Staff Chat: #BrazosBest Is the Thing with Feathers

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The Book: GRIEF IS THE THING WITH FEATHERS, a novel by Max Porter
The Plot: A woman dies, and her husband—a Ted Hughes scholar—and two young sons struggle with grief; then, a crow shows up, won’t leave, and says bizarre shit
The Chatters: Mark Haber (Store Manager), Keaton Patterson (Buyer), Benjamin Rybeck (Marketing Director)


Keaton: Caw!

Mark: I remember hearing lots of buzz about this book from other booksellers, and of course we love Graywolf at Brazos. So I got an advance copy, adored it, and wanted to share it with people.

Ben: Among a certain cluster of booksellers—younger, hipper booksellers out there on Twitter—this seems to be the book of the moment, the one that a lot of people are behind. What is it about it?

Keaton: It’s well-written; it’s experimental in its format; it’s brief, but its brevity belies how much it resonates and how much you think about it afterward; it has universal concepts of grief, loss, trying to move on.

Mark: It takes universal themes of family and losing loved ones, but it uses an angle I have not seen before. What about you, Ben?

Ben: I forgot my question.

Mark: Why do you think it’s the book of the moment?

Ben: Oh, I dunno. I think a lot of booksellers want to get published by Granta. [Laughs]

Keaton: It’s the book of the moment because it’s Brazos Best. That’s why it’s the book of the moment. [Laughs]

Ben: There seems to be a popular approach now—taking really intense experiences and fracturing them in some way. For a certain kind of writer and reader, the experience itself is no longer enough, and straightforward narrative is no longer enough.

Mark: We see that a lot.

Ben: Think of Maggie Nelson, or Valeria Luiselli, or countless others. And Max Porter uses the freedom of fiction to move between three points of view on grief [the father’s, the children’s, and the crow’s], and to embody each, which is cool.

Keaton: It’s a polyvocal novel. It has a lot of different voices speaking in it. It’s also a very human story, and its universality lets you connect with it in the intense way you often connect with lyrical books. GRIEF IS THE THING WITH FEATHERS made me think a lot of poetry, especially whenever the boys speak—they seem to be in a Greek chorus. And the verbal acrobatics of the crow: very poetic. It’s a streamlined, effective use of this polyvocal technique, which is very old, going back to modernism, if not before, with John Dos Passos. The USA trilogy is polyvocal fiction par excellence, but it’s also 1000 pages. Porter’s book is much shorter [114 pages].

Mark: When I started reading, I got to the crow—whose voice is a high-wire act—and I thought, I’m not going to like this. This is not going to work. But Porter pulls it off! The crow rhymes, then sometimes gets dirty and carnal and visceral, and you wonder why the crow is there—to hurt the family?

Sample passage: “Trip trap. Two-bed upstairs flat, spit-level, slight barbed-error, snuck in easy through the wall and up the attic bedroom to see those cotton boys silently sleeping, intoxicating hum of innocent children, lint, flack, gack-pack-nack, the whole place was heavy mourning…”

Ben: When you’re writing from the point of view of kids or a grown man, you’ve gotta hew somewhat closely to a reader’s idea of how those people would talk and think—but with a crow, fuck it, the crow can do anything the crow wants, and the crow can speak any way the crow wants. It’s one of the elements of the book where you sense Porter thinking, I’m gonna go crazy; I’ve got a linguistic idea, I’m going to work it out. He doesn’t belabor it, though, or show off; he does it kind of quickly, and then he goes back to the “conventional” voice.

Mark: I’ve never read anything like it. We always say that—but really, I haven’t. GRIEF IS THE THING WITH FEATHERS is concise and, at the same time, very touching. In the end, I was moved.

Keaton: It’s very well-formed, very affecting in its emotional heft.

Ben: Do you need to know Ted Hughes’ work [especially his 1974 poetry collection CROW: FROM THE LIFE AND SONGS OF THE CROW] to understand this book?

Keaton: I don’t think so. The crow in world mythology is such a common symbol of the crossover between different worlds—the living and the dead. It also has mythological trickster aspects, while some cultures think of it as the wisest of all animals. I think Porter uses that mythological status to great effect. And Ted Hughes was using the crow in its mythological capacity as an example of his own grief [he was married to the late poet Sylvia Plath], so Porter’s work is a natural extension of that.

Mark: GRIEF IS THE THING WITH FEATHERS definitely fits the store’s taste.

Keaton: Yes. Anything else?

Mark: I think that’s it.

Keaton: Concise book, concise talk. Caw!


Grief Is the Thing with Feathers Cover Image
$14.00
ISBN: 9781555977412
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Graywolf Press - June 7th, 2016

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