GRIEF IS THE THING WITH FEATHERS BY MAX PORTER: A playfully profound novel-poem, whose point is paradox

by Georgia Watts

I’m always on the look-out for writers who push the boundaries when it comes to form, and as I quickly leafed through the pages of Max Porter’s debut novel, Grief is the Thing with Feathers (Faber & Faber, 2015), in Blackwell’s on Broad Street, Oxford, I knew that I had found one. The book is predominantly written in prose, which in style is both naturalistic – I found the children’s narrative to be weirdly reminiscent of James Joyce’s Dubliners(1914) in places – and surrealist, effortlessly slipping in and out of the fantastical in the kind of nonchalant manner that Leonora Carrington tends towards in The Hearing Trumpet (1976). Yet Porter’s prose is peppered with a poetic quality, which becomes especially apparent in Crow’s nonsensical narrative stints, wherein he often makes use of cacophonous diction to aurally bring the bird to life. Such a combination makes the novel formally unusual, but it is Porter’s keen sense of the power of the spatial that makes its form truly unique; the book features numerous increasingly-indented lines, is filled with multiple blank pages, representing those moments when grief engulfs and words become impossible or at the very least superfluous and powerless, and often formats prose as if it were verse. The narrative is continually in a kind of formal flux, with readers sure only in their unsureness as to what they should expect as they turn the page, chaotically capturing the ever-changing nature of grief and how it is experienced.

The narrative is continually in a kind of formal flux, with readers sure only in their unsureness as to what they should expect as they turn the page

Whilst it is probably clear by now that I am a great admirer of Porter’s ingenuity when it comes to how he constructed his novel, I will not pretend that it made for a particularly enjoyable reading experience. His writing is wonderfully pithy, and its brevity breeds much of its beauty and poignancy. But continually hopping from different character’s POVs (alternating between Dad, Boys and Crow) as Porter impressionistically tells a story of a Ted-Hughes-scholar father and two young boys who have lost their mother, and are consequently visited by a Crow who promises to help them until he is no longer needed, gives an impression of frustrating brevity. Maybe such hopping is intentional – crows are accomplished hoppers after all – but character development feels undeniably stunted every time we switch from character to character. The novel’s strength is also its weakness, then: its conciseness helps it to aggressively avoid stuffy and sentimental depictions of mourning, but it also leaves one wanting, and perhaps with a bit of a headache.  

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter named as the winner of the 10th International Dylan Thomas Prize, in partnership with Swansea University.

This paradox is probably Porter’s point, though. At the heart of the novel is a point-blank refusal to portray grief in a formally coherent, fluently articulated manner. This would be unrealistic and, more importantly, dishonest. Whilst this admittedly makes the novel difficult to read, I delight in any book that formally fits its subject perfectly, and this one certainly does. It is one of those books that, on the whole, is fantastic to reflect upon and talk about with other people, but not so fantastic to actually read – but this does not mean that it isn’t worth reading. On the contrary, it is skilfully-written (my head was filled with thoughts of how Max Porter must be a genius every other page), and conveys emotion in a raw and potent way. Indeed, it is telling that, despite feeling that the characters were merely ciphers throughout the course of the novel, disappointingly vague in their delineations, the final page managed to move me to tears, with the boys ‘a tide-wall of laughter and yelling, hugging my [the father’s] legs, tripping and grabbing, leaping, spinning, stumbling, roaring, shrieking and the boys shouted I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU’ as they scatter their mother’s ashes. Here, Porter beautifully captures life’s unruly fluctuations and the futility of human attempts to tame such chaos, or to believe they can think or say or do something that will be sufficient, that will not pass away. But within such commotion, there is inherent comfort: it is ‘Unfinished. Beautiful. Everything.’ A paradoxical conclusion, then, where oscillation and permanence collide to create something fragile and lasting.

I’m not sure I’ve read anything like Max Porter’s book before. It stunned me, full of beauty, hilarity, and thick black darkness. It will stay with me for a very long time.

Evie Wyld
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MILKMAN BY ANNA BURNS: A pertinent portrait of life during the Troubles

by Georgia Watts

On October 16th, Milkman by Anna Burns (Faber & Faber) was crowned the winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize, making the Belfast-born author the first Northern Irish writer to win the prize. Praised by the judges for its ‘distinctive voice’ and for being both ‘particularly and brilliantly universal’, the novel prevailed over the bookies’ favourites, Richard Powers’ eco-epic The Overstory (William Heinemann) and 27-year-old Daisy Johnson’s debut novel Everything Under (Jonathan Cape) to claim the £50,000 prize. 

