Chloe Blades on the raw, complex and unabashedly feminist new novel by the author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
There’s a plethora of novels hitting shop shelves that retell the ancient epics. Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls gives voices to the pillaged slave women of Homer’s Iliad. In Home Fire: A Novel, Kamila Shamsie reworks Sophocles’ Antigone. Madeline Miller’s Circe retells Homer’s Odyssey, celebrating female strength and altering a narrative that has historically been unkind to a woman Miller portrays as the abused.
Such retellings stem from the international collapse of the masculine dominance hierarchy. It’s been a top-heavy perch for men like Weinstein and Trump to ogle from as they perve on the powerless below them.
It’s also come at a time when Jordan Peterson’s abhorrent philosophical binding of pages, 12 Rules for Life, has sat in the top 10 of Auckland’s bookshops despite instructing men to “dare to be dangerous” and to “put your desires forward as if you had a right to them”. It’s men like these that keep women in a persistent place of fear. Fortunately, we have men like Mark Haddon to rewrite the narrative.
Haddon is probably best-known for 2003’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or more recently his collection of short stories, The Pier Falls. His first novel in seven years, The Porpoise, is a raw, revelatory masterpiece that brings the tale of Apollonius of Tyre into the modern literary canon.
The Porpoise opens with a plane crash written with the graphic gore of a Tarantino script. Knowing the weather conditions are uncertain, pilot Viktor takes off anyway in his Piper PA-28 Warrior plane, with the beautiful actress Maja, who is 37 weeks pregnant, as his passenger. As they fly he loses visual contact with the ground and rather than turn around, “there is some caveman part of his brain which is profoundly averse to being seen as less than competent, by anyone, let alone a woman, and least of all by a woman he finds attractive”.
I found the moment the “Perspex windscreen splits and pops out of its frame, the snapped edge taking Viktor’s head clean off,” sardonically humorous. It’s significant that the Warrior takes Viktor’s life: Haddon is playing on names, suggesting the death of the powerful ego-driven man. A symbolic execution by way of beheading, the preferred method to execute kings and people of power, where the body, mind and soul are separated.
There’s such emphasis on Maja’s beauty and Viktor’s imagined, related emasculation that the onus of the disaster is implicitly placed on the woman. This recalls all the women whose beauty has intimidated men – pirates, fathers, brothers, suitors, and, surprisingly, men with a pen – to the point that the penis replaces logic and women pay the consequences. Here, the brilliant, grotesque scene that results is likely to bring you to tears. Viktor and Maja were a tool for introducing one of the themes at the heart of this novel: the male ego and female oppression.
A transcendental narrative takes over. All power is given to the female experience, making for a dramatic, deeply affecting read. Maja’s baby is raised as Angelica by Philippe, Maja’s obsessively jealous widower. A troubled man of astonishing wealth, he believes that his wife’s spirit entered Angelica – thereby justifying his incestuous use of his daughter’s body. Angelica’s coping mechanisms take the reader aboard the Porpoise, a ship that carries a cast of mythological characters borrowed from the story of Pericles, but more on that later.
It’s her years of captivity spent reading to escape her reality that excite Angelica’s imagination. It enables her to use the power of storytelling, as Haddon does, to reimagine a version of a world where women are equal, they are strong, and they have a voice. It is when her father “comes to her room in the evening” that “she enters that foggy border country between dream and story” and she begins “weaving another world”, claiming the narrative agency stolen from her in reality. It is when he comes to her she enters the imagined world on board the Porpoise and the novel dramatically shifts from the present to the past.
The meticulous construction of Haddon’s sentences means you can blink and miss the drama that brings clarity to the moment in time you’re in, such as when an art dealer named Darius is unintentionally introduced to Angelica and works out what Philippe is doing to her. Philippe defends his territory in a jealous rage and snaps Darius’ arm with a rod. Next Philippe is trying to justify his behaviour to Angelica and suddenly you’re transported to the Porpoise with a man named Pericles escaping “a frigate of Antioch”, who is “rubbing his arm, which hurts abominably for some unknown reason”. The connections between past and present are discreet but once realised they’re gratifying, the moments beautifully bound by Haddon’s prose.
Enter Shakespeare’s lesser known play, Pericles. Not to be confused with the ancient Greek who was a statesman, politician, and had a head so large contemporary poets nicknamed him ‘sea onion-head’. Rather, Shakespeare’s Pericles is based on a man named Apollonius, from a poem written by 14th century poet John Gower, titled Confessio Amantis. That poem is itself a retelling of the ancient Greek tale, Apollonius of Tyre, written in the third century AD. The premise of the tale is the King of Antioch is in an incestuous relationship with his daughter and has kept suitors away with a riddle, which Apollonius answers correctly – only to find that he’s subsequently hunted by a frigate of Antioch because now he knows too much.
