London writer Max Porter – best known in New Zealand as the editor of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries – has published his first novel. He writes exclusively for The Spinoff Review of Books.
Grief is the Thing with Feathers is the story of a man whose wife dies. He is left to care for their two sons. One evening there is a knock on the door and it is Crow. Crow moves in and becomes a babysitter, a mischievous antagonist, a counsellor and eventually – across the three sections of the book – a friend. He has a lot to say about how human beings behave in times of trauma, some of it helpful, some of it hopeless.
The story is assembled in small sections alternating between three voices, sometimes prose, sometimes a play script, sometimes short fables. I spent a long time wondering how best to tell this story. My day job is working with writers and I didn’t want any overlap with or distraction from that work, but I also have young children so I don’t have a lot of writing time, hence the form. It’s more an act of collage than a sustained piece of novel writing. Reading it now I realise it’s the most honest thing I’ve ever done, in all sorts of ways, and that it sounds like the inside of my head. Whether that’s a good thing I don’t know.
Crow enjoys the fact that he’s been in a famous poem by Ted Hughes, but he also mercilessly takes the piss out of it. He rolls various identities around in his mouth, the rock star, the fairytale device, the actual bird, the imaginary friend, the accredited caregiver. The added (and admittedly fairly juicy) extra baggage of Hughes’ life story is only there as another strain to be jeered at, poked at, recycled and re-purposed. There are in-jokes for people who have read the poem or know a bit about Hughes, but I hope they don’t distract or outweigh the more important thing, the simple story of a family dealing with pain.
Crow is one part of the triptych in my book, and only functions in relation to the other two. One voice is ‘Dad’, the grieving father. The other voice is ‘Boys’, two children who swap memories, play with misremembrance and swap sentimental versions of their childhood. The Boys are an attempt to create a character out of a relationship; the sibling relationship given a voice.
The book is not about Hughes but it does portray a man who has a deep and private love for poetry and that love rescues him. There is a lovely passage in Winter Pollen where Hughes is discussing experience and language. He describes a crow: “the barefaced, bandit thing, the tattered beggarly gipsy thing, the caressing and shaping yet slightly clumsy gesture of the down-stroke.. the macabre pantomime ghoulishness and the undertaker sleekness”. This is beautiful stuff, and crows worldwide are presumably honoured to be described with such exactitude, with such poetic swagger. Hughes goes on though; “And a bookload of such descriptions is immediately rubbish when you look up and see the crow flying.”
This is the generosity of spirit, humility about the poetic self, and ecstatic love of the natural world that emerges throughout Hughes’ poems and make him enduringly relevant. It is also an attitude I would hope to read back onto Crow and some of its darker notes. For example, grief. We are learning to grieve as we are learning to read or think. In the dark moment when all becomes rubbish in the face of great pain, true art can briefly unlock or clarify, as Hughes has it “something of the almighty importance of it and something of the utter meaninglessness.” That is good writing. The real bird at the back of the empty church, beak-down in the garbage looking for scraps.