The prestige attached to such an award, representing the pinnacle of literary success for many, certainly added to the novel’s allure when I saw it sitting on a shelf in Blackwell’s, proudly bearing this impressive title on its front-cover. But it was the rest of the front-cover that really piqued my curiosity. It combines a garish photograph of a sunset, which, for me, never fails to evoke a sense of the stereotypically sentimental, with a peculiarly impenetrable title written in a peculiarly plain font that seems to actively resist such sentimentality. It was this incongruity, which underscores the narrative’s own opacity, that convinced me to give the book a go. 

Such opacity stems from Burns’ refusal to give just about anything a name in her novel. That the story is set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles is only apparent if one is familiar with either the country’s past or Burns’ background, with the conflict being ‘an enormous, immense occurrence’ in her life that ‘demands to be written about’, she told The Guardian. If not, the novel reads not so much as a reminiscence of a past world, but as a chilling, dystopian vision of the future. The story follows an eighteen-year-old girl, known simply as ‘middle sister’, who attracts the attention of a man called Milkman, a 41-year-old paramilitary predator who we soon learn ‘didn’t take milk orders’, ‘didn’t ever deliver milk’ and ‘didn’t drive a milk lorry’. Allegedly having an affair with her stalker, the novel revolves around the potential damage that rumour can cause as our protagonist loses autonomy over her own story and, due in part to her habit of reading while walking, gets earmarked as a ‘beyond-the-pale’.

The novel reads not so much as a reminiscence of a past world, but as a chilling, dystopian vision of the future.”

Her resignation in the face of such a loss of control, however, and indeed the wider sense of detachment that Burns’ matter-of-fact writing style evokes in even the most disturbing of moments, is what makes the novel so hard-hitting. In this society, violence is the norm. The prospect of Milkman planting a bomb under a vehicle of middle sister’s maybe-boyfriend, a car mechanic, leaves him completely unfazed, and according to ‘longest friend’, it is preferable to be seen in public with Semtex, an explosive, over Jane Eyre, with the latter ‘unusual’ and the former ‘to be expected’. But violence that is not motivated by politics is unthinkable; the murder of tablets girl, a mentally-unstable woman who poisons anyone, from strangers in nightclubs to her own sister, unsettles the neighbourhood more than the murder of innocent children and teenagers at the hands of the paramilitary. Compared to her two novels prior to Milkman, Burns tells The Guardian that this one is the most political: ‘As a writer, I think it is absolutely fascinating to explore that whole theme of borders and barriers and the dreaded other’, she says – and given the contentious questions that Brexit has raised regarding the Irish border, this discussion gives the novel, despite being written largely in 2014, a particular pertinence.

In a similar vein, the Booker’s chair of judges, Kwame Anthony Appiah, draws a link between the novel and the #MeToo movement, noting that it offers a ‘deep and subtle and morally and intellectually challenging picture of what #MeToo is about’. Whilst the story does not feature any physical sexual assault, middle sister feels that she will not be – and indeed is not – taken seriously if she opens up about the emotional abuse she is experiencing as a consequence of being stalked. This stance is hardly surprising, given that she herself struggles to believe that her stalker is doing anything wrong, supposing that abuse can only be legitimate if it is physical. Burns masterfully delineates a culture of silence surrounding sexual harassment that bleakly persists throughout the course of the novel, with no hope in sight for its being broken by the narrative’s close.

Despite the novel’s accidental relevance, the difficulty of Burns’ writing style seems to have proved a barrier to the enjoyment of some readers. Written in streams of consciousness, the narrative tends towards tangents, with the present moment capable of spawning many a flashback and side-note in a manner that is highly Atwoodian, rendering it sometimes difficult to remember the scene you left behind originally. Milkman’s strange temporal looping also sees the opening sentence supply us with the ending: ‘The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died.’ The novel is certainly more concerned with character than plot, ultimately utilising its well-wrought insights into the psychology of an eighteen-year-old girl to shine a light on the complex conditions of the society it depicts. Yet the plot by no means feels superfluous to this aim; on the contrary, its loose parameters give the space necessary for character development whilst still maintaining a satisfying framework through which to capture the interest and attention of a reader.   

the narrative tends towards tangents, with the present moment capable of spawning many a flashback and side-note in a manner that is highly Atwoodian

That the story is not especially plot-driven is perhaps what makes the plot twist with regards to the protagonist’s maybe-boyfriend near the end feel a little on the artificial side. Whilst the revelation is not at all implausible, it does read as an ad-hoc resolution intended to force their relationship out of the ‘maybe’ category in a way that felt too easy and neat. However, this hardly detracts from the cleverness of the novel as a whole. Its perceptive understanding of how an individual mind can be moulded by the social context it finds itself in; its inimitable, unforgiving and brutally blunt narrative voice; and its often-startling use of humour alongside all of its depressing depictions of suffering, collectively make Milkman a wonderfully unique, haunting read. 

“It’s challenging in the way a walk up Snowdon is challenging – it’s definitely worth it because the view is terrific when you get to the top.”

Kwame Anthony Appiah