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Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

Reviewed by Charlotte Whittle

June 17, 2016

Grief Is the Thing with Feathers

Grief Is the Thing with Feathers

by Max Porter

Graywolf Press, 2016

Max Porter’s debut novel Grief Is the Thing with Feathers is unlike any narrative of grief I have ever read. Porter offers a fresh, invigorating treatment of bereavement, illuminating moments in the lives of a husband and two sons as they struggle to find their feet in the wake of a staggering loss.

The widower, known only as Dad, sees off the final “orbiting grievers” and contemplates his solitude. He drinks. He smokes. He is possessed of a “curiously anthropological awareness” of the types of behavior induced by crisis, and sees himself reduced to a “trader in clichés of gratitude.” This is the voice of a man numbed by loss, who watches, quizzically, as others execute their “performances of woe.” Responses to tragedy, it seems, can be predictable; Porter’s novel is anything but.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of mourning have become part of the conventional wisdom about death’s aftermath. But the experience of grief is not linear, and Porter wisely eschews linear narrative in favor of the fragmentary: the novel’s sections are like shards from the breakage of the family unit, each resembling one of the tiny progressions and regressions that make up grief’s intricate path. Interspersed with the father’s laments, we read the words of Boys, the single voice of the two bereft sons whose identities appear to be interchangeable. This choral arrangement acknowledges the jumbling of grief’s components, and gives form and pattern to Dad’s statement: “moving on, as a concept, is for stupid people, because any sensible person knows grief is a long term project.”

Crow, the third voice in this narrative chorus, arrives suddenly in a stench and a flurry of feathers. Like the grief that heralds him, he engulfs Dad once again in blackness, but in a contradiction that sets the tone for the rest of this compact, complex, and thoroughly surprising book, the plumed beast also cradles him, rocks him, promises him a certain strange comfort with his presence, a presence bracing in its darkness and mystery. Says Dad, “I lay back, resigned, and wished my wife wasn’t dead. I wished I wasn’t lying terrified in a giant bird embrace in my hallway. I wished I hadn’t been obsessing about this thing just when the greatest tragedy of my life occurred. These were factual yearnings. It was bitterly wonderful. I had some clarity.”

Who, or what, is the thing with feathers? Crow is a character, a vision, the delusion of a man in shock, a self-described “friend, excuse, deus ex machina, joke, figment, spectre, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst and babysitter.” He is the Crow of the eponymous book of poems by Ted Hughes, a savage rewriting of Genesis with this chattering, posturing bird as its protagonist. Hughes’s book, written in the wake of Sylvia Plath’s suicide and considered a radical departure from his previous work, is Dad’s subject of study and, in a curious echoing of the Plath-Hughes drama, is the focus of the book he is writing at the time of his wife’s death.

But Porter’s Crow steps beyond the confines imposed by his poet-creator Hughes to become a creature both rooted in mythology and riding the winds of the postmodern. He is both a carrion-eating scourge and a self-aware trickster. His tenderness is a result not of a humanizing treatment by the author, but of Crow’s recognition of the crowness of those freshly wounded by loss: “motherless children are pure crow.” This bird, finding humans “dull except in grief,” installs himself in the lap of the family, adopting the role of therapist, entertainer, and protector. His ragged voice injects a crackling energy into the book and into the lives of his charges, and his extraordinary presence in the midst of ordinary grief makes for a work as comic and animal as it is tragic and profound.

Much of this novel’s daring lies in the voice of Crow, who embodies and enlarges the spirit of his source with admirable verve. The corvid chatter of his monologues is full of irresistible wordplay and invented sounds. Crow himself is the poet here; the language he invents is impish and often cryptic. His speech occasionally devolves into a kind of animal unconscious, a mischievous delight in the primal musicality of his caw: “The nobility of nature, haha krah haha krap haha…”

The symbolic possibilities unleashed by the presence of this creature are manifold, since Crow is a bundle of apparently contradictory instincts. Like Hughes’s Crow he is a subversive creature, moved to “eat sorrow,” and confess his taste for carrion, but his penchant for accompanying the grieving is born of a special affinity. He encompasses the highest and basest of urges, saying of his first encounter with Dad: “I put my claw on his eyeball and weighed up gouging it out for fun or mercy.” Crow feeds on grief and filth. He has a taste for the desperate: the flavor of loss is “ripe, rich, delicious,” and he savors it like a sommelier scenting a fine terroir. But though he is a consumer of sadness and filth, his power is also generative.

