Max Porter: Grief is the Thing with Feathers

Porter, Max (2015), Grief is the thing with feathers, Faber and Faber
ISBN 978-0-571-32376-0

grief1When you don’t have a lot of time to read for entertainment, you can get the impression that you can’t really be surprised anymore. At least this is how it feels to me. I pick up books that turn up in my usual circles of reading and recommendation. That’s why so many of my recent reviews start by referring back to other recent reviews. And then there’s books like this one. Mentioned on Twitter by a Bishop scholar I admire, I picked it up on a whim, without any expectations. There was a Dickinsonian title with a twist, and a pretty cover and that was it. I had never heard of Max Porter before or the book (nor have I looked him up in the meantime) . And yet – what a tremendous, what an enormous achievement this little book turned out to be. A strange, odd, moving novel(la) that moves between genres, evoking Ted Hughes implicitly and explicitly, an overwhelming book that deals with the grief of a husband that lost his wife, of two boys that lost their mother. I didn’t read any reviews or interviews regarding Porter’s book. I don’t know whether the fictional tale in its pages is powered in any way by real, extratextual grief, but I don’t really care. This book is intense and emotional. It makes me feel, palpably, its narrator’s grief, it’s a strangely effective way to make its readers feel the topsy-turvy world that a family finds itself in once the mother/wife suddenly dies. Routines and reality are upended, people have to relearn normal behavior. In order to achieve that, Max Porter introduces a mystical beast, Crow. It’s hard to think what else one might expect from Max Porter in the future because this is such a strange book, but this is excellent, from the first to the last page. Read it at your earliest convenience.

yooslettersCrow isn’t just any crow. Porter’s protagonist is a Ted Hughes scholar (and, in modern parlance, a Hughes ‘fanboy’), at work on a book unenticingly called Ted Hughes’ “Crow” on the Couch: A Wild Analysis, and it’s immediately obvious that Crow, “a sweet furry stink of just-beyond-edible food, and moss, and leather, and yeast” is the same mythical bird that populates some of Hughes’ best poems. This is interesting, as it opens inquiries into questions of autobiography, myth and literature. Ted Hughes remained interested in Crow even when he stopped writing poems about him, “pulled back onto the autobiographical level,” as he said in a late letter to Keith Sagar, and connected Crow to various myths and literary characters, among which King Lear provides a strange but interesting tangent for the book. But don’t let these remarks fool you. Grief is the thing with feathers is no mere academic exercise: its effect is powerful and immediate. The fact that it’s fiction may have helped it to bridge the gap between providing an aesthetically interesting text and a moving discussion of grief. I had recently started reading the memoirs of John W. Evans, a (sorta, kinda) acquaintance, who lost his wife in a terrible accident in the Romanian mountains and had to abandon her. It’s awful, and I decided not to review it here. Writing about grief is hard. Writing about various extreme emotions, yes, but grief is particularly strange. Evans chose to basically polish a bunch of essays he wrote for his therapist into book form. They deal with his guilt, with how wonderful his wife was, how unhappy he feels now. Except for the bizarreness of the accident itself, there’s nothing noteworthy about the writing or form of the book, and wading through a middle aged teacher’s self pity gets a bit tiring after a hundred pages. Self pity in exceptionally mediocre prose is just hard to take. The thing is, I’m sure I couldn’t do any better. It’s a genuinely difficult task. Even the great ones struggle. In his letters Hughes admits again and again to the overwhelming demands of writing with grief in mind.

