Book Review: The Porpoise by Mark Haddon

Do you enjoy weird novels, the kind that don’t have a linear narrative, or complex character development to speak of, or even necessarily a discernible theme?

At this point, maybe you are wondering, what on earth is left without those? In the case of Mark Haddon’s The Porpoise, I’d suggest atmosphere and a certain stylistic swagger. Think of someone who can pull off a top hat and tails in the 21st century, or a full ball gown on the NYC subway. Anachronism that commands attention without seeming to seek it. If I don’t seem to be making sense, well, either you will enjoy this novel for what it is, or you might end up wanting to throw it across a room. I fell into the former, personally. Maybe because I’ve grown mentally drained from the relentless judgment and condescension of so many myth retellings, I found it diverting to simply sink into this bizarre, alien world and walk around in it.

The Porpoise seems to be a retelling of (or inspired by) an ancient novella about one Apollonius of Tyre, a fellow who is persecuted and compelled to wander after uncovering a king’s incestuous relationship with his daughter. It reminded me of ancient Greek prose narratives like Daphnis and Chloe and Callirhoe, themselves filled with absurd scenarios, melodrama, improbability while also being quite affecting and poignant in what they signify.

Tell me: What is the weirdest novel that you have enjoyed, even if you can’t understand why you loved it?

4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Porpoise by Mark Haddon

  1. I love how you just embraced the weirdness of this book – and I love your question at the end!

    I often enjoy a weird story and am a fan of things like Surrealism, so I’ve read my share of weird books, but your question has got me thinking – as your questions so often do.

    I think that for me, “weird” books fall into at least three categories:

    1. A story whose bizarre details/the author’s particular choices leave me thinking “Wtf did I just read?” The novel I read most recently that falls into this category is “Towering” by Alex Flinn (whom I will always admire for her book “Beastly”, one of my favorite “Beauty and the Beast” retellings). A retelling of “Rapunzel”, “Towering” involves a Gothic ghost story, a drug ring, and a denouement that includes a fight scene involving plumbing and a secret cave full of magical plants.

    2. A story whose structure is fragmented or writing is deliberately unclear. I often find these books to be beautiful, even so – and, like you with “The Porpoise”, I usually gladly fall into them. The most beautiful, weird, and wonderful of these that I’ve read is “Mason & Dixon” by Thomas Pynchon.

    3. A story that might be told in a straightforward way but includes deliberately strange and often surreal elements, sort of walking the line between Surrealism and sci-fi/fantasy. One of my favorite French novels falls into this category: “L’Écume des jours” (“Froth on the Daydream”, sometimes translated as “Mood Indigo”) by Boris Vian. It’s a love story about a young couple who get married and what happens next – but it’s crammed with strange details including gadgets, a mysterious and lethal water lily, jazz, a parody of Jean-Paul Sartre, and a mouse. As weird as it sounds, it’s a classic of 20th century French literature because it’s a beautiful and profound book about illness, love, and death. I actually cried at the end!

    Thanks again for this question, which I spent the morning thinking of as I ran rather mundane errands!

    1. Oh, I just love these categories—so helpful and interesting to think about! I generally appreciate books in category 2 the most, I think. The King Must Die by Mary Renault is one example that absolutely captivated me. But I do also adore books that straddle the surreal/sci-fi line!

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