A review of El Dorado by Dorothy Porter

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

El Dorado
By Dorothy Porter
May 2007, 369pp, Paperback, $32.95

In The Guardian, author Michael Symmons Roberts calls the true verse novel a form of its own—fraught with difficulties: “the awkward child of successful parents, destined to disappoint both of them.” After writing her last verse novel Wild Surmise Dorothy Porter called it “an impossible juggling act of narrative and poetry.” Yet, it is one of the oldest and most enduring of literary forms, and Porter herself continues to work happily and successfully in the medium. I suspect that a reader looking at the fat exterior of Porter’s latest novel, El Dorado will either expect, if they aren’t already a fan, a long and complex narrative full of ghastly thick prose and scary lawyers. Others might know that this is not written in standard prose but rather verse, and might expect something more complex and slower going than the “average” novel (whatever that is). Both would be wrong. There are no winding pathways, nothing even remotely thick about the writing, and it is a much faster read than any thin novel I’ve come across this year. And yet this is indeed verse. Each of the poems which makes up the whole of this novel stands on its own. Each one is well written, with the intense denouement Porter has become famous for:

Does he dangerously
in sad rank fantasy
behind the dank walls
of solitude?

Who doesn’t?
Who doesn’t.

Especially in the thick
silent night
when your own futile life
sets on you
with the slow strokes
of a disembowelling knife. (20)

The structure forces the reader to take a breath or pause at the end of each piece, and then to read just one more before stopping. It’s quite a different reading experience than reading a novel. The white space between each poem has a role in the overall meaning, creating a silent narration between the author and reader.

Ostensibly, the story is about a serial killer who calls himself El Dorado. His victims are children—around 8 or 9, buried gently, with a gold mark on their heads. The promo says that the killer kills out of love instead of hate, but the truth is that the killer kills out of loneliness and psychotic fantasy. The story is as engrossing, chilling, and ultimately psychologically powerful as any thriller, but Porter’s poetry takes it a step further:

In the ice’s time
When the cold black water
will receive
and swallow us
leaving nothing
but a passing warm steam
to show briefly
where we had been. (10)

There are three key characters: Detective Inspector Bill Buchanan, his old school friend Cath, Imaginary Worlds Specialist Director returned to Australia from Hollywood, and the killer. Their relationships with one another are part of the action that drives the novel forward, and Porter is very clever in the way she links them. They are all part of the crimes that are committed, in one way or another, both culpable, and innocent.

Although the novel is fairly black, it isn’t draining. There is energy created in the frenetic dance between the three key characters, and in the way their poetic voices move towards, and away from one another. The voices shift, primarily between Cath and Bill, skipping the need for conjunctions and prose syntax, and go directly into the heart of what is troubling them as they search for the things that most people want: love, security, serenity in a situation that is anything but secure and serene. Both Cath and Bill have difficulties with the kinds of things that grown-ups deal with – long term relationships, stability, and in Bill’s case, parenting his teen-age daughter. Mingled with the murder mystery is a romance between Cath and Lily, a beautiful young snake charmer. As Cath experiences the pain and joy of new love, she tries to move forward, but her past is rapidly catching up with her as she begins to understand that neither Cath nor Bill have really matured, and that this is somehow related to the murders:
Is cute puppy-dinosaur Dino
a baited hook?

Like Emma’s copy
of Peter Pan

Suddenly Bill wants to chuck
in the nearest bin.

Instead he walks
into a bright toy shop –
a cornucopia of plastic fossils
for tragic grown-ups.(176-7)

The book isn’t without humour either. At one point El Dorado is on the verge of becoming “Melbourne’s most prominent poet”, and each of the poem’s have titles that are demonstrate a tiny hint of black tongue-in-cheek: eg “What can ail thee?” or “Clean and tidy.”

Like most of Porter’s work, El Dorado isn’t pretty, but it is full of an odd kind of beauty, that transcends the death and destruction that fills its pages. Once again, Porter succeeds in that impossible juggling act of narrative and poetry. Even for the most casual of reader, El Dorado reads easily as a fast paced, intense and psychologically satisfying thriller. For those who want more than simply a quick escape, El Dorado explores complex topics of childhood innocence and guilt; love and hatred; desire and psychosis with the kind of taut intensity that only poetry can provide. In the end, as beautiful as the fantasy is (Disneyworld/the city of gold/love unmangled by the reality of morning breath and old age), the children are real, their death is still a horrific loss. El Dorado’s world is a simply a fantasy that ends in death:

But when the ice takes
our young
we know
we will never have
or find our deluded footing/again.” (11)

This is a linguistically powerful novel, which is both internally effective and at the same time, greater than the sum of its parts.