Everything Mark Haddon writes points to young people. Like writing for them a series of funny adventures by three peculiar friends known as ‘Agent Z.’ Well, known only to themselves as the said agent, and as a trio of terrific pranksters to everybody else: from their parents and school teachers to us, readers always are set up for a good laugh. But do not get it wrong: no moralistic fables or just juvenile detectives in action. More like smart geekish kids in times where there were no tablets, internet, virtual pleasures for us all.
That and a strong sense of rebellion against what adults are, the tyranny that tries to subject them every day. Then it still might be time for your kids to read these books off the screen. Get them, for example, Agent Z and the Penguin from Mars, where Ben, Barney and Jenks face a bullish man.
Their sophisticated plans and absurd actions will just say loads of mostly one thing: imagination can beat threats and unfair treatment ... or intelligence beats stupidity, always. The younger ones at home will get the message, because Haddon talks to them from every single page, in terms and ways they can under- stand: no complicated images, no difficult spellings; conciseness is the mark of this British writer.
The same can be told about Haddon’s most celebrated work, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. In a peculiar story, the narrator and protagonist is a special teenager, Christopher, who describes himself as a ‘mathematician with some behavioural difficulties.’ His neighbour’s dog is killed, and the need to know why will trigger this mystery novel, with our ‘hero’ solving problems in unexpected ways (Haddon is an expert in twists) that will have you and everybody else laughing aloud.
Christopher—an incredibly smart guy but also having what some square people would call ‘an autistic disorder’—needs to understand reality in his own way. Logic and sense have different meanings in his universe. And that sets the apparently ordered and logical world of adults alight: the flames coming out of the book will not burn the readers, they will only illuminate a set of absurdities most people call manners, authority or honesty. The book will leave you wondering who is the crooked one here. Or, if you are a teenager with a passion for fairness and freedom, you will simply laugh while your mind quietly agrees.
So it can be a Penguin from Mars, practical jokes or a dead dog, Mark Haddon ushers readers into a new landscape, a view not always celebrated but ever present in literature: how is it that young people see this world. Most of the times, novels or stories, poems included, the author will take you there by simply describing reality as it is (or was) instead of what some moralistic morons say (or said) it must be.
Then Haddon will come to a new port in his last novel. Ambitious but still using the same direct effective style, The Porpoise will take you in the path of loss, abuse and danger. Sailing epochs, the stories contained in his new work still have a young person at the centre of it all (Angelica, a motherless, rich and fragile girl). But here another trip begins, one in which our failures as parents, as carers, as humans in sum, will be exposed in clarity. Haddon is not talking to younger people anymore, he is talking about them to those who are supposedly in charge of the world, and what he is saying is not nice.
There is more than one way of loss
Nothing hurts more than the dead, their departure and constant absence is a perennial pain for those left behind. But this somehow common sense of loss can unfold into a peculiar, dark scenario where Philippe, a widower, will shut himself and his daughter out from the world (shielded by a large fortune). The descriptions of a posh, unknown way of living (for most of us) will lie in a castle, cars, expensive clothing or travelling around at will in private planes and yachts.
At some point, the austerity of Mark Haddon’s style will set the mind of the reader free over these things. So, imagine yourself going through the pages of any gossip magazine (trends, fashion, socialites and dreamy holiday spots) but with the chance of scratching the images a little, just to find they smell of shit, and the people inside them are angelical in the way a serial killer is: with no empathy for humans or life.
There he is, a man so sad and selfish thus creating a private ‘reality’ in which he will be the master and giver. Angelica’s life of abuses, used by her father, will become everything the girl knows. But there are no sensual scenes or erotic passages here, the crime will be described in cold, the author will spend his pages describing the daily horror, the sad quiet girl and a man dehumanized by his own alienation (decadence, used to be the word) after a plane crash took his wife away from them.
That until a random visit shakes this order. A young man, brave if shallow, dares to present himself at Philippe’s home to see the girl everybody talks about, a beauty in isolation, kept from the rest of the world. He is no hero, though, and his courage will last just one night. A jealous father tries to kill him and he has to escape, hiding with friends in a boat called The Porpoise. Again, everything happens quickly, no intense adjectives (no passionate action scenes.) What matters is the feeling: Angelica’s despair, Philippe’s wicked jealousy or Darius’ fear, always looking over his shoulder to avoid being murdered. Haddon puts every element in front of you, what you make of them together is entirely up to you.
But there’s more than the contemporary life of a solitary girl in it. Because Mark Haddon, in the same way a kid moves the arms of a clock to ‘move in time,’ will offer more layers to his story.
Clinical, one is tempted to label this narration
Enters an older vessel with the same name of the one Darius uses to escape fate, a new young traveller from ancient times heading back home.
Pericles, prince of Tyro, after years away from his father’s kingdom has to deviate from his route and keep travelling: an assassin is after him, nobody really knowing why.
This is how another story of loss, and grievance begins, paralleling the first one. Here Pericles saves a city from famine and lives happy and falls in love, only to lose both at sea. He has a daughter too. But his actions and decisions seem to offer a different chain of events for Marina, abandoned by her father because he couldn’t murmur her name without the painful memory of her mom.
Sometimes Pericles and Marina will dominate the pages, sometimes will go back, if briefly, to that castle in the forest where a girl, exhausted by her father’s lust, has stopped talking and eating. The reading of this book can be now compared to a test on empathy: where Mark Haddon is a concise and cold narrator (of crimes and misdeeds, jealousy and hate) questions will arise in every section: Where do you stand in these matters and why? What would you do? Are you sure of your answers here?
Avoiding to answer, savouring the intrigue, you will keep reading till the end, only to discover what happens to a girl subjected to her father’s sick love or to another one in the hands of a bitter queen, mighty and cruel. You can learn this: fate is not an issue here, evil is.
You can finally look around, close the book and remember Mark Haddon is always writing about our little ones; from smart kids to misfits. Or in this intrigue where he uses layers of time, incest and sadness as keys to open the doors of our own darkness. Consider this: he is trying to express what these kids are, or suffer, in such a way that plots and epochs and gods are not important anymore; only their lives and the crimes committed against them. Finally, a curious reader will maybe ask why The Porpoise? Why this name? Two vessels in different times (though sailing the same sea) named after a small cetacean. The title of this book, of course, and yet indeed, why?