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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Joanna Rakoff: My Salinger Year

Rakoff, Joanna (2014), My Salinger Year, Bloomsbury
ISBN 978 1 4088 5550 8.

DSC_0109Many of my reviews are positive, sometimes ecstatically so. That’s not just because I have such a sunny temperament. Much of it is due to me having not a lot of time to read non-PhD-related books and so I tend to screen my books well and read books I suspect to be very good. However, sometimes, when a book had received enough attention or acclaim, or (I have to admit) when it happens to be unreasonably cheap, I pick up books I am less sure about. This is how I came to read Joanna Rakoff’s memoir My Salinger Year. I had not heard of Rakoff before, at least not as a writer. According to the flap, Rakoff has published a novel and several journalistic pieces but after reading this book, I’m not entirely likely to seek out more of her work. It’s not bad, per se, and since Christmas season is upon us, I have to admit that it would make the loveliest present for that friend in your life who used to read a lot but doesn’t really any more now. Because, really nostalgia for reading is what Rakoff trades in. My Salinger Year is a nice book, a quick read, a book about a young girl’s experiences at a venerable literary agency in New York. The whole is a condensed Bildungsroman, containing personal growth and education on many levels, personal and professional, but it doesn’t read condensed. In fact, while I might complain about her writing in one of the following paragraphs, there’s an undeniable skill in writing a book that reads so easily, but which contains so much. Rakoff is clearly cognizant of literary traditions, and with My Salinger Year we are offered a very specific kind of text, executed with skill and a clear sense of priorities. Disappointingly, writing interesting prose is not one of them. But Rakoff’s book is so overdetermined and constructed that I could never shake the impression that the writing maybe was supposed to seem trite, that this was part of the overall idea. Of course, intentionally bad writing is still bad writing. Intent, to borrow a phrase from a different discussion, isn’t magic.

DSC_0236The main appeal for me with the book is its structure. My Salinger Year begins with our heroine trying to make her way in New York. It’s her first day at an old literary agency, which, while she never names it (she prefers the expression “the agency”), is Harold Ober Associates. She is dressed in a conservative outfit that would not have been out of place on a secretary in the 1960s. She is performing a role, her “role being the Bright Young Assistant. The Girl Friday” – and at the same time, the book itself is similarly performing a role. Laura Miller has already unpacked the various literary sources for the story of the young girl coming to the big city. Miller points out how Rakoff constructs scenes in a way that mimicks literary precedent, and the book as a whole is cleverly constructed to appeal both to a sense of verisimilitude and to a literary sensibility. It’s no accident that the well worn phrase “[t]he Girl Friday” also doubles as the title of a screwball comedy that Stanley Cavell read as belonging to the so-called comedy of remarriages. In the world of the book, we will also find that Rakoff breaks up with a man who she ends up getting back together with. In a way, these early pages tell us, to quote Cavell on movies, how to look at them and how to think about them. The dense referential nature of the first couple of pages eventually lets up, leading into a more emotionally charged part of the narrative, but Rakoff has taught us early on how her book works, and at least for me, it became difficult reading the book’s characters, at least the ones not connected to the agency, as something other than ciphers. That might be one of the reasons for their lack of depth and interest. Only within the hallowed walls of the agency does Rakoff deliver characters to us that are believable, characters that can stand on their own without the artifice of sociocultural allusion. This is what she cares about: the world of books and writers.

