Grief is the Thing with Feathers – Max Porter

[I’ve written about this novella in its three parts. I wrote about each part before reading the next, so I didn’t know what was coming next.]

4 November 2016
Part 1 – A Lick of Night
There’s certainly nothing too harrowing in this first section, despite the gloomy subject matter. But I’m not sure how convinced I am by it. The ‘Dad’ in the book, one of four first-person narrators, is a Ted Hughes scholar, and before reading I decided to have another look at some of his Crow poems, written partly in response to the deaths of different women in his life. I was reminded why I was never convinced by them all those years ago, from the cock-and-balls cover by Hughes’s friend Leonard Baskin to the visceral, in-your-face bloody-mindedness and violence of the poems. In later editions, the genitalia aren’t on display – and the cover of this reimagination of Crow for the 21st Century wouldn’t bring a blush to the cheek of any customer in a National Trust gift-shop. The artist, Eleanor Crow (I’m not kidding), specialises in affectionate watercolours of urban shop-fronts.

At first, the Crow of Hughes’s poems is recognisable in this new incarnation. He’s still a carnivore, stinks of carrion, talks – in his own chapters, narrated in first person – of gouging eyes and killing. And the novella isn’t written in conventional prose. The short chapters sometimes read like poems, are often set out in lines rather than paragraphs. It means that Porter can be as poetic as he wants, or can give to Crow a series of harsh single-word lines or guttural squawks. But really, Crow is all talk. He might sound like a thug, but he’s only here to help this father and his two boys get over the death of his wife and their mother. Sentimental, he calls himself in his private moments. In the family’s two-bed flat he might be a bouncer-sized, heavyweight heap of feathers, and I imagine him speaking with the voice of Ray Winstone in Sexy Beast – but although he might have had a colourful past, all he wants now is a quiet life. And underneath the grungy exterior is a diamond geezer.

At one level, this Crow is a variant of the ‘s/he’s still here’ trope, in which the dearly departed is presented, impossibly, as somehow physically present and still active. After a period of weeks or months, the bereaved is able to come to terms with the truth of the death and get on with life. In Truly, Madly, Deeply the husband is there, playing the cello and talking sense. In Ali Smith’s Artful, the dead partner is a revenant, arriving at the house to bang out lecture notes at the desk and smell like the grave. They are presented as real, and so is Crow, who lays his cards on the table from the beginning. After his noisy, noisome arrival, the first thing he says, in italics, is: ‘I won’t leave until you don’t need me any more.’ Ok, got it. Max Porter doesn’t make it difficult.

So, Crow bangs about. Dad tells us about the arrival, in the past tense – all of them narrate in the past tense – and about how, once he’s over the shock of the physical threat of being shoved around in his own flat, he sleeps properly for the first time since his wife died. (We don’t know how she died yet, but it seems to have been sudden.) And we get the boys’ chapters as well. They aren’t presented as individuals, so we never know which of them is narrating one of the chapters ascribed to BOYS. One will tell a story, usually having something to do with their father now or in the past, then the other might tell it slightly differently. You kind of feel this isn’t really their story, and that Porter is making a point about the unreliability of narratives. He can do that if he wants.

Part 1 is only 20-odd pages long, but that’s long enough to let us know that this isn’t really Ted Hughes’s Crow at all. The father’s grieving, and his embarrassment over how his friends and acquaintances don’t really know how to behave with them, is highly conventional. Maybe this is deliberate on Porter’s part, because it comes as a relief, only two pages in, when something unconventional happens. When the doorbell goes – ‘I braced myself for more kindness’ – it’s a shape too black even to see. But it quickly becomes almost cosy. There’s no threat, just the Tiger who came to tea. Except this time it’s a crow. Do the boys see it? They certainly find feathers, but when they hear crow noises in the bathroom they seem to assume it’s their father. It doesn’t matter, obviously. The crow metaphor isn’t for them, it’s for us.

Near the beginning, I mentioned that I wasn’t convinced by Hughes’s Crow. The poems were written in the 1960s, a time when men were still having it all their own way in the arts and could get away with a kind of outraged macho posturing. Women were usually marginalised, consigned to the background like one of the models in Picasso’s Minotaur series thirty years earlier. The artist needed women, but he was the important one. There’s something of Hemingway in the exclusively male attitudes in Crow – and how many other mid-20th Century male writers? – that hasn’t aged well. I didn’t even like the poems when I read them in the 1970s, in the edition with Baskin’s original cover. Forty year later, you just can’t get away with that stuff – which I guess is why Morton has given his Crow a caring, feminine side underneath the macho posturing. As I said, I’m not convinced yet.

