Abstract beauty in fragmentary fiction


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This is not an easy book to read.

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This is not an easy book to read.

Barely 40 but already celebrated, British poet/novelist Max Porter here, as is his wont, drops a gauntlet, daring his readers to pick it up. The challenge issued is thorny. Be careful.

The dare is now technically complex — pages and pages of this tiny, paradoxical “novel” are almost impossible to decipher, with mutating voices, morphing fonts, unorthodox typographic layout and unruly punctuation.


And the dare is now narratively obtuse — it is quite simply very difficult to discern the characters, the setting and the plot of this thing, whatever it is. It is unquestionably beautiful, but that beauty is ephemeral, it is tormenting and it is bewitching. Porter does not so much usher his readers along as wilfully, joyfully thwart them, somehow managing to pull off a wondrous trick: one is consistently lost in these finite pages but irrationally compelled to read on. The book becomes a bad habit that will not go away.

Porter is first and foremost a poet, even as this is his fourth “novel.” None of these are traditional novels with depth and heft. No, they flout the very definition of “novel” and “novella” and undermine the nature and role of language, with wicked determination. Just as they seem about to burst into novel-dom, they end.

Porter is most lauded for his debut, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers (2016). At just 114 pages and relentlessly fragmented, it now feels like a minor-league preparation for the bigger leagues of Shy.

Indeed, those gallant enough to want to take a stab at Shy would do very well to prepare for the task with the unusual but relatively accessible Grief — a purely gorgeous rumination on unbearable loss. In Grief, a young husband and father loses his wife suddenly, and it is not she but the very idea of mourning that is embodied in a crow who fills her void, moving itself into the widower’s flat. The devastated, adrift husband desperately tries to make sense and persevere, his young boys ache for their mother but will their father onwards, and the crow caws in with tortuous but tender advice. One dashes through Grief, stunned by the ironic grandeur of the idea and the dancing language Porter deploys to dissect it with such subtlety and flair.

Shy is so very similar. The title gives us our protagonist’s name, a young 1995 teenager also trying to make sense of overwhelming despair. To describe Shy as “troubled” is to understate his character and situation drastically. He has done all the drugs, experienced and participated in all the violence and run out of all his freedom and time. Anthony Burgess’s droogs come quickly to mind. Shy is a hot, scary mess.

Shy breaks out of his reform school and stumbles about, lugging his rucksack of rocks, all-too-obviously metaphors for the painful memories that weigh him down. We glimpse his scattered thoughts, replete with both crystal clear and singularly muddled memories, sometimes organized and almost welcoming, more often forbidding beyond any intelligibility. His mind wanders so aimlessly that we wonder what he might have ingested this very night.

The effect is not unlike Christopher Nolan’s both celebrated and vilified film, Memento (2000): the viewer/reader is made to sense, to feel, to experience the mental afflictions of the ridiculously flawed hero. We cohabit with Shy, the displaced teenager, dismayed by the details but able to catch vestiges of the point of it all as things slowly piece together. There is a rewarding conclusion, but the cost is very dear.

Considering the movement from Grief to Shy, it all feels an awful lot like a series of rehearsals, as if they are quick études preparing the really big performance. Porter’s four novels are testing forays, each a bit more bold and slightly more wondering. A sustained, bulky, delicious behemoth must be looming. It will certainly be a disheartening, magnificent chore.

Laurence Broadhurst teaches English and religion at St. Paul’s High School in Winnipeg.

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