Tuesday 15 October 2019

The Porpoise: An age-old tale of suffering morphs into oblique odyssey

Mark Haddon's novel loses some of its sensuality and tactile magic as it leaps from the modern day into adrenalised mythological drama

Gripping set-pieces: Haddon pushes the reader to their limits in his new novel
Gripping set-pieces: Haddon pushes the reader to their limits in his new novel
The Porpoise by Mark Haddon

Hilary A White

After his bemusing, sweetly crushing adult-fiction debut The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time made him a star, Mark Haddon seemed determined to cut a swathe through heavy undergrowth.

His debut short-story collection, 2016's seldom unremarkable The Pier Falls, saw him assemble nine tales that shimmered with a perplexing mixture of compassion and sensitivity but also hard-edged detachment, as if Haddon was observing plant life bending to extreme climactic conditions through a pane of glass.

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Contained within that release were two entries that borrowed from the mythologies of the ancients. One was a retelling of the horrid fate of Ariadne, left to fend for herself on the island of Naxos by Theseus. The other was an update of an Arthurian romance called 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight'.

Extremes of cruelty and devotion are to be found in the fables and anecdotes of yore and we cannot help but find these overheated tones lusty and alluring (hence the billion-odd of us currently tuning in to the death throes of Game of Thrones). Haddon's need to keep away from what he calls "beige" literature has brought him from the do-or-die calamities and cliff-edges of The Pier Falls to this new novel and its own diorama of age-old suffering. And as one character here puts it, "stories demand suffering".

A cool present-tense charts a disastrous private plane journey in the book's opening movements. The heavily pregnant Scandinavian actress Maja is the trophy wife of obscenely wealthy recluse Philippe. When the pilot flying her is too embarrassed to admit error or fear in front of a beautiful woman, the result is a catastrophic air disaster that is as absurd as it is tragic (a common tonal cocktail in Haddon's fiction). When rescue services arrive, they are only able to save the unborn baby, who is duly transferred to Philippe to raise.

He is extremely protective of the new child to the point of smothering dysfunction. A small retinue of staff help run his estate, from housemaids who take an interest in the girl to a slightly chilling fixer called Herve. Angelica, as the child is named, is brought up in semi-isolation and kept away from prying questions as to the nature of her existence within Philippe's kingdom.

As the girl grows, something unspeakably disgusting forms between father and daughter, and when a cocky young suitor - Darius, the son of an art dealer who was one of Philippe's few friends -appears at the door looking to court Angelica, he flies into a murderous jealousy that is based as much on sexual possessiveness as having his enclave infiltrated.

Haddon is pushing us to our limits here. His language - sharp, cascading, fibrous - is a wonderful medium but some of this content is hard to stomach. There must surely be redemption on the way, something for the reader to latch on to to bring a righting of these cruelties upon the universe. Or so you hope.

Instead, it all starts to go a bit oblique. We are suddenly whisked away from Philippe's haunted house to the saga of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, with characters from Haddon's modern-day tale (the one that he has put us through the wringer with, don't forget) now shazaming into characters from an early 17th-century mythological drama co-penned by William Shakespeare and the pimp and pamphleteer George Wilkins. Darius morphs into Pericles. Philippe is represented by Antiochus. And so on.

And so, for the remainder of The Porpoise, we are off on the open seas around ancient Turkey, through palaces and harbours, destitute streets and treacherous taverns. It's all very exciting and enigmatic having Haddon reconfigure the yarns of the old world with his customary lacerations. There are also few who can match him for a rollicking set-piece, and The Porpoise has one or two in particular that are heavily adrenalised. One is a nightmarish sequence in which Pericles' wife (and Antiochus's daughter) Chloe is thrown overboard in a sealed coffin by mariners who believe a sacrifice to Neptune will quell a storm. The other is a monstrous shipwreck dashed against night-time cliffs.

This is fantastic, gripping reading that places you side-stage in an era when a character could only complete an odyssey if they were able to negotiate man-made currencies of blood, gold and loyalty in tandem with a spiteful array of gods.

There is a problem, however. Where is Angelica? We only seem to drop back into her story intermittently, as if out of a passing sense of authorly duty to the characters that got the whole show on the road. There are echoes and ghostly visitations warping back and forth across dimensions in order to bring symbolism and a sense of tragic inevitability to Angelica's lot. But it doesn't feel good enough, especially given the sadness and abuse that we have had to watch this character go through. She deserves more.

Why are we at one stage in a boat on the foggy Styx-like Thames with the ghosts of Shakespeare and Wilkins looking at the floating effigies of women the latter wronged in his life? What role does such a Dickensian sermon have in closing the arc of the story's most sympathetic character? By the end, the ectoplasmic and the frostily mundane coagulate in a porridge of characters walking through portals, robbing any sensuality and tactile magic from both worlds and instead just leaving slush.

Chopped up into separate entities (another collection of stories, perhaps) and freed of their necessity to link up, untold wonders could have been performed by this masterful writer. But there is a structural issue here that can't be ignored, unfortunately.

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