Why Literary Fiction Isn’t Scary: Max Porter’s ‘Grief Is The Thing With Feathers’

IMG_4647So, as soon as I heard about this release from Porter I was dying (if you’ll pardon the pun) to read it. However, despite being an English student used to narratives that indulge in lets say ‘alternative’ techniques, I still felt a bit nervous that I wouldn’t ‘get’ what Porter was trying to do with his work. As chance would have it, Grief Is The Thing With Feathers (2015), turned out to be on my MA reading list, so I had no choice but to be brave and undertake the text.

What I learnt was that the metafictive, non-linear structure and the multiple voices of the narrative are what makes this text so interesting. Grief belongs to the genre of Literary Fiction. The easiest way I understand this is that as opposed to offering an alternative world, Literary Fiction offers a comment on a particular part of contemporary society.  In this post I hope to demonstrate the things that might make this work seem inaccessible are exactly what allows it to make a comment on societies ideologies surrounding grief.

The text is made up of excerpts told from the Dad, The Boys and Crow’s point of view, both in the form of poetry and prose. Therefore, creating a polyphonic narrative. Early on Dad references that through the loss of his wife he was “becoming expert in the behaviour of orbiting grievers (…) It would be years before the knotted-string dream of other people’s performances of woe for my dead wife would thin (…)” (Porter, p. 4-5). There is a clear acknowledgement that there as a performative aspect to grief, a role you assume as a griever. The role of Crow holds up a mirror to this behaviour, which ultimately allows Dad and The Boy’s to grieve outside of this performative framework. They can mourn how they choose, without adhering to societal expectations.

The non-linear narrative in itself is reflective of mourning. Through my own personal experience loss is not something that works on a trajectory, where your ability to cope improves day by day. Grief is a chaotic emotional state. The story may not fit, but that is because Grief is representative of a tissue of different stories. Stories that we believe constitute our relationship with ourselves and others. This is particularly pertinent when the boys continue to age their dead mother, as a way of coping with their loss. In reference to their Dad after the mothers death they state “Dad told us stories, and the stories changed when dad changed.” (Porter, p. 62). However, later in the text The Boys seem to realise that in order to grieve the stories have to change, “before language was a trap (…)” (Porter, p. 67). Throughout the text, the use analepsis and prolepsis allows the boys to use stories from memory and fairytale in order to deal with the death of their mother.

This also relates to the metafictive quality of the text, another trope of literary fiction. The work engages with Ted Hughes’ Crow (1970). Also, in the opening of the work Porter amends an extract from Emily Dickenson’s poem That Love Is All There Is (1765). Porter replaces every use of the word ‘love’ by Dickenson with the word Crow, who I believe throughout the work is representative of grief. Porter himself frees the work from the trap of language whilst evidencing the parallels between emotions of love and grief. Enabled by the role of Crow in the text, The Boys and Dad edit and change the stories about their memories of the Mum, in order to grieve.

Hopefully, that didn’t get overly analytical! By picking out techniques such as the polyphonic and non-linear narrative, alongside engagement in metafiction, you can see how something that may initially appear to be a challenge to your reading experience can in fact enrich it. I really hope this encourages you to read Grief! This post has barely touched the surface of the rich complexities that this work has to offer, so please go and discover them for yourself!

As always, I would love to know what you think, particularly as this post is slightly different. Do you read literary fiction? If not, will you now? If you’ve actually read Grief I would love to hear your opinion! So please comment, like and share away.