yoospoemsThe oddness of the story and its impactful nature may well be due to the non-autobiographical nature of the book. Not all books on grief are as flat as the aforementioned memoir. Books like Sharon Olds’ recently published collection Stag’s Leap, or Hughes’ own late work (for example Birthday Letters) can be quite effective, not to mention such extraordinary efforts as James Merrill’s late elegies to dead friends. But few people have the talent and wherewithal to write as powerfully and directly of grief without sacrificing some aesthetic appeal. Sharon Olds, discussing her book, described the process of its writing as “[j]ust being an ordinary observer and liver and feeler and letting the experience get through you onto the notebook with the pen, through the arm, out of the body, onto the page, without distortion.” It is a not entirely felicitous end point for the long but not lovely tradition of confessional poetry that started with careful and formally accomplished poets like Lowell, Berryman and Plath and ends today in such platitudes about writing “without distortion,” as if that was a way to frame any kind of utterance, much less poetry. It is, I think, these contemporary readings of autobiographical writing which for many scholars complicate the reading of mid-20th century ‘confessional’ poetry. A recent, very good study of Berryman spends a whole chapter clearing its author of the apparently heinous accusation of confessionalism. Max Porter’s decision to use Ted Hughes’ Crow as the mythology driving his book is interesting in this light, giving Hughes frequent opposition to confessionalism which he “despised.” At some point, during the late 1970s, I think, he asked Keith Sagar to write a book on him “as if nothing at all were known about me personally – as if my name was a pseudonym.” As Heather Clark points out, Hughes advocated the use of masks and “Crow may have been Hughes’ own ‘mask’.”

grief3The Dad of the book and his two boys fill their days with clear and palpable detail – May Porter’s book is dedicated to the stink and rub and ordinariness of everyday life, refracted through the demands of grief and loss. The figure of the Dad doesn’t seem quite anchored in the daily life of the family. His disappearance becomes threat and nightmare to the boys, and meanwhile, Crow, of the dark world view, and the harsh speech, picks up the educational slack. His influence becomes most obvious in the way the mother’s death quicky turns into a kind of myth. It appears as if the boys and the book itself are working through what critic Jonathan Ellis (in an essay on Keats, Bishop and Hughes) described as the feeling of doing something illegal: “Talking to the dead as if they were alive feels ‘illegal’ because of the contemporary taboo that forbids prolonged mourning.” The boys’ parts of the narration are mostly told in hindsight. They are stories that are “mostly true” and telling the truth is a way to “be nice to Dad.” Meanwhile, the Dad does his own part in shaping truth – he is very selective about which parts of his wife’s life he wants to remember, and that selection does not include his wife’s death. Crow, in his primitive, feathered (ir)reality is a way to hold the family together, to keep enduring grief instead of breaking apart. The boys grow up to become dads themselves we learn and Crow becomes part of family mythology. Max Porter does an impressive job of translating grief both into this mythical, literary figure of Crow, and into minute, convincing details. Such as when Dad tells us about how her absence affects his life, his perception of his surroundings: “She won’t ever use (make-up, tumeric, hairbrush, thesaurus). She will never finish (Patricia Highsmith’s novel, peanut butter, lip balm).” Meanwhile, the boys have their own way of making grief part of daily life: “We pissed on the seat. never shut drawers. We did those things to miss her, to keep wanting her.” Due to the compressed nature of his narrative, Porter picks events that are resonant with physicality and meaning, often to the point of overdetermining some chapters/poems in the book, such as when the boys admit that they have lied about their mother’s death to schoolmates. When Akhil Sharma had his protagonist lie about his brother’s accident, it was part of a larger theme of truthtelling, of assimilation, of storytelling as part of identity formation. With Max Porter, what we get is boys telling schoolmates that they killed their mother, a lie that is so rich in associations that it’s bound to overload the short, less than 10 sentences long chapter this lie is in.

