Offbeat Unicorn

For those who like unicorns with sharp hooves and mystery

Trigger warning: This book has awful depictions of emotional and sexual abuse.  Also, probably don’t read this post until you’re possibly fifteen or older.

Genre: Postmodernism, apocalyptic fiction, Biblical adaptation, Southern Ontario Gothic

Age Range: 15+

Synopsis: A disorienting, brutal retelling of the Bible story about Noah’s Ark. Doctor Noah Noyes is happily terrorizing his wife, sons, and wives’ sons, when he receives a surprise visit from his old friend, Yahweh. A party trick gives Yahweh the idea of obliterating Creation with a flood. Although Noah obeys eagerly, Mrs. Noyes and her cat Mottyl must scramble to find a way to survive. A dainty, peaceful unicorn is brutally hurt in Noah’s attempt to dominate his wife and progeny…one incident in a string of violence and an ambivalent ending. The one uplifting thing is possibly the surprise appearance of Lucifer in female guise. (Yeah, that’s scraping the barrel…)

I wonder whether the intense power of this novel is limited to “patriarchy – BAD. VERY BAD.” Does it offer any hope? At the very least, this book makes me realize how our society really has evolved in its representation of gender since 1984.

Still interested? Find the book here.

Analysis: Coming off the last two weeks’ posts about unicorns and desire and unicorns and seduction, Not Wanted on the Voyage focuses on the dark side of the maiden-unicorn narrative. In this iteration, the unicorn – a benign, shy animal with its own life and consciousness – is brutally reduced to a symbol of forceful masculinity.

The Unicorn appears only a few times, but he is crucial to the confrontation between Noah and Mrs. Noyes. Noah and Mrs. Noyes’s conflict is channeled through their young, dangerously naïve son, Japeth, and Japeth’s even younger, unwilling wife Emma. Yet, before the Unicorn becomes an object of human violence, Findley portrays the Unicorn through the eyes of other animals.

The Unicorn first appears in an encounter with one of the novel’s main focalizers, Mrs. Noyes’s cat, Mottyl. Findley masterfully portrays a cat’s-eye view of the Flood, wherein Mottyl’s instinctual “whispers” battle with learned, conscious knowledge about the world. Mottyl’s encounter with the Unicorn subconsciously creates an opposition between this mythic animal and Noah as a legendary man.

In contrast to Noah, the Unicorn provides possibly the only positive representation of masculinity in the whole book. Where Noah shouts, the unicorn speaks in “a mere, hoarse whisper” (52). Noah is big, the unicorn is “not more than fifteen inches” in length, with his horn making up “a good six inches” (52). He’s the size of a small dog, while Noah takes up more than his fair share of space. Whereas Noah walls off the orchard as his own special place and makes sure that no one but himself has privacy, the Unicorn shuffles quietly through the undergrowth of a forest teeming with life, listening and advising Mottyl the cat when he is “feeling most unsafe.” Whereas Noah commands his family to obey and crushes any self-doubt, the unicorn has a “nervous habit of talking to himself” (52). Unlike Noah (and Yahweh), the arch-patriarchs, the Unicorn serves his Lady and seems to have a quiet, loving relationship. Whereas Noah demands that Mrs. Noyes (and his daughters in law) serve his increasingly gross appetites, the unicorn saves the choicest flowers for his mate. She, in turn, pines away without him. IMG_20190521_110920992.jpg

Indeed, whereas Noah grasps at recreating Yahweh’s punitive authority, the Unicorn and the Lady’s behaviour in the forest seems to mimic that of a benign god and goddess amongst the animals. Some creatures believe that “the Unicorn and The Lady were only an idea,” yet the creatures are merely reclusive and observant (53). Because of the Unicorn’s peaceable nature and rarity, places it likes to feed have the “atmosphere almost of holy places” or “sanctuaries” (54). Unlike the combative humans, the forest animals seem to develop a consensus about protecting and venerating a pair of vulnerable creatures.

Unfortunately for the Unicorn, much of Not Wanted on the Journey is about Dr. Noyes’s ambition to subjugate humans, animals, and nature to his will. 

