I’ve read two short, ghostly, fragmented books recently that left quite an impression on me. Short books!! What’s not to like? You can read them in a single sitting, over a pint or a cup of coffee. Like a poem, every word counts, every page is tight tight tight, and you can pretty much assume that they’ve been edited like hell, trimmed of all unnecessary, inessential fat. And of course the fragmented form is something I’ve been interested in for a while.
Grief is the Thing With Feathers (Max Porter)
“Any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project.” (99)
This book is everything everyone says it is (specifically ALL OF THE AWARDS people here in England!) and more. Talk about well-deserved accolades! Not quite a novella and not quite a poem either, Grief is the Thing With Feathers is dark, funny, apocalyptic, sad and thrillingly innovative. I can’t think of the last time I encountered a voice as enjoyable as Crow’s in this book.
The story is simple, with lots of blanks left for the readers to fill in and figure out for themselves. There are three narrators (helpfully indicated by titles above each fragment): Boys, Dad and Crow. Dad is a grieving Ted Hughes scholar, struggling to finish a book about the infamous Crow poems; Boys are his sons, confused and adrift after their mother’s sudden death. And Crow is their unexpected babysitter, a sudden apparition stalking the pages with his chaotic, messy rants. Much of the book’s power comes from Crow’s dual presence: first as an actual physical being, a creature with blinking black eyes bugling like football-sized testicles picking at his feathers and claws clattering on the floor, and secondly as a metaphorical embodiment as a figure of grief, pain and nihilism. He is both a ghost and (in his own words) “the god-eating, trash-licking, word-murdered, carcass-desecrating math-bomb motherfucker” (70) of Hughes’ original vision. Crow does “little squitty shits” in random corners around the house, encourages the boys to engage in strange competitive activities, shares his bad dreams, and fights a door-knocking demon that is maybe one of my favorite scenes in the book.
I found the similes and language of the writing incredible; I was constantly underlining like the most brutal book vandal there ever was: The knotted-string dream of other people’s performances of woe. (5) Crow’s rich smell of decay, a sweet furry stink of just-beyond edible food, and moss, and leather, and yeast. (6) Our love was settling into the shape of our lives like cake mixture reaching the corners of the tin as it swells and bakes. (39) The pain of them being so naturally kind is like appendicitis. (46) His mouth was slack grey and collapsed like a failed Yorkshire pudding. The amazing writing, even more than the concept, is what truly made this book for me. Every word is so well chosen, every sentence so carefully connected, it’s like following a trail of stones across a river that have been laid out in just the right way so that you don’t end up slipping and drowning.
Strange, plotless, beautiful books like this one make me glad to be alive. Also, in the interests of full, honest disclosure, this book and I share the same publisher and editor, but I honestly don’t see why that should detain me from exclaiming about it….
“Perhaps if Crow taught him anything it was a constant balancing. For want of a less dirty word: faith. A howling sorry which is yes which is thank you which is onwards.”
Faces in the Crowd (Valeria Luiselli)
Holy crap, did this book blow away. What a head trip. I often didn’t understand what was happening (in the sense that I didn’t know who was narrating) but guess what, THAT IS THE POINT. The two narrators swirl and blur into each other, ghosts from the past and future, slowly but surely swallowing each other up until you’re not sure who is alive, who is writing, who is creating who.
Told in brief fragments, we get three stories (I actually read one review that claimed there are three narrators, which I hope isn’t true because then WOW, I totally misunderstand the whole novel). One is of an Emily Dickinson-like mother retreating in her Mexico City apartment, gradually becoming obsessed with the works of Gilberto Owen, a marginal figure during the Harlem Renaissance in the 20s and 30s. Her obsession reaches the point that she even believes to have glimpsed him in the subway, in a manner similar to the Ezra Pound poem on which the English-language title is based (the title in Spanish was apparently originally Los ingrávidos, The Weightless Ones). Narrative Thread #2 is purportedly the work of fiction the woman is working on, memories of her time as a young woman in New York and her Savage Detectives-like romps (I found the satirical comments in these fragments about middle-class Mexicans and scathing observations about gringos who were convinced they were “special” for having lived abroad in Latin America for a time particularly hysterical). Narrative #3 appears latest in the book, the voice of Gilberto Owen himself, as he frets about losing weight and “disappearing,” fading from photographs even as his friendships with folks like Lorca and José Limón deepen.
The image of people staring at each other from two subway trains running on parallel tracks besides each other is a key image for the novel, as is a dead orange tree in a pot, discovered at two different points in time. Ultimately we’re left with the question of was writing who, of how literature can bleed into and create/become history. Are both the narrators dead, ghosts glimpsed by each other? How Borgesian.
God I wish I could write like this…!!! Maybe in 30 years :) … For me, this was such a treat to read: a genuinely avant-garde, mind-blowing work, truly expanding the capacities of the form. I learned so much about the writing from reading this, which for me is the best feeling there is.
The other thing I will say is that I’m glad I read absolutely no reviews of this book before reading it, because it made everything that happened as it unfolded a complete surprise. I also highly recommend this article by Luiselli, if only for the following absolutely priceless quote about the writing process: “A novel requires a bit of intelligence, and a lot of saliva, sweat and shit.” Words to live by!