DSC01203Look, maybe it’s just me, but halfway through My Salinger Year, as much of the artifice slowly falls away or is de-emphasized, Rakoff starts discussing tangible aspects of book culture with what feels like accurate veneration. Books as objects start turning up. She sees them on shelves, she discusses spines, print, we are offered discussions and descriptions of different editions, unread books as well as tattered, yellowing, well-loved books. I love books, the tangible reality of them, and their reality is what keeps shining through the otherwise threadbare realities of My Salinger Year. Fittingly, the agency Rakoff interns at is so old-fashioned, they don’t even own a computer even though it’s 1995 already. All correspondence, all contracts, everything has to be typed up on a typewriter, and the only way to really contact the Agency is via letter or phone. The year Rakoff joins the Agency, it’s already a dinosaur, hopelessly behind the times and Rakoff’s arrival and influence leads to changes, including -hold on to your hats- the acquisition of a computer that’s even connected to the Internet. This makes the central conceit of the book (central at least according to the blurb on the back) much more interesting: Rakoff’s Agency is the one representing J.D. Salinger and while letters sent to Salinger via his literary agent did not reach him, they were also not unceremoniously thrown out. Instead, a person was paid to read them and reply using a form letter (which had to be retyped for every reply). During Rakoff’s ‘Salinger Year’ she was the one assigned this job. And that’s such an interesting idea. The materiality of writing that’s created by an environment where everything is typed, every letter, no matter how formulaic is inherently original, could have been very interesting, especially since Rakoff decided to answer some letters with more than the meagre handful of words she was supposed to use. However, while the letters keep coming up and the process of reading and pondering the letters is sometimes described in excruciating, redundant detail, Salinger’s letters are never really foregrounded. They are one element among many showing us the growth of young Ms. Rakoff. Dispensing wisdom to young fans becomes her main opportunity to shine a light on herself in a year where everything appears to conspire to make her feel bad about herself.

DSC_0246 (1)Her boyfriend is a self centered macho writer who cares more about his unreadable and unpublishable book than he does about Rakoff, her (Polish) landlady expects her to freeze in the winter and wash dishes in the bathtub in the summer (and almost kills her with some sort of dubious Polish heater, because the book absolutely needed a picaresque, ridiculous foreigner), and the publishing world in general appears to be too sophisticated and complicated for the young woman. It’s an obvious Bildungsroman set-up and so nobody is surprised (or will be spoilered) when she powers through the difficulties and comes out a changed person, with a new lease on life and a different professional determination. While a 6,000 word piece on answering Salinger’s fan-mail might have been the start of this book, it’s not the actual focus. It’s Rakoff’s coming to terms with being a woman in the 1990s, a female writer. Of all the books mentioned by Laura Miller in her review of the book (see link above), the most fitting comparison to me- seemed to be Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Both show us a woman alone in New York, not part of a crowd, not part of a movement, just two young women, pursuing an internship and coming to terms with the world around them. Late in Rakoff’s book, she discusses the fact that women have limited choices, that they need to pick one path only.

Publishing, books, life, I thought as I walked, through the cool air, up to the L at Third Avenue. It seemed possible to get one right. But not all three.

This resonates with the famous fig tree metaphor in Plath’s novel à clef. Plath’s protagonist has a vision of her life branching out like a fig tree, and she sees all the many choices and options she has. However,

I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

Rakoff’s memoir is the bright eyed glowing opposite to this. For her nothing wrinkles, nothing goes black. In a way she has written the most classic of Bildungsroman stories, which tend to have men at their center. Like Wilhelm Meister she is inducted into the brotherhood (sisterhood?) of literary people after a year of obstacles small and large.