The complexity of three narratives gliding parallel with one another is a testament to Haddon’s impeccable ability to write fiction. They weave in and out of the past and present like a tapestry, emphasising all the ways in which Haddon’s version is the change we’ve been waiting for. It offers as many perilous adventures as the tales of Shakespeare and Gower, but Angelica – the imaginative, strong, fierce woman – is at the helm of this story, navigating the heroines. For the first time a woman has sole agency over this narrative.
It’s rumoured that Shakespeare co-wrote his version with Jacobean philanderer, pamphleteer, and abuser of women, George Wilkins. Haddon is evidently not happy about that. This is well documented in the novel: there is a break where the reader is transported to 17th century England, and there’s a shift in the narrative voice that sounds more like Haddon furiously educating his reader. We’re taught that the King’s daughter in Shakespeare’s Pericles is not only abused by her father, but subdued into silence with a mere two lines of speech. She isn’t given a name, and she is told by her prospective husband, Pericles, that “were not this glorious casket stored with ill,” referring to the corruption of her vagina at the hands of her father, then he would have married her. But he is no longer interested in marrying her as he infuriatingly holds her in part responsible for the abuse.
Only via someone like Wilkins could this abhorrent treatment of the abused be made possible, the narrator explains. We’re reminded “there is no bestial act [he] has been unable to perform or have performed upon him by women and girls who need his money or his protection from beadles and bailiffs”. Wilkins wrote a version of a woman that suited him, one that mirrored his treatment of women, one penned on the page so that women were humiliated on the stage.
In a satisfying sort of punishment, Haddon sends Wilkins out to sea alone in a wooden boat surrounded by the terrifying ghost of every woman he ever beat, raped, harassed, or shamed. It’s a gothic, hyperbolic scene that both shows the power of the author, and undermines and shames Wilkins’ attempt at being remembered as a writer. A quote near to the end of the novel is given great prominence: “she will get through this and she will be revenged upon those who have done it to her”.
As the story glides on, the differences between the abused women from Jacobean England, ancient Greece, and the present day become blurred. The women wronged in the past, such as Pericles’ wife Chloe, Emilia, Marina, the King’s nameless daughter, and the women abused by Wilkins, are paralleled by the present-day rape of Angelica and the death of Maja. The blurring confuses the reader and it’s unclear what century the women are from, signifying how little gender equality has progressed, and how much further there is to go.
As the Guardian explains, today it isn’t uncommon for a woman who has been raped to be “asked about what they wore and how they fought back”, like it’s somehow her fault. Likewise, in the tale of Apollonius, the king of Antioch and his daughter are killed by lightning: both are held responsible for the abuse. Haddon has, however, rewritten the fate of Philippe and Angelica and Pericles and Chloe.
There are echoes of Jane Eyre as a dramatic finale suggests there’s hope for the 21st century woman, but the message is it’s likely to be at the detriment of women’s health and sanity. Nonetheless, as demonstrated by the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, women are stronger together. It’s a powerful message Haddon conveys: the “twenty-first woman rises”, she is stronger now, her voice is being heard, “she runs with a band of women across rolling grassland, over hard, packed sand, through fine columns of leaf light through trees…They become a thousand arrows falling from a clear sky, into bark, into grass, into fur, into flesh…Then they are the wolves…tearing out the slippery liver of and kidneys of the man who kidnapped her.”
Authors such as Madeline Miller, Pat Barker, Natalie Haynes, Ali Smith, and now Haddon, are rewriting the tales that – alongside the Bible – set an outdated standard of masculinity. Their work highlights all that’s been wrong with the world’s attitude toward the female body, voice, and conscience.
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Still, men like Jordan Peterson are advocating for a masculinity that emulates the masculinity of Haddon’s ego-driven men. Peterson’s first rule, titled ‘Stand Up Straight With Your Shoulders Back’, introduces you to lobsters to showcase how a display of hyper-masculinity is imperative for maintaining a successful social dominance hierarchy (men are, of course, at the top).
After the homoerotic display of “antennae whipping madly” at each other, the dominant lobster will “flip the other on its back” and finish the job off by standing over him shooting “direct streams of liquid at its opponent”. What follows is a sex marathon for the lobster with his audience of women. It’s like a boozy night out when two men spot the same female specimen and start dancing around like boxers ready to show her who’s worthy.
Look at the pilot Viktor, so afraid of appearing weak in front of the beautiful Maja, who feels superior as he listens to her speak “about her husband’s shortcomings”. This gives Viktor a “sensation so pleasurable when combined with their physical closeness” that he chooses not to turn the plane around and have Maja see him weakened and defeated by the clouds. Rather Viktor took Peterson’s advice. Viktor dared to be dangerous. He put his desires forward. Viktor ploughed forthrightly ahead into a grain silo.
The Porpoise, by Mark Haddon (Chatto & Windus, $37) is available at Unity Books.
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