Mark Haddon’s Latest Curious Incident Sails the High Seas

All of Mark Haddon’s fiction for adults has, until now, been rooted in contemporary realism: emotionally intelligent, yet possessed of a light touch and a sweetly British sense of the absurd. You could argue that his best-known novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, is a work of deep imagination; the book, though meticulously realistic, is told from the point of view of a teenager with Savantism. But with his new novel, The Porpoise, Haddon goes deeper still. This time he gives us the gods and goddesses of the ancient world, priestesses and pirates, carnelian and amber. It’s a different kind of storytelling, rich as brocade and powerful indeed.

The Porpoise opens on a present-day setting, though it has a quality of strangeness that, rendered in the author’s somewhat formal language, feels timeless. An extraordinarily rich man named Philippe is married to an actress named Maja, the only person he has ever loved. While very pregnant, Maja takes what should be a short flight in a light aircraft, but the pilot foolishly flies into thick clouds and crashes, killing them both. The baby, a girl Philippe names Angelica, is delivered and lives.

Grief and a monstrous sense of ownership warp Philippe’s mind, and he half believes that Maja lives on in the girl, who he begins molesting when she is small and rapes when she enters adolescence. To keep the nature of their relationship secret, he takes Angelica out of school and moves them around the world. He owns homes in Sri Lanka, Berlin, and Skiathos; he can do what he wants.

The experience of reading Angelica’s story is swiftly engrossing, heady, disorienting—a tumble down a churning whitewater. Her life is a prison, and she feels implicated in her father’s sick need for her. Angelica reads copiously, the escapism of a lonely child desperate to climb out of her circumstance and away from her thoughts. She’s not interested in books other kids her age might read; instead, she plunges into the worlds of myth and legend. As if preparing us for what’s to come, the narrator says:
Her favorite stories are the old ones, those that set deep truths ringing like bells, that take the raw materials of sex and cruelty, of fate and chance, and render them safe by trapping them in beautiful words.
When Haddon’s novel—the book we’re reading—takes us on a similar journey, should we be surprised?

The most distressing parts of the story come out in a rush. A handsome young man comes to the house. The son of a recently deceased art dealer with whom Philippe worked, Darius feels compelled to visit Philippe—not only for business, but because he’s heard about the man’s unusual, beautiful daughter. When he meets the girl and they lock eyes, it takes him only moments to understand that something is very wrong. He tries to rescue her, is nearly killed by Philippe, escapes to the coast, and ends up on a schooner belonging to an old friend who he bumps into by chance. It’s a trippy coincidence that feels just this side of unlikely, even for a rich kid who’s used to things going his way. And sure enough, after Darius sleeps off his injuries, he wakes in a fug of confusion—on a different ship, an unfamiliar one with huge sails. His head swims, full of memories that aren’t his own. He’s still dashing, still hungry for adventure, but he’s become someone else: Pericles, the prince of Tyre, out to sea on his own ship, the Porpoise.

Once we get our sea legs we understand that the novel has become—in fact already was—a retelling of Shakespeare’s Pericles, the story of a young prince who discovered that the King of Antioch was having an incestuous relationship with his daughter and was forced to flee. (The play was itself a retelling of Apollonius of Tyre, a story that was popular during Shakespeare’s lifetime and for centuries before that.)

That’s the thing about legends, ask any scholar of the classics: They get told and retold and will always reflect the attitudes of the place and time of the teller. Haddon makes these characters resonate simply by giving them a “realness” that readers of contemporary fiction crave. They may have old-fashioned names, but they’re bristling with life. When Pericles meets the Queen of Tarsus and she “stands just a little closer to him than is proper, just inside an invisible orbit of which he has never been aware before,” we readers feel the electricity between them. Sex and attraction feature prominently throughout the story, as do birth and death, terror and violence—all the elemental stuff of life that hasn’t changed one bit over the eons—and the drama feels ageless because it is.

