I remember that Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers was the first book that I read when I came to UEA. As a literature student, I am often encouraged to take literary analysis further than what a book makes me feel. But I so vividly remember how Grief made me feel. It is a book that stays with you in many ways, from the Crow that speaks in the unfathomable yet intensely poignant language of grief, to the father and children who are each in their own way learning this language in their attempts to navigate the strange new land of mourning.
I wanted Porter’s book to be on the syllabus, not only because of the subject it explores, but also because of how it is explored. When my tutor for ‘Reading Texts I’ asked me why I wanted this book to be taught, I replied that I thought it should be on the reading list because it was ‘experimental’. Grief has the most spectacular form, bridging and bending genres in a myriad of ways. Porter would not use this word to describe the book himself: ‘I don’t set out to be formally experimental. I set out to make good noise, create energy, tease and probe and build. To do that I naturally go to the techniques of fable, or the structure of plays, or the concision of poetry.’ The structure of Grief opens it up to interpretation, and it has recently been adapted into a play by Enda Walsh, staged at the Barbican Theatre and starring Cillian Murphy from the show Peaky Blinders.
The father in Grief is obsessed with Ted Hughes’ work, Crow. In an interview with Foyles, Porter clarifies that ‘The Crow is not Hughes’ Crow, he is Dad’s, the Boys’, my own, any reader’s, and the bird itself, with all the literary, mythological, ornithological baggage.’ In regards to the form of the book, Porter describes his methods in a similar fashion: ‘I naturally go to the techniques of fable, or the structure of plays, or the concision of poetry.’ He explains that ‘to not borrow formal techniques from these things would, for me, be much harder, because those are the things I love.’
His new book Lanny was published earlier this month, and it is indeed a patchwork of fable, script, poetry and prose. The book actually began as a poem about the relationship between an old man and a young boy. Intrigued by the structure of his poem, Porter begun to look for the energy in the piece, that would enable the book to be lead into the territory of the novel. Set in a village near London, the inhabitants are each strange in their myriad of inimitable ways. There is Dead Papa Toothwort who is listening in on the village, and endlessly becoming what he hears; there is the innocent spark that is Lanny, his mother and father, and there is the sinister, palpable tension that permeates the narrative.
This book, similarly to Grief, explores the endless possibilities of the physical page. Formatting plays a significant role in Porter’s creative process. When I asked him about this, he explained how page formatting was important in both of his books: ‘In the first because it was about literary obsession, vandalism and play (as well as childhood) and that needed to be seen on the page, in the form, for the reader. In Lanny, the village voice needed to be understood as sound, as something distinct from the narrative voice or the character’s speech.’ The words that are heard by Dead Papa Toothwort are falling from the page, dripping in sound because, as Porter expounds, in order for the voice of the village to stand out, it “had to violate the conventions of the printed page”.
Indeed, Porter’s work is not only highly visual; it is also extraordinarily aural. “I want to hear things, when I read and when I tell stories. I am firmly of the oral tradition in that regard.” “ghoeeeze”, clacks the Crow, and when Papa Toothwort sings, ‘it sounds slow- nothing like tarmac bubbles popping in a heatwave.’ From the sounds of the Crow, or those coming from the village in Lanny, to the silences of certain characters, every noise or its absence tells a story. Porter states: ‘Musicality is vital in literature,’ and he himself reads books that not only produce but utilise noise. ‘Tone-deafness, or tonal totalitarianism in a novel tends to mean I won’t enjoy it. Nothing to hear, nowhere to go, just the artificial surface of a novel for novel’s sake.’
Nevertheless, in today’s world, in which everyone seems to make a lot of noise without ever listening, Porter does not merely write bombastic narratives that overwhelm the reader or the characters with the authorial voice; instead, he seeks ‘to invite some degree of magical thinking into the space usually reserved for an author’s own moral or political faith.’ He wants to ‘write subtly about people, and about subtle things. But this is hard in a world as chronically unsubtle as our own.’ Reviewers instantly praised Porter for the refined way in which he deals with the catastrophizing impulse that pulsates a sense of disaster throughout Lanny. ‘My aim would be to write carefully, probably minimally, about the telling moments that reveal the uncanny, surprising, erotic, shameful, joyous experience of being alive with other people.’
Max Porter will appear in conversation with Philip Langeskov on March 27 at the 2019 Spring Literary Festival.