DSC_0235That’s really an interesting aspect of the book. Despite its breezy shallowness and the flat prose, Rakoff pulls off something fascinating: she tells a story the way we expect men to tell them. She plops her character in the middle of a social context and doesn’t care about any of the connections. Near the end of the book, we are told about a weekend where she reads all of Salinger’s work and forgets about her boyfriend, and really about everything else. Reading this book is all that counts. The caricature of her Polish landlady is never really reflected on because why care? In the first half of the book, where the author drops names, quotes and comparisons to authors, books and movies in an almost stakkato like rhythm, the writer I was most reminded of was Bret Easton Ellis. In books like American Psycho, Ellis perfected a prose that is simply woven, but uses the names and places of American culture as rhythmic emphases, as a kind of modern choir to follow his characters around, pounding on the drum of proper names and shared knowledge. It’s been pointed out a few times how Ellis’ technique corresponds to Saul Kripke’s theory of naming, how it relies on especially the cluster theory of names. The vacuousness at the heart of many of his characters is buffeted and replaced by the proper names of the world around them. The world’s signifiers revolve around Ellis self absorbed protagonists, and while these assumptions tend to work in favor of male characters in literature, Rakoff has employed this exact same technique, but without Ellis’ ear for rhythm. Yet doing all of this for a female character has extra resonance. This book would be much easier to dismiss had it been written by a man. The prose (A lot of dialog has the form of “…I said, nodding. …he said, sighing.” Or “‘Wow,’ I said. Hugh laughed. ‘I know, wow.'” Or this happens: “‘Come in,’ he said and I did.” – there’s a lot of short sentences and cutesie observations (when Rakoff first hears the title of Salinger’s last published story “Hapworth”, she makes the following remark: “‘What’s ‘Hapworth’?’ It sounded mysterious. Like a secret agent’s code name.”) and the self satisfied wisdom alone are enough to stop me.

DSC_0108But it’s not that easy. The Bildungsroman and the Ellis discussion are significant. One of the reasons why Plath’s figs shrivel and blacken on the tree is the pressure on women to conform. Plath’s character turns to thoughts of self harm to relieve the pressure. Rakoff, a comfortably middle aged woman, wrote this book with the gift of hindsight, pointing out the different situation her 23 year old self was in compared to the canon of young women coming to the big city. Mary McCarthy, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop and many others had peculiar troubles. Rakoff’s decision to place her memoir so explicitly both right in the middle of and between broad strands of tradition highlights everything that changed – and the things that have not changed. Two male authors in the book use their fiction to (imaginatively) violate women who wronged them, and Rakoff shows us how this impacts the discursive atmosphere. All of this is interesting and the book is an engaging read and I wish those things had come up in an overall better book. There is nothing at stake, there is no abyss, no real trouble drawing us in. I already mentioned the prose, which, unbelievably, was written by a poet (click here or here for some of Rakoff’s poems). Yes, it’s interesting that Rakoff copies and differently applies masculine self absorption, but that doesn’t make that insouciance a better read. In the end, I have to come back to what I said in the beginning. If books are something that’s important and vital to you now, if writing and thinking excites you still, skip the book. But you might know people whose passion for books never went away, instead it hardened and you can still see it in them, like Han Solo in his carbonite imprisonment. This book is perfect for those friends. It trades in nostalgia, it’s genuinely besotted with books, and it rewards knowledge of literary tradition.

One of my favorite poems about New York is this one.

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Ned Vizzini: It’s Kind of a Funny Story

Vizzini, Ned (2006), It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Hyperion/Miramax
ISBN 978-0-7868-5196-6

DSC_0247So as a matter of fact I tend to read quite a few novels written in the genre commonly referred to as “Young Adult” (YA), but I don’t think I’ve reviewed one yet (unless we count The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, cf. my review). There’s been quite a wave of those in recent years, with some of those novels clogging up the bestseller lists, including, very prominently, John Green’s sentimental exercises in mediocrity. With a few exceptions, the non-science fictional YA books tend to be a bit underwhelming. I am a fan of children’s fiction, but YA often replaces the linguistic openness and epistemological wonder of children’s fiction with a dour and moralistic realism. Writers like Green are better creators of plot than they are writers of prose. It’s mainly the age of his protagonists and the audience of his books that distinguishes Green from novelists serving the adult audience like Nicholas Sparks or David Nicholls. Part of the reason for this are the simple, sentimental plots. It takes the talent of writers like Rainbow Rowell to imbue these simple plots with some resonance, both linguistically as well as in the way these writers locate urgency and impetus in their books. Rowell’s breakthrough effort Eleanor & Park engages questions of body image and poverty, without having to mine them for sobs. A surprising (or not) amount of non-science-fictional YA novels go for the emotional jugular by presenting us with the Big Topics. Green tackled topics like cancer and suicide, other popular options include abuse, bullying or the Shoah. It’s a cheap and easy shorthand that manages to both lock into the angst of the target audience, as well as present a topic that is already moving as it is. In this context, Ned Vizzini’s novel It’s Kind of a Funny Story, which looks at suicide, depression and high school pressure, could be seen as one of many more or less uniform books using suicide as a hook for its prospective teenage readers (click here for a goodreads list of recent/popular books dealing with the topic). However, it’s much better than that, I think. There is no doubt that it’s flawed, and that it could have used a very stern editor, as it sprawls over 400 pages, mainly because this writer apparently has difficulties saying no to himself. But the core of it is extremely well realized, and Vizzini manages to give us a story about depression and hope that has room to breathe, that does not hit us in the face with the sad plot and that has room for digressions. He has interesting ideas that go beyond the cold/cheap utilitarian logic of the common YA book. Even the undisciplined length and structure has a charm. Plus, suicide is always a hoot.