dickonsonA chapter that ends with their mother giving them permission. Because of course, the book isn’t rich enough without the dead mother appearing to all its characters (but unlike Crow, this is not a shared hallucination). To refer back to Ellis, what we see enacted is “the belief that the dead person remains here […] not as object, as ashes or body, but as active subject, living, speaking, writing.” So what we have is a book that is a haunted house in itself or rather – to speak with Emily Dickinson, “a house that tries to be haunted.” Maybe that’s a way to describe Porter’s method: he’s offering us a structure with multiple ways to fill it with artificial, spectral life. And his success: that he did it in such a sometimes heavy handed way without crushing the life within it, without making it a pale exercise. There is a way to read the whole book as a long, emotional comment on Ted Hughes’ work. Ted Hughes who lost his wife, Sylvia Plath, who left behind two children (though not two boys). Plath haunted the life of Hughes and her children, much like the absent mother in the book haunts the family here. There are lines here that correspond to Hughes, some poems appear in form and structure to refer to Hughes’ work, and the choice of Crow itself, as I said earlier, has significance in the context of grief and death. Even as outlandish a detail as hallucinations of the dead mother have echoes in Hughes. He wrote, for example, in anotebook entry, that he “[d]reamed as if all night Sylvia had been brought back to life.” It’s tempting, but not feasible to make a list of all the references, the sheer overwhelming Hughesness of the whole text. It adds an interesting richness – given the connection between Crow and the historical myth of King Lear, as detailed by Hughes himself, I feel that the father, in some of his guises and absences turns not into Lear but into Edgar, or rather Poor Tom.

DSC_1587The title – and the books epigraph, finally, are not taken from Hughes at all. The title is a play on Emily Dickinson’s most famous line (“Hope is the thing with feathers”) and the epigraph is simply a complete (short) poem. This is such an interesting choice, since Hughes has, from the 70s on, been the subject of attacks by readers of Plath and feminists in general, and he’s never been particularly gracious about it. Porter’s protagonist is not just a man, but one that lacks the capacity to be critical of Hughes. His book, when it appears, receives a write-up in the TLS, and it’s praised as a “delight to true fans of [Hughes and his poems].” So Dickinson is interesting here. Frequently, literary reception will read Hughes as cerebral and distant and Plath as emotional, following tired gendered lines. The divide between intellectual poetry and confessionalism is often an either/or situation, and female poets draw ire and censure whatever side of the divide they are said to fall on. Susan Howe’s inspired book on Dickinson, My Emily Dickinson, did much, when it appeared in the 1980s to re-center the image of Dickinson as a poet who is direct and personal, but also highly intellectual. Contrary to the image of the spinster who writes introspective, hermetic poetry in her chamber, Howe showed conclusively that Dickinson was a brilliant reader first of all, of Dickens, Browning, Barrett, Brontë and others, and that her work answers earlier works of literature. Similarly, in an essay also from the 1980s, Nancy Walker points out how Dickinson used her letters to toy with a persona, she “consistently used the strategy of roles to explore her relation to the world. Her letters as well as her poems display a wide variety of tones and voices“ and “[i]n her letters, as in her poetry, writing is a form of art that can conceal, not reveal.”

grief 2This may all just be a coincidence, and Max Porter may have chosen the title for other reasons, just toying with the average reader’s knowledge of the Dickinson line to create intrigue, but Dickinson works as a reference for many of the techniques of voice and storytelling that Porter’s book rests on. Yet, ultimately, it’s not necessary to know Hughes to enjoy the book or to do some kind of literary speculation. The book works extremely well as a moving text about grief and loss. It’s not just the ultimate loss either. Passages like this one, describing a short lived relationship that Dad engages in

She was soft and pretty and her naked body was dissimilar to my wife’s and her breath smelt of melon. But we were on the sofa my wife bought, drinking wine from glasses my wife was given, beneath the painting my wife painted, in the flat where my wife died.

will resonate with people who put a long relationship or a marriage behind them, as well. And yet, for all the praise I have for the book, it’s clearly someone’s debut; it’s too much and too little all at once. It’s too smug and clever, and sometimes not intelligent enough. And I can see all these things while absolutely loving this book. It’s one of my favorite books that I’ve reviewed this year and I’ve reviewed a lot of good books. I don’t know what’s next for Max Porter and his prodigious talent, but I’m looking forward to it. If he can improve on Grief is the thing with feathers, we are in for some great stuff.

