The Son of a Certain Woman by Wayne Johnston rests on a table in my living room where it’s been for a week now. Wedged beneath it is a spiral bound notebook and an assortment of loose papers bearing crisscrossed mindmaps, diagrams, lists and jot notes. I thought I would use them to create a sunny bit of stuff to celebrate the greatness of this book. It is in fact a great book.
The challenge I face is how to narrow the field of discussion.
I’ve seen movies in the theatre where at the end, the credits begin the role, and the audience remains in their seats. No one speaks. We don’t dart out of the theatre and into the light as is customary because they need time to digest what we’ve have seen.
This is how I felt upon finishing The Son of a Certain Woman. I needed to let the book settle in.
Frank statements made in the first paragraph caused me to say, “Oh my,” and draw my hand to my throat in a gesture of Victorian unease. But I read on, accepting Percy as a product of nature and nurture, a product of physiology and questionable parenting.
Then, I read the crescendo of the final chapter and thought to myself, that must have been uncomfortable to write. These explicit events must serve something larger in the story, something beyond making the reader gasp.
I should note that until I finished researching, I refrained from reading The Son of a Certain Woman reviews and interviews with Wayne Johnston. I do savour the joy of discovery.
The name “Medina” is unusual, and I wondered about its significance. When I googled “Medina”, I uncovered a link to Carmelo Medina Casado from The University of Jaén, Spain , author of Legal Prudery: The Case of Ulysses. The author being censored for writing obscenities and blasphemy — James Joyce. Nontraditional families and lifestyles were being censored and declared obscene in The Son of a Certain Woman. Penelope and Medina live in fear that their relationship will be discovered and they’ll be institutionalized by the law and publically condemned by the Church.
Jim Joyce is the biological father of Percy Joyce, absentee fiancé to Penelope Joyce and brother to Medina Joyce. Did Johnston choose this character’s name as a nod to a controversial author? I soon realized, there was more than a nod.
James Joyce (February 2, 1882 – January 13, 1941) was a controversial Irish author and poet. Like Percy, he was notably intelligent and educated in Catholic schools. School records show that he was punished, on several occasions, for vulgar language, as was Percy. In adulthood, he denounced organized religion, referring to it as repressive. He waged war on the Church through his literature. Joyce even went so far as to refuse his dying mother’s request that he confess his sins and kneel at her bedside. If his opposition to religion reminds you of Penelope, you aren’t alone. Joyce also advocated the affair of the eye, the thrill of voyeurism that so captivates young Percy.
Where does the name Penelope fit into this string of connections? In his book Ulysses, Joyce’s version of The Odyssey, the last chapter is called Episode 18, Penelope. In The Odyssey by Homer, Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, is pursued by several suitors in his absence, much the same as Penelope Joyce.
Joyce wrote about oedipal relationships and love triangles. In The Son of a Certain Woman, there is a traditional love triangle between Penelope, Pops, and Medina. Percy’s rival for Penelope’s affection is Medina, his mother’s true love interest. The real life object of Joyce’s affections was Nora Barnacle. Like Medina, she was not a learned woman but she was loyal to the end.
What about Pops? James Joyce and his wife, Nora, found themselves in desperate financial straits in Paris. They had two children and no means to support themselves. Joyce called on his brother, Stanislaus, who came to live with them. Stanislaus was a consistent breadwinner, who not only funded the family, but could be manipulated into babysitting the Joyce children. This is sounding a bit familiar, isn’t it?
And so I’ve learned that Ulysses is unto Wayne Johnston as The Odyssey was unto James Joyce. I could have learned this inside of five minutes with the click of a mouse and a search of the web, but what would have been the fun in that?
Thank you, Mr. Johnston, for alerting me to the word autodidact. Knowledge has value regardless of how it is acquired. I feel a bit more clever today and will, from here on, dispense of the term “self taught”.
Other links of interest:
James Joyce reading an excerpt from Ulysses: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZhW0TrzWGmI#t=21
Wayne Johnston writes about Ulysses connection in Hazlit : http://www.randomhouse.ca/hazlitt/feature/odyssey-novel-dublin-joyce-wayne-johnstons-st-johns
Are you curious about Brother McHugh? Click here to discover his James Joyce connection: http://jamesjoyce.ie/tag/rolad-mchugh/
Please continue the conversation. Leave a comment.
January 3, 2014 at 3:10 pm
I learned autodidact from the novel, too!
January 3, 2014 at 4:32 pm
It’s not a word that rolls easily off the tongue, is it? I’m waiting for my big chance to spring “autodidact” in a conversation, but it hasn’t happened yet:)