DSC_0245It’s Kind of a Funny Story was Ned Vizzini’s third book and second overall novel, and he retained the teenager focus of his earlier work, even though the book’s setting was inspired (according to the afterword) by events in Vizzini’s own life a mere two years prior. It’s hard to comment on the book’s structure because there isn’t a lot, apart from the chronological movement of the plot. But there are three distinct phases of the book, all three easily distinguishable. Vizzini’s character, 15 year old Craig Gilner, is a gifted child (the single most overused YA trope) who lives with his mother. They barely make ends meet and so his acceptance to the Brooklyn Executive Pre-Professional High School, a kind of elite high pressure high school, is a blessing and a curse. It is a drain on his family’s resources, but it also allows him the potential of ‘going places’. As is the case in many poor families, the talented offspring often carries the hope of the less fortunate older generations, and not always willingly. The first part of the book shows us his life with his mother and the way his life changes just by having the possibility of going to that school in it. He has to learn hard for the entrance exams, and feels constantly intimidated by friends who also apply and who – to him- seem so much smarter. Eventually, he ends up doing really well on his exams, entering the high school only to feel crushed by the pressures there. The double pressure of being a teenage boy, with crushes and insecurities and the obscure land of sex and booze just out of reach, combines with the new pressures of being in a high stakes, high expectation environment now. It doesn’t help that one of his best friends is a rebellious but brilliant fellow student who, to top it all off, is also successful with girls. As he is starting to struggle with school work, he starts breaking down, a process that eventually results in suicidal ideation and a call to the suicide hotline and finally, a trip to the mental health ward of a nearby hospital. This is the third and final section of the novel and the one that readers and reviewers tend to focus on most, for obvious reasons. Vizzini, in a move that is either clever or tedious (I can’t decide), clearly constructs Craig’s experience in the hospital as an odd, and much less pressure filled, mirror image of Craig’s elite high school life. Without spoiling the plot, let me just say that things happen, insights are gained, cookie characters met and resolutions arrived at.