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Akhil Sharma: Family Life

Sharma, Akhil (2014), Family Life, Faber and Faber
ISBN 978-0-571-31426-3

DSC_1513I have an endless fascination for immigrant narratives. It’s probably easily one of my favorite genres – because on the one hand I can relate, and on the other hand, in my experience, as pointed out here, they are frequently filled with more urgency and interest than other genres. There’s something at stake – questions of identity, loss, grief, of cultural conflicts and of understanding are all over those books. And when they are written honestly, i.e. not with an eye on easily digested spectacle, they rarely fail to produce an interesting book, regardless of the author’s level of talent. Let’s face it, not every writer is Salman Rushdie. Not even Salman Rushdie is “Salman Rushdie” all of the time. The sorry second half of Ground Beneath Her Feet is surely proof of the way that migrant and immigrant narratives can fail even when written by a masterful writer. So when Akhil Sharma’s sophomore novel Family Life was published to great fanfare last year, and reviews pointed out the straightforward writing and the talent of the author, I was greatly intrigued. A novel 13 years in the making, the followup to a critically acclaimed and prizewinning novel, surely this would not disappoint. And ultimately it didn’t. Is it the stone cold masterpiece that I half expected it to be? It’s not, but 13 years of intense labor and revision have produced a carefully composed, well balanced, smart book about growing up as an Indian immigrant in the US. This Bildungsroman setup is framed in a harsh story of family drama and suffering, as brain damage and alcoholism take a toll on a family that doesn’t appear to be one of Tolstoy’s dull happy families in the first place. With great judiciousness and enormous skill, Sharma evades the traps of writing his kind of story. Nothing in the story really appeals to your pity, to your empathy in a cheap way. The author could have played up and detailed the juicy details of his family’s bad luck, but instead he opted for a cerebral and controlled novel that is frequently elegant and always intelligent. I didn’t love it, but the author’s enormous skill is undeniable. They say that genius is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration (and by “they” I mean that’s what I vaguely remember reading somewhere) and if that’s true, Sharma’s genius skews more 99% to 1%, but there is very little I admire more than well executed literary craftsmanship. Family Life is a well crafted, well considered novel about childhood, immigration, illness and fear. It’s probably worth your time.

DSC_1515Despite the fascination I declared in the first sentence of this review, I have actually been slacking in reading books of this kind. Especially the immigration narratives by writers from India or Pakistan have been impatiently sitting on my shelf, including the last two books by Jhumpa Lahiri, a writer I generally admire, if more for her stories than her novel. Short stories is the medium in which I remember reading – a long time ago- other narratives about Indian immigrants to the anglophone west. Rohinton Mistry’s severely underrated short story collection Tales from Firozsha Baag and especially the story “Swimming Lessons” also come to mind. “Swimming Lessons” has been on my mind while reading Sharma’s book in part because of the centrality of the swimming pool to the events in Family Life. Ultimately, comparing it to other Indian immigration narratives wasn’t the most natural connection my brain offered while reading (and partially rereading) the book. Instead, I kept thinking about Henry Roth’s Call it Sleep. I have probably repeatedly expressed my deep admiration and love for Roth’s debut, which ranks among the best books I have ever read – and one of the best books I’m ever likely to read. If Sharma is 99% perspiration, Roth reads as if he was 99% inspiration; if Sharma casts a doubting and mildly satirical eye on his culture’s religious inclinations, Roth fully embraces and struggles with his culture’s religion. None of this diminishes what I felt were strong similarities between the Jewish immigrant Roth and Sharma’s Indian immigrants, similarities so strong that I can’t help but feel an intentional bond. But while family dynamics and other details (both children experience a kind of unusual epiphany, for example) provide interesting correspondences, I was most interested in the way Roth and Sharma handle the linguistic and epistemological challenges of immigration and how learning is complicated by the interaction with other children. The details differ, but in the way Sharma’s protagonist tries to strike up a friendship with local boys, and in David’s ill-fated connection to Leo in Call it Sleep, I saw additional similarities. Look, I’ll admit that the connection is mostly in my head, and in large part due to me not remembering enough immigration narratives. The basic formula of the Bildungsroman genre, with or without immigration, is strong enough to find all kinds of barely plausible connections. What about the relationship between father and son that Roth and Sharma share? Maybe they are both connected to other classics in the genre like The Way of all Flesh and its powerful take on that relationship?

