The Porpoise by Mark Haddon is a reworking of an ancient myth, which involves a king, who after his wife dies, starts an incestuous relationship with his daughter. To keep up appearances the king offers his daughter to suitors who are challenged with a riddle, the answer to which reveals the king’s crime. If a suitor can’t work out the riddle, he dies: if he does work it out, he will also die, at the hands of the king’s henchmen. After many suitors fail and pay the price, a young man – variously known in different versions of the story as Appolinus, Appolonius or Pericles – comes along to try his luck. At the same time as working out the correct answer, he also realises the consequences of revealing it. Asking for time to think, our hero makes his escape. This kick-starts a series of adventures around the Mediterranean, during which, in most versions of the tale, the unfortunate daughter who started it all, is forgotten.
In The Porpoise, this tale is reworked in the modern setting of super wealth. Taking its cue from an unusual variant of the traditional tale where the daughter becomes the central character, Angelica, daughter of a billionaire, survives the death of her mother, but is then preyed upon by her father. Angelica reacts to her awful situation by retreating into the Pericles myth in her head. Within this dream it is women who take control, often in a supernatural way.
So what to make of it?
This book has ambitions to explore the nature of storytelling itself, with all its back and forth between modern story and ancient myth. I was reminded of Joseph Campbell and his famous book The Hero of a Thousand Faces, beloved of Hollywood screen writers. The myths explored by Campbell involve people going out into the world. They prepare, prevaricate, set out on their journey, are helped by mentors, opposed by enemies, end up in a tight spot and make their escape. It all seems to go back to prehistoric fireside training of people getting ready for dangerous trips outside the safety of camp. In The Porpoise, our hero does not go anywhere. In a hopeless situation, she retreats into serious self harm, and escapes in her imagination. The story seems to be a hallucination brought on by stress, loneliness and self starvation.
The heroes in the Campbell mode tend to be young men, rather than young women. So perhaps The Porpoise is a commentary on the way women are more trapped than men, and historically do not typically have that freedom to leave the camp fire and go off on adventures. They have to stay where they are and escape in other ways. This is what Angelica, the rich man’s daughter, does. And then in her dream state she appears to find consolation in discovering that women have supernatural powers that will take their revenge on men in the afterlife, or the mythic realm…. I wasn’t convinced by that. Maybe I’m just a simple fellow, but I have my doubts about the consolations of the supernatural. I would rather Angelica went on an actual journey, and made an actual escape. It is true that the hero of a thousand faces is typically a young man, but I don’t know if it’s satisfying to portray the only option for Angelica as retreat into half starved fever dreams where women take supernatural revenge on bad men.
The Porpoise is cruel and extremely violent, sometimes coming over like a posh horror movie. The detached author voice adds to a feeling of heartlessness. We don’t tend to stick with anyone’s point of view for long, and will often take omniscient authorial detours, into storm clouds for example, or the blood vessels of a man having a heart attack. It was like reading a book written by a pitiless deity rather than a person. This pitiless deity was a very accomplished writer, with a remarkable ability to create a scene in a reader’s mind. But it’s hard to warm to a ruthless writer-god. I can appreciate that the book has qualities, but I was still glad to escape it, as in physically escape it, shut the thing on my iPad and resolve never to open it again.