“My Missing Her”: Max Porter, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers

I missed her so much that I wanted to build a hundred-foot memorial to her with my bare hands. I wanted to see her sitting in a vast stone chair in Hyde Park, enjoying her view. Everybody passing could comprehend how much I miss her. How physical my missing is. I miss her so much it is a vast golden prince, a concert hall, a thousand trees, a lake, nine thousand buses, a million cars, twenty million birds and more. The whole city is my missing her.

I’m really not sure what to do with Grief Is the Thing with Feathers. Its subtitle is “A Novel” but I am reluctant to concede the form to something so slight, so fabular, so episodic. I might be more comfortable calling it a “prose poem,” or “a meditation,” or “an unfinished novel”–that last, of course, both obtuse and a bit snarky, because I was irritated by the freewheeling form of the book, its total embrace of ellipsis as a (substitute for) narrative form. What is it these days with leaving everything out? I suppose it’s one way to differentiate your novels from those that get called “loose baggy monsters” for trying to draw everything in.

I didn’t like the crow. I understand that it is the central conceit of the novel; it’s an effective metaphor and clever, probably more than I appreciate, as a way of figuring grief as something that has a real presence, that plays tricks, that demands attention, that even, in its own way, connects you to your loss. I think I would have liked it in a poem. Here I found it a distraction–too clever, with its multiple modes of discourse and its allusiveness. Is grief really so literary? so metatextual?

I wouldn’t be frustrated about the things I didn’t like, though, if I hadn’t found other parts of the book so piercing:

She won’t ever use (make-up, turmeric, hairbrush, thesaurus).

She will never finish (Patricia Highsmith novel, peanut butter, lip balm).

And I will never shop for green Virago Classics for her birthday.

I will stop finding her hairs.

I will stop hearing her breathing.

If you can render the quotidian suffering of grief so brilliantly, with these few perfectly placed strokes, why resort to gimmicks and trickery? Because you want to, and because it will be new and different and memorable, of course, but these lines affected me strongly in a way that none of the crow’s mutterings did. Why not write the whole book of this family? It’s been done, I suppose, and you can do things (try things) with this darting, fragmented form that are different. Fair enough.

Moments and lines from Grief Is the Thing with Feathers will stay with me a long time. I don’t want to diminish that: for a slight book, it is surprisingly weighty. It was hard not to take its lamentations personally: nobody, I thought as I read it, will ever miss me this way, this much. Its grief felt true, and that’s a powerful effect. Still, and I suppose this is ultimately just a matter of taste, I prefer my fiction all filled in.

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4 Responses to “My Missing Her”: Max Porter, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers

  1. Jeanne says:

    I prefer fiction more filled in too.
    And you might be surprised at how many people would feel a vacancy in their own lives if you were gone, some of them people who don’t even know you in real life.

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      Thank you, Jeanne. It just came across as such a very intense, heartfelt, and specific grief: those green Virago classics!

  2. Teresa says:

    I didn’t like the crow much either, and I think my issues with the book were similar to yours. The whole thing felt too delicately put together, like an exercise, rather than a raw outpouring of grief.

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      Yes: maybe that’s inevitable with fictional that’s so deliberately experimental in form, but if what you are most struck by is the experiment, maybe it’s not entirely successful? Or maybe it just works better for people whose interest in fiction is primarily in form. I actually liked it better than My Name Is Lucy Barton, which (for me) didn’t have any of the emotional power that some parts of this one have.

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