DSC_1517Ultimately, Sharma’s craftsmanship means that while his novel rings in many elements of the genre, and connects them competently, the book doesn’t go out of its way to establish intertextuality, except in a very strange and interesting passage that I’ll mention in a moment. These comparisons, fun though they may be (or not), mostly help readers like me to figure out the way the book is positioned within its genre context. And much of that positioning is done not by similarities, but by contrasts. The main contrast between Call it Sleep and Family Life is probably the intensity of Roth’s writing and the clarity of Sharma’s perceptions. Roth’s book is not an analysis of the immigrant’s life, the epiphanies under the influence of electricity are not clinically analysed and described. Instead, we are cast into the roiling river of an intense life. Not so with Sharma. While the events of the eponymous “Family Life” are tragic and cruel, Sharma has taken great care of not allowing his prose to be caught up in the emotions of the events. The book is narrated by Ajaj Mishra, an Indian boy, who, at the age of 8, moves to the US from Delhi. His family consists of an older brother named Birju, and his parents. His father has found a job in the US and the family follows him as soon as they can. Once arrived, both boys start showing academic promise, but the older brother, one day, jumps into a swimming pool, misjudging the depth, and hits his head on the bottom tile. As a result of having been without oxygen for too long, Mishra’s brother falls into a coma first and when he wakes up, it’s with severe brain damage. From that point on, the whole family life is centered around taking care of Birju. Whether at a nursing home or in their own home, whether it’s figuring out the right treatment or letting religious nuts do their snake oil salespitches at the bed of the poor boy who can neither speak nor really understand language. Mishra’s social life is similarly dominated by his brother’s unspoken demands, but he never really indulges in showing how it affects him emotionally, how hard it is for him to deal with them. The same is true, sort of for his father’s alcoholism, but there the embargo on describing the narrator’s misery is lightly lifted.

If you're going to read only one Mistry novel, make it this one. A genuine masterpiece.

If you’re going to read only one Mistry novel, make it this one. A genuine masterpiece.

And yet, Mishra isn’t wholly silent on the issue. The distancing effect is one that Sharma achieves through his clever prose. He makes sure his words don’t escape his grasp and that his story is always well tempered. One way he does it is through severely stripped down language. At first I assumed that Sharma was intent on mimicking an 8 year old’s level of language, but he never adapts the writing to reflect Mishra’s growing education. Plus, the book isn’t written from the 8 year old’s point of view. The first chapter sets in after the father’s retirement and then loops back to the time when the family resolved to leave Delhi. With the smaller vocabulary also come long and circuitous descriptions. They always seem just a smidgen too long in a very precise way – a sign that these descriptions are not stylistic faults but choices. It’s a hard to describe impression. Take this sentence.

“We have gotten our airplane tickets, nanaji,” Birju said.
Hearing this I wished I had said it so that then I would be the one bringing the news

Another tool that Sharma employs are repetitions of similar phrases within the same short paragraph. After a while I started marking them down in the book. “This frugality meant…” is followed two sentences later by “This close engagement with things meant…”. The two sentences in the middle both offer an example, and both sentences start with “When…”. This structural repetition happens again and again. It’s an excellent tool to take out drama and excitement out of the book, and replace it with sober empathy. We like all the characters in the book, we are amused by their stories and we are sad about things that happen, but never do we genuinely suffer with or for them. This is by design. Short, declarative sentences abound (“It occurred to me that my mother was taking Mr. Mehta seriously. This surprised me.”) and longer sentences often fall prey to the phrase repetitions I mentioned. But interestingly, the simplicity, and slowness of delivery doesn’t have an exclusively calming effect.