The novel’s only obviously contemporary note is Haddon’s insistence that a female perspective shine through the stories, even—or especially—the ones that depict male cruelty toward women. One character, Chloë, is a princess who dies at sea but is pulled ashore and comes back to life, later becoming a priestess who gives the local people advice and guidance. When discussing women’s lot in life, she’s a straight shooter: “Girls have secrets…And there are plenty of men who consider their good name more valuable than a girl’s life.” Does the weight of her words come down like a hammer because Haddon is unsubtle in giving the myth a twist of modern feminism? Or is it because they’re that weighty and timeless and true? It’s stirring either way. And frankly, sometimes subtle just isn’t the way to go.

Likewise, in one of the book’s most haunting passages, Haddon floats a theory for Philippe’s abuse of his daughter.
Does he know, in some corner of his mind, that what he is doing is wrong? Or, if you have never been forbidden absolutely, if you have never been harshly criticized by someone whose opinion genuinely matters to you, if you have never had to face the consequences of your own mistakes, does the quiet, critical, contrary voice at the back of the mind grow gradually quieter until it is no longer audible?
Well shit, the author seems to say. Here we (still) are.

In a brief author’s note, Haddon—who is stunningly sensitive to not only the plight but also the interiority of all his female characters—writes that there is only one version of the Pericles story, a Breton lai written in the early 14th century, in which the princess is the hero, so to speak. Rather than serving as a plot “instigating device,” he says, she is the one at the center of the story who travels around and has “adventures.” I like the way the word adventure is used throughout this novel: It serves as a stout reminder that true adventure is dangerous and experience hard-earned.

Ultimately, the purpose of this beautiful novel is to remind us—to prove to us—that emotional truths are ageless and universal, the bedrock on which our supposedly real lives are built. The thing is, a retelling of an old story is in some ways just an update, a variation on a theme. But when it’s done very well, it’s more like a translation. The meaning of the strange symbols, which can be hard to parse across centuries and cultures, becomes plain. Maybe a woman whose coffin is fished from the ocean can’t come back to life and morph into something new. But perhaps a woman who has experienced a great trauma can walk away from it, change her circumstances in order to survive, and thereby be reborn—first in her mind and then in reality.

Memoir as Addiction: On Michelle Tea’s ‘Against Memoir’

Though she has published about as many books of fiction as she has memoir, Michelle Tea is probably best known for writing about her own life. This is due in part to the fact that even some of her fictional characters—in particular, the writer character named Michelle who starred in 2016’s astonishing dystopian novel-memoir hybrid, Black Wave—can be understood as stand-ins for herself. But it’s also certainly the case that the rollicking, hilarious cult of personality that is, in some ways, the engine of Tea’s books has become inseparable from the real person. If an artist is someone who creates their own life, then Tea has done this, then made that life into a further creation by chronicling every aspect of it and casting herself, her friends, and her lovers as larger-than-life, practically heroic figures.
There is something uniquely fascinating about the results of this. Reading Tea’s work, you get the sense that she is painting a large and beautiful but terrifying mural on the wall—all pinks and purples, fairytale turrets and monsters—and when the thing inevitably becomes enchanted, she will walk into it and decide to live there instead. As she writes in this new collection of essays, though, that might not be the healthiest impulse.

