Wyl Menmuir: The Many

Menmuir, Wyl (2016), The Many, Salt
ISBN 978-1-784630485

So, to get things out of the way, this is a novel about grief, some of it quite affecting. Short books about grief are not uncommon. Max Porter’s debut novel(la) Grief is the Things with Feathers is an example of a well-executed book about grief and loss, as is Edward Hirsch’s Gabriel or Joan Didion’s memoir. The worst book I’ve read on the subject in past years was John W. Evans’s plodding and whiny Young Widower. Grief, whether autobiographical or not, is a powerful emotion for writers to mine, and I think it shows overwriting and overdetermination like few other genres. The stark simple fact of death and loss is so severe that it asks of the writer to be particularly mindful of the words and forms they are using, in contrast to writing about other strong emotions like love and desire, which can take a bit of overwriting, and in fact are sometimes enhanced by it. Max Porter’s examination of grief worked so well because he created a metaphor that carried much of the load for him; additionally, he used a language that was spare but not bland, with a fine sense of where to slip in and out of the events. Max Porter’s success was particularly interesting as he was one of the first of the recent wave of people from the “book industry” (Porter is a Granta Books editor) to come out with a fiction debut. Another one was literary agent Bill Clegg whose debut novel Did you ever have a family was longlisted for the 2015 Booker.

Editor and consultant Wyl Menmuir added his name to that list with his own Booker-longlisted debut The Many. It is a solid book, written by a man with solid literary taste, a clever imagination and solid literary skills. Like Max Porter, Menmuir opted to write about grief, and like Porter, he uses an allegory to carry the reader through the story. But Menmuir is what I like to call a meddler – he writes the allegory in a way that requires him to “reveal” the mechanism behind it at the end, and he keeps dropping hints, in a prose that’s sometimes simple, and sometimes egregiously overwritten. Curiously, his set-up didn’t need him to use some of the tools of (magical) realism, and yet, in the first 3/4ths of the book, that’s what he does over and over – and these are not his strengths. In German, we say of mixed affairs like this that they are weder Fisch noch Fleisch, neither fish nor meat. And that’s what you get here – a good idea, a powerful emotion, and a writer who kept meddling in his own book, adding stuff here and there, resulting in a book that feels mostly like a missed opportunity. The idea could have made for a much stronger book, a truly affecting, moving, maybe even terrifying little novel. Instead we get a book that’s in between genres, in between styles, in between registers. If this book didn’t have the Booker sticker on the cover I wouldn’t have read it – to be honest, I might not have finished it. It’s a solid book, and quite short, so…maybe read it?

I’m not giving away the novel’s resolution here, and won’t describe how the allegory connects. But for 2/3rds of the book, it’s not really material how the allegory works – it’s true, you can go back and some curious passages work differently after you have more details on the allegory, than they did when you read them for the first time. At the same time, you’re always sort of aware that this is an allegorical set up, with various elements too staged, too portentous to work as realism, even magical realism. This makes the novel sometimes difficult to assess – a first reading is, after all, the most immediate, most important reading of the book. The book that came to mind as a comparison immediately was Graham Swift’s masterful novel Waterland. Now, Swift’s novel is so good that it is practically sui generis; I’ve not read another novel even by Swift that can compare with it. That said, it’s hard not to feel Menmuir draw from the same well in his set-up. The setting of The Many is a small fishing village dealing with a recent death. A young man named Perran has died. There is a general sense of gloom, and much of it feels immediately isolated and allegorical, but at the same time, Menmuir sets up a sense of place that could well be a real fishing village. He draws on the same sense of interconnection of history and nature that drives much of Waterland. We have a real sense of how this fishing village economy works, including an ominous representative of EU fisheries regulations. Into this village comes a man who is himself burdened with a recent loss. This man, Timothy, takes up residence in the house that was until recently occupied by Perran and is still full of his things. Again, we get a real sense of how objects interconnect with the life and history of the village and the many superstitions, habits and rules that are part of that life.

None of this is necessary for the allegory, mind you. If you step away from the text, you can see the allegorical bones of it, with the house, some of its furniture, the village and its inhabitants and a forbidding line of container ships that forms a taboo barrier for the fishermen. All the magical realism, all the Graham- Swiftness of the text is additional, it’s not needed by the text – you could argue that the damp atmosphere of the novel is important, but even it can do without most of these touches. What’s worst is that in order to make the book work despite all the additional weight, Menmuir pushes in a ton of flashbacks that keep us on our toes and sometimes focus us back on the overall structure. They are inserted awkwardly sometimes, but that’s not the main problem. The main problem is that Menmuir can’t leave a good thing alone. There’s the woman, maybe from the EU, who pays the fishermen for their catch of diseased dogfish. She stands on the docks, silent, with a grey coat. There’s a lot of weight in these descriptions, and a lot of power in the set-up, but Menmuir, in what feels like anxiety, keeps piling on, with sentences like “Her eyes impart something to him, something that suggests she understands, and feeling wells up in him, so much so he feels like he might be overwhelmed by it.” I’m not even here to judge the quality of that sentence as a piece of prose, but it makes very clear the author’s anxiety to really nail down all the meaning and foreboding he wants to nail down. Or, earlier: “He realizes then he is not fishing but hunting, and he watches for Timothy the way a hunter waits for a stalked deer.” The hunting metaphor is almost immediately discarded, and doesn’t add much to the text that the reader wouldn’t have seen themselves.

This overdetermination is a pity. I cannot say whether the novel, executed with a more focused sense of form, and with sentences that are sharper and clearer and more consistent, would indeed have been better. Looking at the simpler sentences, it’s not clear that this is a strength for Menmuir either, but anything would have been better than this hodgepodge. And there’s so many good ideas in here. There’s an early indication of an interesting comment on masculinity and communion, on intellectual work, on the meaning of family and communion, and some of the many, many dreams that swamp the book are very well done. But the most interesting part is the connection the author establishes between private and public grief. If Max Porter’s book is indebted to Ted Hughes, then Manmuir’s book surely owes a debt to Eliot. The village is indeed an “unreal city” and the title of the novel reminds us of that Dante line that Eliot incorporated into The Waste Land: “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many.” There is an overwhelming urge in the book, particularly towards the end, to connect the private catastrophe with a broader public narrative. It is such an enormous sentiment, that it deserved a somewhat better novel built around it. An example of an excellent novel built around a coastal village, dealing with death and loss is A.L. Kennedy’s extraordinary story of young adulthood, aging and suicide, Everything You Need. I mean, as a reader, when I closed The Many, I almost felt a sense of loss myself: the loss of the good or even great book that this could have been. In my head I heard the lines from Donald Hall’s poem “Without” from the collection with the same name, mourning his late wife Jane Kenyon: “we lived in a small island stone nation / without color under gray clouds and wind / distant the unlimited ocean”

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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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