DSC_1514Early in the book, the author offers us an unusual paragraph. It describes his protagonist’s confusion upon being placed in his new school. The floors all look the same and the dang white students all look the same. Mishra keeps getting lost and after a few months his fear of never finding his way out of this maze of a school is so strong that he doesn’t go to the toilet any more, scared of never finding back. Unusually for this book, it’s a tension filled paragraph that builds from a description of the situation to the almost absurd sounding fear with which it ends. There’s so much energy in it, and the school-as-gothic-mansion idea is extraordinarily effective, but then it ends and the author goes on to different topics. It did make me think about many of the underlying tensions. The sublimated horror of the Gothic novel, in technique, if not in content came to mind, and the genre’s obsession (if I remember correctly) with unreliable narrators. Family Life implicitly asks us to trust its protagonist, by never really undercutting him, but one storyline of the book is his inclination to tell tall tales to impress his fellow students. If anything, Family Life is an anti-tall tale, underselling a story that could easily have been sensationalized. The school-as-gothic-mansion image is abandoned after a paragraph but in a way, it stays with us in the book. Mishra is constantly confused by the things that happen. Not existentially confused, but at no point is he secure about what to do and where to go. And this maybe allows us to loop back ourselves to the Mistry short story I mentioned earlier. In it, his narrator says at one point:

It was hopeless. My first swimming lesson. The water terrified me. When did that happen, I wonder, I used to love splashing at Chaupatty, carried about by the waves. And this was only a swimming pool. Where did all that terror come from? I’m trying to remember.

Immigration defamiliarizes known and loved routines for Mistry’s character, alienates him even from himself. This process, much more imbued with emotional prose and power by Mistry, could in a way be read as what’s ailing Akhil Sharma’s protagonist.

catttAlternatively, the distanced style could also just be the result of working 13 years on the same damn book (and we’re not talking a Hunger’s Brides sized book, quite the contrary.) I have not read anything about the author, not have I read his debut, but surely this is a possibility. It also explains the book’s weirdest quirk. After a good deal of everything that happens happens, the author decided to rev up the “Bildung” part of Bildungsroman and has his protagonist read a bunch of books. But he’s not reading novels, he’s reading literary criticism of Hemingway’s work. At that point, we are informed, Mishra hasn’t cracked the spine of any Hemingway book. He learns about the work exclusively from secondary literature. Mishra then describes to his audience the various theses brought up in the academic writing. This goes on for pages and pages. And here’s where it gets interesting: much of what I have said about Sharma is also said by Mishra – about Hemingway, especially the lack of emotions, Hemingway’s “way of tamping down emotion”, the structure of syntax, things like that. And it feeds back into the book. The reason why Hemingway’s characters are not “psychopaths” is because “all of Hemingway’s protagonists are noble,” we are told and “what probably matters in a book is its emotional truth.” It’s the strangest thing because on the one hand, the feedback loop asks interesting questions: are Sharma’s characters noble? Is that assessment of how that style works correct? On the other hand, the implication of the whole passage is that Hemingway is a great writer – and we’ve just sat through pages and pages of a description that is too close to the author’s own work for comfort. It feels like a way to deal with your own writing, to defend and interrogate at the same time the method you picked to tell your story. The author’s bio doesn’t allow us to see how close the novel is to the fact’s of Sharma’s life, but the anxiety about telling a story truthfully, and telling a story’s essential truth, rather than its facts, is explicitly woven throughout the book, but primarily anchored in these Hemingway pages. “I began to see my family’s pain as belonging in a story” we learn and we are told that some things are worth telling and some things are “too undignified and strange to be converted into literature.” Of course, the author follows the last statement up with examples of events that should not be in his own book.

It is at this point that the book suddenly speeds up. Mishra starts writing himself, he excels in school, he meets a girl, everything happens all at once and we jump forward in time repeatedly. It’s a strange book to describe, overall. It’s really well done. These are 13 years spent honing a book repeatedly. Not stylistically, maybe, Sharma is no James Salter, but structurally, certainly. But at the end, it’s strangely hard to recommend. Mishra, while perusing secondary literature on Hemingway starts worrying about the actual books by the bearded Nobel laureate . “I wondered what it would be like to actually read Hemingway. Would I find it boring?” – and that’s the question here, isn’t it. And I have to admit: it’s a bit boring. If you are looking to be swept up in an exciting story, this is not for you. For people interested in craft and in an unusual (if barely so) immigration Bildungsroman, go ahead. Give it a whirl.

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