Grief is The Thing For December

Max Porter and Doing It Because It's Fun

It’s a few days before Christmas. You’re gathered with family, and it’s going well. Everyone is settled into their holiday routines—baking desserts, last-minute shopping, trudging around in the snowy forest. You need a break from home, though, so you walk downtown. There you find a bar spilling buttery light into the street. You go inside and order a mulled wine. You enjoy its old-world spice while looking out at the cold night, as one of those Gaelic Christmas albums blares.

Does that sound nice? Sorry for taunting you. As you may have heard, everything sucks this year.

So what do you do at the end of a shitty year? I don’t know about you, but one thing I’ve been trying and massively failing at is reading. Usually I knock out three or four books around Christmas, one of my most concentrated reading binges of the year. This year, all I want to do is stare at a screen until my eyes hurt and I finally sag into bed.

Again, everything sucks. But I do have Max Porter.

Max Porter is a British writer who has published two novels. His most recent was Lanny (2019), a ripping, witty, quick read that is nonetheless formally innovative and elegiacally haunting. His first book, Grief is the Thing with Feathers (2015), is even shorter and even more distinctive. It’s become one of my favorite novels.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers is about a father of two young boys who finds himself newly a widower. A magical crow comes to haunt—or help, or harass—him. The “chapters” are short (often less than a page) sections from a rotating array of perspectives. The boys get a “we” point of view that’s made lucid by presumed temporal distance. The crow and the father speak for themselves.

It’s a very weird little book, and not for everyone. Pathos is inevitable, given that this is a story about grief. But Grief is the Thing with Feathers doesn’t feel like a book-length therapeutic immersion into Pain You Should Care About in the way that so many books now do. Porter’s novel is sharply aware that no one cares about your pain as much as you do, as depicted so tightly in the second passage of narration by “Boys”:

Where are the fire engines? Where is the noise and clamour of an event like this? Where are the strangers going out of their way to help, screaming, flinging bits of emergency glow-in-the-dark equipment at us to try and settle us and save us?

There should be men in helmets speaking a new and dramatic language of crisis. There should be horrible levels of noise, completely foreign and inappropriate for our cozy London flat.

There were no crowds and no uniformed strangers and there was no new language of crisis. We stayed in our PJs and people visited and gave us stuff.

Holiday and school became the same.

I found that last line especially poignant, in the midst of the shit we’re all in: Holiday and school become the same [in the worst possible way]. Relatable for those of us working and playing and doing everything else at home.

As long as we’re making this novel about The Pandemic Year, it’s worth nothing that we’ve also become familiar with a crisis that fails to provide drama. It turns out a global crisis can (much of the time, for many people) become an experience of anxious boredom. Max Porter takes the microcosm of that failure to provide drama—all the interstitial space and time in between dressing up for a funeral or climactically breaking down crying—and fills it with words. Language that’s spare and cutting, but also demarcates and embellishes the ellipses. Whether that language comes from a magical crow or from little boys or from an exhausted husk of a dad, it always somehow feels both true to the pain of the characters and like Porter is having fun.

Having fun is both a hopelessly broad and hopelessly crucial concept for fiction writers. One of the oldest saws in writing craft circles is that readers can tell when you’re having fun. A teacher of mine extended this logic to assert that it’s impossible to write fiction well when you’re not having fun. The reader can always tell. Maybe this isn’t exactly true, but if a made-up, written-down story isn’t a record of the writer having fun, then what is it? Something less than it should be.

Here’s how Grief is the Thing with Feathers opens, also from the point of view boys:

There’s a feather on my pillow.

Pillows are made of feathers, go to sleep.

It’s a big, black feather.

Come and sleep in my bed.

There’s a feather on your pillow, too.

Let’s leave the feathers where they are and sleep on the floor.

Of all the ways to open a story about grief, this has to be one of the funnest possible. Patter between father and son, comically forlorn about feathers before we learn the real source of their grief—and also that there’s a magical crow shedding feathers. We’ve read the title, so we know feathers are important. We can infer from “boys” that this is a conversation between a child and parent, the familiar I Can’t Sleep dialogue between two bleary-eyed, pajamaed interlocutors. And then the charming resolution: We will leave the feathers behind.

Here’s a sampling of the crow’s narration, since I can’t finish this piece without giving you that:

Head down, tot-along, looking.

Head down, hop-down, trotter.

Look up. ‘LOUD, HARD, AND INDIGNANT KRAAH NOTES’ (Collins Guide to Birds, p. 45).

Head down, bottle-top, potter.

Head, mop-a-lot, hopper.

He could learn a lot from me.

That’s why I’m here.

So that’s one of the ways in which the crow talks. There’s also this way:

If you haven’t observed human children after serious quantities of sugar, you must. It raises and deranges them, hilariously, for an hour or so, and then they slump.

It is uncannily like blood-drunk fox cubs.

The crow contains multitudes.

And so does the whole book. Multitudes of not exactly dark humor, but of a kind of pathos-defying elan. Like all novels, Grief is the Thing with Feathers is at one level about using language to work your way through things that language can’t fully embody. It’s a mode of working-through to which I often try to pay homage, and inevitably fail. I at least suspect that the reason I keep trying to write about grief is because of this novel.

Most importantly for me, Porter’s work is a masterclass in virtuosically having fun and writing exactly what you feel needs to be written. That sounds simple and easy, but it feels impossibly hard when you’ve spent years training as a fiction writer and you still don’t know if you’re writing what you need to write. The way to get there is probably to continue to have fun on the page, even when real fun feels as distant and unattainable as a mulled wine in a crowded bar.

Highly recommend reading it as soon as possible, even if you’re addled and exhausted. It’s exceedingly short. You’ll want to read it again as soon as you’re done.

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Calving and Hobbes Corner

We’re still dawdling:

This is the kind of Calvin and Hobbes strip that gets re-printed a lot. There’s no narrative momentum to speak of, which might annoy if you were reading this in an anthology and trying to get through a story arc. But it’s perfect if you want to hold up Calvin and Hobbes as a series of cartoon-koans. We have Hobbes taking one philosophical stance, and Calvin fighting against him. As always, we know whom the joke will eventually be on.

To describe the “philosophical” flights of Calvin and Hobbes, I’d like to borrow a phrase from George Orwell: “the churchyard wisdom of the peasant.” Calvin and Hobbes usually don’t argue about the kinds of things that Hegel and Wittgenstein might have (though they have their moments). Instead, they’re barstool philosophers without the barstool, or dorm-room philosophers without the dorm room. Their wisdom is aphoristic in the best, easiest way.

Hence “Somehow it’s always right now, until it’s later.” Ain’t that the truth, folks! “Whatever that means.” Whenever Calvin is sardonically sure of himself, you can be sure he’s getting owned. He would’ve been a hoot on Twitter.

A poem

Jim Natal is looking for a crow