first page

First page

I know I am not making the book sound terrifically appealing right now, but hear me out. Because Vizzini has written a novel clearly reliant on and cognizant of a wide array of literary traditions, first of all. One of these is the phenomenon of the precocious child who has to cope with school pressure. I skimmed some reviews of the novel before sitting down to write this and there’s an awful lot that discuss how Vizzini looks at a modern phenomenon here. That, however, is clearly not the case, unless we have a very wide definition of modern. Two of the best (maybe the single best, actually) treatments of this topic are early 20th century texts, Rainer Maria Rilke’s masterful story “The Gym Class” (1899-1902) and Hermann Hesse’s novel Beneath the Wheel (1906). Rilke’s story is part of a whole wave of fascinating prose about Prussian military academies, much of it no longer in print, regretfully, and it features a boy who, during a gym class, pressured to perform, suddenly overextends himself so much that he collapses and dies. Rilke, who’s mostly known as a poet, was actually a fantastic prose writer, and this story, in the space of only a few pages, manages to offer up an atmosphere dense with pressure, with the need to conform, and, paradoxically, pushes a boy to perform better than his classmates. Since standing out by failing is not an option, he strives, in one tense moment, to stand out by being better. He rises above his fellow students, figuratively and literally (the exercise is rope climbing). Conversely, Hans, the protagonist of Hesse’s novel, goes down the other route – he fails, and this, in turn, breaks him. If Rilke’s story parallels Vizzini’s novel in spirit, Hesse’s book has more similarities. Hans is a gifted student from a poor background, who studies hard for an exam that would allow him to enter a prestigious school. The pressure on him is enormous. Like Vizzini’s protagonist, he suspends his entire life to study for the exam, and everything depends on him making it. Once he’s in, however, he starts caving to the increased pressure, both from the overwhelming expectations at school, as well as from his adolescent life. It doesn’t help that one of his best friends is a rebellious but brilliant fellow student. Eventually, after some incidents, Hans has a breakdown, falls into persistent depression and commits suicide. Even though I believe that both texts are translated into English, and despite the similarities, it’s hard to say that this is consciously part of Vizzini’s tradition, but it does help in debunking the claims of a modern malaise being at the heart of the book.

Last page

Last page

Additionally, these texts only cover the first two sections of It’s Kind Of A Funny Story. The second half, set in the psychiatric hospital, probably feeds off the much more American tradition of psychiatric hospital books, from Ken Kesey’s classic to Susanna Kaysen’s memoirs, with books like The Bell Jar as links between one and the other. But Vizzini doesn’t care much for the difficulties of social pressures on less than privileged groups. Sylvia Plath’s subtly voiced distress of having to field the pressure of trying to be a high achiever and of being a woman in a society that increasingly treats women in contradictory and complicated pressuring ways, of having several goals some of whom contradict each other, none of this turns up in Vizzini’s book, which is very much a book about white male adolescent angst. Then again, it’s not as simple as that. Among the many things Vizzini throws at his readers in his rambling, associative narrative, is the fact that Craig Gilner is an artist and has one particular artistic obsession. It’s so central that it made it onto the book cover: he loves drawing maps. Not maps of real places as much as imaginary maps, of personalized cityscapes. He makes this intricate and inscrutable kind of art for people, creating portraits of them in the hard, straight and angular lines of maps. More than just an oblique reference to Korzybski’s dictum, the project thus is a kind of inverted psychogeography if that makes sense. The multifaceted theories of psychogeography grapple with the fact of architecture, with the way it suggests meaning and structure, and offeres ways of drifting, of playfully destabilizing that structure and meaning. In a way, Vizzini’s character re-imposes structure. He creates meaning through maps, using a visual language that we all identify with order and clarity. This is clearly part of the emotional core of the book. At the end of his 5 day stay in the hospital, Craig is happy. In just 5 days he gained a lot of insight into his life and the novel ends with a paragraph of affirmation. Craig, thanks to a benevolent mental health institution (contra Kesey and Kaysen), finds a new path, evading the fate of Hesse’s protagonist or Plath’s. Fittingly, the book’s language is calm and simple. It eschews dramatic or cheap shots, but it’s also a bit dull. It’s a lot like listening to an actual teenage boy prodigy tell a story for 400 pages. Sometimes entertaining, sometimes less so. And it’s very frequently funny, which makes the ending absolutely the one you’d expect. The ending ties up the whole story in one neat bow. There are no inconsistencies, no breaks. And then life intervened.