As she describes in bits and pieces throughout this book, Tea started her literary career in the ’90s, sitting in San Francisco dive bars, drinking and writing about her love life, then reading the contents of her notebook out loud at open mics around the city. After leaving her hometown of Chelsea, Mass., the gritty little city located across the Mystic River from Boston—and a place that still haunts everything she writes—she made her way to the Bay Area with her queerness, brokeness, and punkiness as her guides. She soon plugged into the city’s underground gay community, finding her first girlfriends and discovering herself as a writer at the same time.
Now a fixture in the San Francisco scene, she runs her own reading series, a nonprofit called RADAR that she founded to promote queer artists with affordable literary programming. (Disclosure: This reviewer once read at a RADAR event and had a lot of fun doing it.) Those of us who love her today love her for her steady stream of fearless, vivid writing about sex and love, working-class family life, bad jobs, city life, sexual abuse, substance abuse, and looking/feeling/being socially unacceptable. Tough-minded and naturally funny, charming and tattooed, Tea became both popular and respected—a bona fide literary figure—simply by writing about herself.
So why is she now, after having made it such an important aspect of her writing life, against memoir? Well, she isn’t, exactly. But as she writes from her now-sober, more settled life, she recognizes it for the dangerous occupation that it is—a betrayal of friendships and confidences, the desire for revenge always slipping around under the surface like a shark. To illustrate this, Tea recounts in Against Memoir’s title essay the time she performed an old story about “the bitch who stole [her] girlfriend” to a packed bar, only to discover that the woman who’d done the stealing years earlier was in the audience—and not for the first time. The other time Tea performed this piece in front of her, the woman went outside and kicked a bus shelter in anger and broke her foot. In the same essay, Tea compares the drive to write memoir to alcoholism—an addiction she has kicked, though she vows never to give up her memoir habit. She also refers to her profession interchangeably as “writing” and the compulsive behavioral condition “hypergraphia,” and it’s not entirely clear whether she’s kidding.

Though this book shows how Tea’s work has developed from straightforward memoir to a more nuanced form of self-reflexive cultural critique, memoir makes up about a third of it. The section “Writing & Life” is composed of the kind of stories she’s best known for: outrageous yarns about things like the Sister Spit reading tours she ran in the ’90s and the lousy part-time jobs she worked one summer as a teenager. But interestingly, her writing about art—the ostensibly critical pieces—are among the strongest in the book. When she writes about Eileen Myles’s lesbian classic, Chelsea Girls, or about Andy Warhol’s would-be killer Valerie Solanas and her SCUM Manifesto with tenderness and understanding, the electricity almost leaps off the page. “The City to a Young Girl,” a complex and affecting piece about the Trump presidency, a poem written by a teenage girl, and Tea’s own girlhood, is probably the apotheosis of Tea’s development as a nonfiction writer.
Of course, writing about other people and their ideas can be a powerful way of writing about yourself. With the long-form essay “HAGS in Your Face,” Tea gives us good old-fashioned journalism, reporting on the gang of hard-living gutter-punk women who called themselves the HAGS and were notorious to San Francisco’s larger gay community during the ’90s. Tea interviews several of the HAGS who fascinated her back then, and they tell her how they traveled in packs, scooping each other up from the “black hole” of “addiction, homophobia, family abandonment, gender discrimination, all of it.” With her portrait of the HAGS, she shows us how being forced to the fringes of society can damage people irreparably just as it can forge them into something beautiful and brand-new.


When Tea seems less sure of herself, she can lean too heavily on a tossed-off charm to gloss over her discomfort, like when she worries aloud that her “hetero sisters are not getting the most out of their vaginas.” But on the whole, this book, like all of her best writing, bristles with life and a fierce intellect. Her voice is as distinct as ever, and her ability to conjure something—an album cover, the feeling of a hangover—in just a few phrases, like Zorro (zip, zip, zip!) is still wonderfully intact.
The most delightful discovery—to me, anyway—is a version of a short, bright piece called “Pigeon Manifesto” that I have only ever seen in print as a Poems-for-All book the size and shape of a matchbook, put out in 2004 (the book credits it as a performance Tea gave in San Francisco that same year). Writing about herself and her fellow misfits as much as the maligned city birds, Tea says: “When you say to me, ‘I hate pigeons,’ I want to ask you who else do you hate. It makes me suspicious. …Pigeons…are chameleons, grey as the concrete they troll for scraps, at night they huddle and sing like cats. Their necks are glistening, iridescent as an oil-slick rainbow, they mate for life, and they fly.”