6 November
Part 2 – Defence of the Nest
Is this book greater than the sum of its parts? Or is it just packaging? The experience of grieving is nothing new – Julian Barnes’s The Levels of Life (2013) contains many thoughts on the death of his wife, his own reactions and those of the people around him – so Max Porter has to try to do something new with it. Which is what he’s done. A conventional novel wouldn’t get many likes – Barnes’s book isn’t a novel, and probably would never have been published if he didn’t already have a literary reputation – so what’s an unpublished author to do?

The reason I’m asking is because I’m feeling more than a little manipulated. There are moments of genuine pathos in Porter’s book, and what feel like genuine insights into the chaotic process of trying to come to terms with an unbearable event. But those wouldn’t be enough on their own, so Porter had to sit down and have a think. Poetry? That might work, but who reads poetry these days? A grieving family somehow fitted into a conventional novel? Possible – but Porter had never written a novel. A grittier version of Truly, Madly, Deeply or Ghost? Ali Smith’s Artful is that but, typically for her, it’s far from being a conventional novel: it’s as much a series of lectures on art and literature as it is about grieving.

What Porter has actually gone for, and it’s a brilliant stroke, is a mash-up. Nobody’s done it like this before, it’s clever without being inaccessible, and it seems to be heading in a feel-good direction. Literary and easy to read in one sitting: win-win. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not being sarcastic when I refer to it as a brilliant stroke – I’m finding it an engaging read. But, as it goes on through this much longer second section, the literary conceit begins to feel too lightweight. Porter has decided to make Dad into a Hughes scholar, make the grief into a man-sized crow, and make the next months and years a series of vignettes. Dreams, stories, anecdotes, memories…. No need for a plot, just the passage of time. (How much time? Porter doesn’t have to tell us, so he doesn’t.)

It means you can have those winning little stories about how a man and two boys on their own manage without a woman to remind them not to be slobs, or how the boys’ grief comes out in fighting and egging each other on to ever more dangerous games. Done like this, you don’t need the boring autobiographical details you would have to include in a feature article for a weekend newspaper. You can include dreams, not only of the real characters but of Crow, full of metaphorical images of dread. You can have fairy stories – at least three – about brothers who go off, perhaps living a lifetime in days and returning as children in time for breakfast. (Thank you, Where the Wild Things Are.) You can have Dad’s conversation with some friend, who wonders if he’s getting any counselling. Oh yes, says Dad, he’s talking to somebody. How we laughed.

And you can have realistic-sounding accounts of real days, but which are allowed to carry a metaphorical kick. Dad takes the boys to a display of flying raptors, and they watch as a crow stands up to an eagle ‘fifty times’ its size in order to protect its nest. ‘GO CROW!’ they shout. We’ve seen the other Crow protecting their nest too, the family home, pecking down first through the skull and then through the spine, viscera, blood, shit and piss of a demon passing itself off as the mother. That’s not how you do grief, Crow seems to be insisting – but it’s like the violence you get in American graphic novels. (Most chapters in the book are like something.) And we know, with ever more certainty, that Crow won’t need to be with them forever. That day out, when they see the crow outface the eagle, isn’t far from the end of Part 2 – and it’s the best day of Dad’s life since his wife died. We know, because he tells us.

Looking ahead, I see that Part 3, like Part 1, is short. Not long to go now. Meanwhile, for the 60-odd pages of Part 2, I haven’t changed my mind about Ray Winstone. Crow is a bouncer, built like a brick shit-house (and smelling like one), but he has a heart of gold.

6 November, later
Part 3 – Permission to Leave
So, really, is grief the thing with feathers? Crow has gone, as he said he would – and as Dad was ready for him to do – but there’s no end to grief. However… despite some sarcastic earlier comments about how you don’t simply move on, Dad and the boys have been able to do just that. They just don’t call it that. They will never forget her, obviously, and will still think of her every day of their lives. Dad might find other relationships – except, in a time-line that Porter allow to bounce around from the present into the far future, one of the boys, now grown up, tells us he doesn’t. But at least one of the boys grows up to be a father himself. Which is nice.

And there’s that feel-good moment at the end that we all knew would come. We didn’t know what it would be exactly, but we knew it would be somehow life-affirming. It’s the scattering of the ashes moment. Dad hadn’t been ready to do it for a long time – Part 3 is full of bizarre little moments when he, and Crow, review their behaviour before this longed-for moment of joy-in-sadness – but now he is. Ready. On the last page, ‘The ashes stirred and seemed eager so I tilted the tin and I yelled into the wind / I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU.’ And the boys – still boys, not grown up yet: ‘the boys shouted – I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU / and their voice was the life and song of their mother.’ We’ve had quite a bit of this conceit in the last few pages, of the mother being still somehow alive in the boys, but Morton takes it much further for the book’s three final words: ‘Unfinished. Beautiful. Everything.’

Not really an ending, then. Bittersweet. But feel-good.