Mottyl the cat and the unicorn both end up on Noah’s Ark, but the Unicorn’s benign powers dwindle after he has been separated from his forest domain. When Mottyl builds her secret kittening nest above his cage (223), their proximity to each other initially seems to bring Mottyl luck…she has lost all her previous litters to Noah’s grim scientific experiments. But the luck runs out for both sets of creatures. One of Mottyl’s male kittens (like Noah’s son Japeth) becomes curious and ventures out into a world of violent aggressions he cannot protect himself against. Like Japeth, the kitten seems to be destroyed by his own father.

The disappearance of Mottyl’s kitten occurs concurrently with Japeth falling completely under the sway of his father, which leads to the Unicorn and Emma’s joint violation.

Which leads me to consider the book’s portrayal of how young men are socialized into toxic masculinity.

Noah’s three sons are equally uninspiring. Shem is a greedy ox and barely sentient. Ham isn’t even really a character, but an excuse for Findley to introduce his much more interesting wife, Lucy. Though the middle brother, Japeth, is full of life, he is an object lesson in masculine fragility. An excursion that begins as an effort to gain knowledge about sexuality ends with Japeth’s capture (and near death) at the hands of desperate cannibal-bandits. At the end of his attempted initiation into manhood, Japeth is no less knowing about love but becomes confirmed in his conviction that the only way he can exist in the world is through violence.

I wonder how much sympathy we are meant to have for Japeth. He’s completely without guidance about sex, love, and emotional intimacy.  Early on, Findley describes Japeth’s unmoored hunger to know:

“He was curious, with the dangerous, innocent curiosity of the young, to discover what might be meant by the Rites of Baal – and how a feather tickler might be useful in his vain attempts on Emma’s virtue. What was the ‘two-tongued kiss,’ for instance, of which his friends spoke so knowingly? … These, of course, were not questions you could ask of a father like Noah or a brother like Shem. And Ham was innocent as the proverbial babe. As for Japeth’s hunting friends, they would have been merciless with their laughter and derision. … From Noah, all he had got was ‘obey nature’s urgings and do nothing perverted!’ Japeth did not even know what ‘perverted’ meant.” (76-77)

You get the sense that there’s nothing specifically wrong with Japeth…at this point. He’s a healthy young animal and had Findley chosen to write him a partner who was knowing, masterful, and generous, things might end up happily. But this is Timothy Findley we’re talking about. No one’s going to be okay.

Noah’s physical and emotional violence against Japeth’s mother provides the only script for him to follow. His parents have chosen Emma as his wife, a homesick, barely pubescent girl several years his junior. Emma is not interested in sex generally or with him in particular. She misses her dog and her sister and she’s constantly in tears. Frustration on one side, fear on the other.

Instead of trying to bring the young people to any understanding, Noah chooses to use force. The object of forcing Emma’s sexual violation is the Unicorn, who does not consent, but who is powerless. After the act, (which occurs in the gaps between paragraphs), the Unicorn is “very nearly unconscious” and its voice “could not be heard by human hears” (253). Perhaps this is because the humans in the room are incapable of sympathy and mercy. When faced with the violation of his wife, Japeth (who has been ignorant of the proceedings) turns his rage not on his father or brother, but on the Unicorn. Noah, in turn, transforms the Unicorn’s murder and Emma’s “mutilation” into a “ritual sacrifice” (260): the horn must be venerated “by the two young people in remembrance of the Holy Beast whose horn facilitates the consummation of their marriage. And whose Holy life has been sacrificed so that…in order that…” (260). Perhaps Noah’s faltering inability to use metaphor or elevate violence into ritual is the only consolation Findley allows readers. The horror is left to stand…for a moment…because Noah’s too much of an egoist to contemplate his own depravity.

The death of the unicorn means that the world left to the humans is “a place without magic” (272). It’s also a place without the prospect of companionate love between the sexes. The violation of the unicorn leads to the death of his Lady, who fades away without him.

But the cat, Mottyl, survives. Mrs. Noyes survives. In the absence of romantic love or even the love between parent and child, these two old women, one human, one animal, provide each other companionship…even as masculine terror reigns.


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