
Perhaps “The Porpoise” is her revenge, and Darius-turned-Pericles’s voyages are her act of creative resistance. Now and then, the story’s wild twists and pileups of incident hint sweetly at its teen-age creator. But the narration can also be alien, frightening, with an implacable omniscience. (“In two hours he will be dead.”) “The Porpoise” is terrifically violent, with a bright, innocent ferocity. When Pericles imagines pulling his “long wet blade” from the chest of a fallen foe, a stern clarity animates both the act and the language. Descriptions of death are beautifully wrought and clinical—as one character suffers a heart attack, “two bracelets of fire” travel “down his arm as if someone were peeling the skin from shoulder to wrist.” These formally striking passages feel intentionally divorced from any understanding of the human body as a site of suffering. Written from a kind of artistic absolute zero, they scan like the announcements of an insane person or a god.
In “The Porpoise,” such impersonal aesthetic cruelty is the province of women. Stories are the province of women, too: Haddon wants to restore agency to the female characters sidelined by the Antiochus legend. This could feel like a condescending attempt to end up on the right side of history, but doesn’t—the characters are never reduced to props in a you-go-girl power ballad. The figure of the witch or the sorceress is no stranger to classical mythology, but she is often compartmentalized in one corner of the narrative, like Kalypso on her island, whereas other wives and daughters remain passive; for Haddon, every female character can tap into the supernatural, and that capacity feels less mysterious than compensatory. George Wilkins, the co-author of “Pericles,” makes a cameo appearance, stating, “To discover that the sex too weak to have dominion in the physical world are possessed of demonic powers in the other is hard to bear.” A dark-eyed wraith with the mouth of a lamprey fastens herself to his face.
Stories are instruments of vengeance, and they are also sources of solace. The book’s female protagonists create their own counterparts, as projections and helpmeets. “What if, in extremity, the voice you used to encourage and sustain yourself was made flesh and walked in the world of its own accord?” Marina, one of the novel’s many lost daughters, asks, having possibly just imagined a company of huntresses to life. Haddon constructs a chain of women who are perhaps all one woman, and, just as their situations and voices mingle, so too do the epic and contemporary settings overlap—a crashed chariot evokes a crashed plane, one of many jumbling motifs. This bleeding together of character arcs and images gives the book a strange capaciousness. It results in some dizzyingly original moments, in which the multiple iterations of the narrator shimmer around each other.
Reading “The Porpoise,” the reader must frequently recalibrate. Who is speaking? Whose head are we in? It is one thing to assert the uncanny potency of stories—a certain television show about medieval politics comes to mind—but Haddon’s book is almost more evocative of pre-stories: of the phase before the story is told, when it is still indeterminate, unbound from words. It could take place in modern-day England or the Homeric age of heroes. The magic vessel could be a yacht or a galley, a porpoise or a mermaid. The violence of art has to do with the way it forces these decisions, but Haddon, with his ever-shifting narrative, offers something like a stay of execution, a plane that enters the cloud and does not come down.