“The Son of A Certain Woman. You don’t have to have read Joyce to ‘get’ it. But it’s a touch more fun if you have.”

And that is because it is Wayne Johnston’s “Joyce book”.

Which one might take to mean that it’s about the Joyce family. (Primarily about Percy and his mother, Penelope, but also Medina Joyce, Penelope’s sister-in-law.)

But it’s actually an homage to James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is a retelling of the myth of Odysseus.

In Joyce’s retelling, Molly Bloom is Penelope, but in The Son of a Certain Woman, Penelope is Penelope.

Son Certain Woman Johnston

Doubleday – Random House, 2013

For those readers who have not yet made it through Ulysses, this might seem an indication that Wayne Johnston’s version will be more a straightforward retelling.

This might be true, but Penelope really isn’t simply Penelope, and the novel certainly challenges readers in other ways.

In an essay written for Hazlitt, the author describes his process in detail.

“I had to turn Ulysses on its head. And so was born Penelope Joyce—Penelope, in Homer’s Odyssey, is true to her long-absent husband, repelling a succession of suitors until her hero-husband makes his way home. My Penelope would be a lesbian who, while the father of her child, Percy, was away—his name would be Jim Joyce—would carry on affairs as dictated by her heart and her need for a monthly mortgage subsidy.”

For much of his young life, Percy believes that Jim Joyce left his mother without any explanation; she has, in his absence, patiently and determinedly raised her son, while his father was off sailing the open seas.

Percy believes this mythological account of events, unquestioningly, for years. And, when he learns of the creative genesis of this retelling, he declares his own propensity for spinning tales.

“My head was a buzzing, swarming tumult of salacious lies. I foresaw a day when I might myth myself to death.”

Once a victim of tale-spinning, Percy out-spins with his own tales; this is a story of transformation, even setting aside the Joyce-ness of it, but Johnston’s crafting is deliberate.

“The characters of Ulysses would, in my book, morph into each other at my whim, à la Finnegan’s Wake. Penelope would sometimes be Leopold Bloom, sometimes his wife Molly Bloom, sometimes a self-taught intellectual. Her son, the physically flawed Percy Joyce, would be a more down to earth genius than Stephen Dedalus, and he would ‘search’ throughout the book, not for his spiritual father, but for his flesh and blood, beautiful mother, whom he would fall in love with, and try unrelentingly to get into bed.”

This is likely the element of the story which will most trouble readers. The novel’s final scene is provocative, too (inspired by the thirty-page-long account of Molly Bloom’s *ahem*self-pleasuring in Ulysses), but Percy’s attraction to his mother is inescapable and unapologetic.

  “It seemed to me, at fourteen, that the only truly beautiful woman I would ever have the faintest hope of sleeping with was my mother. It was as simple as that. I was not goaded by any sort of neurosis or incest fetish to pursue her. She wasn’t just my best bet, she was my only bet.
But I know that it was not for these reasons that I pursued my mother. I pursued her because I was in love with her, body and soul.”

Percy’s hopelessness is rooted in his birthmark, which overtly sets him apart from the other children.

“The facial stain extended from my scalp to within about an inch of my Adam’s apple, which made it look as if every other inch of my torso must be thus discoloured, even though I have no other stains on it except a small one that has my belly button at the centre.”

One of these marks is broadcast, the other surrounds his original connection to Penelope, a literal mark of a join that Percy seeks to intensify despite social taboos and the general intolerance towards his person and his family in the community of St. John’s. But Percy reaches beyond this stain.

“If I couldn’t be, then maybe I could be with that, joined to it, a moving, breathing, panting part of it, even if only once, if only for a matter of minutes or seconds. In my world, in my circumscribed universe, she was the utmost of what I was denied.”

Percy is desperate for intimacy, desperate to act on his attraction to this “certain woman”. He has few opportunities to exert control, and his efforts to exploit the leverage he has with his mother are equal parts comic and tragic.

“I vowed that I would never take advantage of her love and concern for me. I believed it at the time. But I might as well have made that vow with my fingers crossed behind my back.”

The narrative exposition is largely in Percy’s head (and, because he has no friends, he spends a lot of time in solitary reflection) and always in his purview; as the years pass slowly, and Percy wallows in loneliness, the pace of the novel slows at times (although, in comparison with Ulysses, Johnston’s “Joyce book” appears abridged).

But his perspective on St. John’s is intricate and rich.

“I went to the window and noticed first the distant view – St. John’s, the part of it to the east of downtown, the brightly coloured houses of the Battery, Signal Hill topped by Cabot Tower, the / grey Atlantic whose whitecaps were lopping through the Narrows, causing the hull of a small outbound ship to rise and fall as though it was deadlocked with the current. I looked down at a sharper angle and saw, first, Bonaventure Avenue, and, second, our house, the red and green façade of 44, the leaf-strewn veranda, the massive Block out front.”

And there are great swathes of dialogue which are wholly entertaining. The exchanges between Penelope and her sister-in-law (also secret lover) Medina and the live-in schoolteacher (a boarder with benefits) are particularly fun to read.

And furthermore, for those who know the original myth and Joyce’s retelling, there are additional pleasures to be found herein.

“Ulysses takes place on June 16th, known world round as Bloomsday. Percy’s birthday would be June 24th, known Newfoundland-round as St. John’s Day. Because of his physical defect, Percy would be a social outcast, his a-sociality real, not a pose contrived out of haughtiness and spite like that of Stephen. But I would draw upon A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man when I felt like it, using Stephen as Joyce did, as a mouthpiece for ideas that would otherwise have no means of gaining entry to the book.”

Those who know Johnston’s propensity for adding new layers to old stories (histories: of politicians, millionaires and polar explorers, for instance) will not be surprised to find that this story had its genesis in the idea of another slant on events recorded elsewhere in a different voice.

“’Hamlet to my Gertrude.’
‘Penny,’ Medina sniffed. ‘You’re the only one here who knows what that means.’
‘Pardon my education.'”

From the lies that Percy tells to the lies that he is encouraged to believe, there is an undeniable love of tale-spinning and storytelling in The Son of a Certain Woman.

And, as Penelope observes: “Taking a reasonable tone with unreasonable people can be very wearisome. It’s the heretics against the lunatics. And I’m aware that, historically, the lunatics are way out in front.”

The Son of a Certain Woman: a novel for heretics and lunatics. (And readers of this year’s Giller longlist.)