What’s more, Crow is a role-player whose self-awareness keeps him a step ahead of the reader and of Grief’s main protagonist, who is also the bird’s exegete. Crow has strategies (“I believe in the therapeutic method”), which can involve some exaggerated play-acting: “I do this, perform some unbound crow stuff, for him. I think he thinks he’s a little bit Stonehenge shamanic, hearing the bird spirit. Fine by me, whatever gets him through.” This self-consciousness also allows him to turn Dad away from excessive indulgence in sentimentality, to keep his desire to build castle-sized monuments to his dead wife in check. Says Dad, “the whole city is my missing her.” Says Crow, “eugh…you sound like a fridge magnet.” Crow, and by extension the novel, serves as an antidote to the maudlin, to platitudes, and to saccharine self-help.

While Dad struggles to adjust to the reconfiguration of his small family, the brothers run wild in the country of loss. They embark on a series of odysseys that take them to an imaginative terrain far removed from their London flat, the terrain of myth and of fairy tales. In these excursions, the brothers fight, climb and descend mountains, encounter callous kings, play risky and violent games as they find their way through the forest, angry, lying to themselves and others, always negotiating the boundaries of their new motherless state. Porter boldly makes a single voice of the two brothers, such that the push and pull of their relationship itself becomes a character forged through symbiosis: “we seem to take it in ten-year turns to be defined by it, sizeable chunks of cracking on, then great sink-holes of melancholy.”

One of the many successes of this book lies in its ability to combine the eternal nature of myth and archetype with the banality of the everyday. The book is remarkable for its distinct lack of melodrama: even the cause of the mother’s death, when revealed, turns out to have been a mundane accident. This is a tale not of the drama of death, but of the journey of returning to life. Emotional weight is sustained by everyday objects: “She won’t ever use (make-up, turmeric, hairbrush, thesaurus). She will never finish (Patricia Highsmith novel, peanut butter, lip balm).” For the brothers, the loss is distinguished by its anticlimactic nature, the absence of sirens and high-pitched drama: “There were no crowds and no uniformed strangers and there was no new language of crisis.” The aching ordinariness of the situation and the story, and the modest, bumbling, and slightly clumsy Dad, become an unexpectedly perfect scene for Crow’s fantastic, mythic interventions.

Joan Didion writes that “grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.” When we enter the country of loss, we also enter the realm of myth, and come to exist on a different plane of reality, the plane on which we become attractive to Crow. Because grief ruptures the order of our lives, it creates cracks through which a new logic can enter. Grief is always fresh; we do not get better at losing, and we always feel that we are alone in experiencing it. Yet Porter suggests we may find each other in our transportation onto the plane of myth and archetype, and that the very thing that makes us most alone is also where we are most interesting and most human: “Grief?… It is everything. It is the fabric of selfhood.”

Even here, though, where we feel we are approaching an apprehension of truth, Crow catches himself soaring too close to the absolute, and his chatter degenerates back into earthy, rhyming nonsense. Grief Is the Thing with Feathers shatters familiar notions of what we think we know about loss and mourning, transforming the grief narrative into something darker, beastlier, not quite comforting, yet also oddly refreshing, and even funny. Max Porter’s compressed debut is a richly complex and captivating feathered miracle.

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Charlotte Whittle is a writer and translator based in New York. Her work has appeared in Mantis, the LA Times, Reading in Translation, Bookslut, and elsewhere. Her translation of Uruguayan poet Silvia Goldman’s No-one Rises Indifferent to Sorrow was published recently by Cardboard House Press.