DSC_0246Look, I’m probably going to veer a bit off course here, so I apologize in advance. You can stop reading now, you know what I think of the book. And here’s another caveat: I know there’s always a danger of reading books autobiographically, and God knows I have a bunch of angry footnotes on that topic in my Bishop chapter. Scores of excellent scholars have pointed out, for example, that The Bell Jar should be read as fiction and not as veiled autobiography, but here’s the thing. It’s Kind Of A Funny Story itself makes the connection to Vizzini’s own life by pointing out that the story was inspired by a brief stay of Vizzini’s in a hospital in his early 20s. It’s hard, then, to disconnect the loud wishful thinking at the end of the book from Vizzini’s attitude towards his own mental well being. Vizzini killed himself in 2013 by jumping off the roof of his parents’ home. Last year, after Vizzini died, I reread the last paragraph of the novel (I added it as a picture above) and it sounds much more desperate, much more like a sad, fervent hope rather than a projection of personal happiness. Between Vizzini’s own stay at the hospital and his final suicide attempt were 9 years. Getting released from a hospital after a mental health breakdown is not like getting released after breaking a foot. In The Bell Jar, Esther’s mother, when Esther returns early from the hospital rather than having an extended stay, says “I knew you’d decide to be all right again”, misunderstanding the depth of her daughter’s condition, and indeed what follows soon after in the novel is one of the most harrowing and accurate descriptions of suicidal ideation and attempted suicide I have ever read (and I’ve read a few). As many writers, among them Jean Améry, have pointed out, there is no illness like depression for bringing out the unaffected but well meaning talking heads, especially when it comes to suicide. One of the worst things I have heard people say is “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem” – I’m not sure 9 years qualifies as all that “temporary”. Similarly, when Ned Vizzini’s death was publicized, and again, when Robin Williams was found hanging from his belt a few weeks ago, Brad Listi’s literary podcast Other People aired an interview with Jennifer Michael Hecht, pop philosopher and poet, whose book Stay reminds me of nothing so much as the books on dealing with cancer that Barbara Ehrenreich skewered in Bright Sided. During the interview, both interviewer and guest were quick to point out that they never even came close to considering suicide. I’m not sure a person who is neither a trained professional nor someone who knows what they are talking about from personal experience should run their mouths about it. But that’s just my two cents.

DSC_0228Meanwhile, It’s Kind Of A Funny Story is absolutely worth reading. You have to give it room, it lacks the tautness and discipline we tend to get from the YA genre, but it’s absolutely a worthy entry to a genre that now has a long and sad tradition. Vizzini captures the voice of his protagonist perfectly and the rambling narrative is part and parcel of that. And you know what, despite my leery comments on the hope at the end of the book and my grumbling about feel-good commentary, Vizzini himself, as far as I know, recommended what I call the charlatans of hope to his readers and fans, and while they clearly did not help him long term, 9 years are nothing to sneeze at and he helped many of his fans with similar struggles.

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Nicolas Hughes s’est suicidé

This sad news just in. In today’s New York Times:

Nicholas Hughes, the son of Sylvia Plath and the British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, killed himself at his home in Alaska, nearly a half-century after his mother and stepmother took their own lives, according to a statement from his sister. Mr. Hughes, 47, was an evolutionary biologist who studied stream fish and spent much of his time trekking across Alaska on field studies. Shielded from stories about his mother’s suicide until he was a teenager, Mr. Hughes had lived an academic life largely outside the public eye. But friends and family said he had long struggled with depression. Last Monday, he hanged himself at his home in Alaska, his sister, Frieda Hughes, said over the weekend. “It is with profound sorrow that I must announce the death of my brother, Nicholas Hughes, who died by his own hand on Monday 16th March 2009 at his home in Alaska,” she said in a statement to the Times of London. “He had been battling depression for some time.”

A Poet’s Quest

Frieda Hughes (yes, the Frieda Hughes) on poetry

We must always remember that the reader can’t see what was in our mind unless we give them something to go on. A good poem uses the best words for the job. But we shouldn’t just throw them in the air and hope that they will fall in a cohesive heap; they require structure and a sense of responsibility. And we should always be looking for new ways to describe something.