The Wake of Negative Space: Narrating Loss in Two Recent Novellas

In The Writing of the Disaster (1986), Maurice Blanchot argues that narrating disaster—global, national, local, or personal—is an impossible task because it cannot be articulated or explained. Writing about disaster, Blanchot argues, is at “the limit of writing” because it “describes.” This “de-scription,” this un-writing, is taken to its extreme in writing about radical loss because we are often left literally speechless, lacking the language to articulate that most complex of human emotions: grief.

Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary (2010), a collection of dated text fragments composed in the wake of his mother’s death, perhaps most effectively conveys the relationship between narrative and grief: “There is a time when death is an event, an ad-venture, and as such mobilizes, interests, activates, tetanizes. And then one day it is no longer an event, it is another duration, compressed, insignificant, not narrated, grim, without recourse: true mourning not susceptible to any narrative dialectic.”

Indeed, countless studies have focused on the silence that pervades the grieving process, and countless more have explored narrative as therapy, a way to encounter, record, and negotiate the past’s traumas. Take, for example, Lidia Yuknavitch’s essay “There Is No Map for Grief: On the Work of Art” (2015), which chronicles how she came to be a writer as a response to the death of her unborn daughter. “Wounds create artists,” she says. And so, a writerly conundrum exists for the artist working in words: what form is best suited to narrate the unspeakable?

Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan notes in the final chapter of her book Narrative Fiction (1989) that when authors employ gaps—what we might otherwise call white space or absences—readers become increasingly satisfied because their role as a passive recipient is transformed into that of an active agent. As she puts it, “The written text is conceived of as having a virtual dimension which calls for the reader’s construction of the unwritten text.” When I think of the fictional form that best features and animates the idea of the reader constructing the “unwritten text,” I think of the novella, a form defined by what is carefully left unsaid—what lingers, ebbing in the clefts, fissures, and liminal spaces between the flips of the pages.

It makes sense, then, that the novella—characterized by scholars such as Judith Leibowitz and Mary Doyle Springer as skeletal and rooted in framing, insistent on length but also concise—is often a writer’s answer to the question of how to narrate grief. The novella, which should be defined not arbitrarily by length but by its unique qualities and characteristics, deploys the technique of gap-making to the extreme, capitalizing on the vacancy between sentences and scenes and the hollows between paragraphs. Grief, in much the same way, creates in us a visceral sense of being enveloped in an absence launched by a void in our lives, and so the narrative of grief is inherently tethered to lack.

Novellas of the distant and recent past have acknowledged this. A quick catalog of some of the most potent and evocative examples have at their center an attention to grief and its antecedents, to mourning the gone and the almost gone (the aborted, the ghostly, the imprisoned, the ill): Don Delillo’s The Body Artist, Teju Cole’s Every Day Is for the Thief, William Gaddis’ Agapē, Agape, Thomas Bernhard’s Wittgenstein’s Nephew, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. These books attempt to narrate loss, and in so doing come up beautifully short.

Recently, two more books have harnessed the potential of the novella form to articulate loss: Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers and Vi Khi Nao’s Fish in Exile. These deal with different forms of death and mourning—Porter’s book focuses on a widower with two young boys, Nao’s on a couple surviving their dead twins—but reading them together illuminates their almost uncanny similarities in execution; from script-like rendering of dialogue and the employment of allusions, to elements of surrealism and movement in and out of first-person point of view, these books suggest that authors who aim to write about radical loss are drawn to the novella because its form mirrors the experience: grief orbits but also stammers and stalls, interrupts but also loiters; insists on length but also demands brevity. The novella amplifies its material while condensing it, creating what Judith Leibowitz calls in Narrative Purpose in the Novella (1975) “the double effect of intensity and expansion.” Perhaps the uncanny quality of grief is what makes these authors turn to surrealism as a means of conveying the delirium and estrangement of the mourning process, fusing form and content to convey the dreamlike state—“the blank hovering” as Nao calls it, “hungempty” as Porter says—that launches us into mourning.

Vi Khi Nao’s Fish in Exile is a meditation on the grief that accompanies losing children to a horrible accident at sea. The details of the accident are not presented until late in the book, so the story leaves us uncertain about the source of the couple’s anguish, floating in the same suspense the couple experiences as the bodies are never recovered. For Nao, the absurdity of dead children translates to a surreal landscape full of farce, a world in which mourning means building an aquarium to house sea life that becomes, ostensibly, surrogate for their lost children. Catholic, the mother, sews fish outfits and hires a young boy to “walk” the fish within a lengthy aquarium on a leash adhered to their clothing. Ethos, the father, discards dead jellyfish by crafting for them transparent coffins that he sets out to sea. For Nao, these absurd gestures are coping mechanisms for the parents, ways they might exercise authority over lives in which they feel they are no longer active agents.

For Porter, the surrealism takes shape as a trickster figure who interrupts the lives of a father and his two sons as they cope with the loss of their mother and wife. The occasion for the story is not her death, but a perhaps-imagined, perhaps-real talking bird who seems to escape the page, making his way out of the father’s scholarly work concerning the poet Ted Hughes and into the lives and living room of the family. Crow, as he is called—Hughes’ 1970 collection Crow is arguably his most distinctive—becomes babysitter for the boys and interlocutor for their dad, a feather-dropping, wise-cracking, linguistic meddler who degrades the man and promises the boys that their mother will return.

Crow’s presence is loud and intrusive, but there are more subtle references to the irrational realities of loss as well. The circumstances of the mother’s demise, referred to as “unplanned,” are never revealed. The closest we get to an explanation happens when the boys admit to lying to their friends about how she died, an act for which she tells us (from beyond the grave) she doesn’t blame them. Furthermore, the boys—always referred to as a unit—often collapse into a single being, sometimes employing “we” in the sections they narrate, and elsewhere using first-person singular, with one never being distinguished from the other. (At one point the story admits as much: “I’m either brother,” we are told.) The line between reality and dream, between fact and fiction, is blurred, as if the reader were navigating this world through tearing eyes. Both authors seem to argue that because the unimaginable—the disaster, even if it is a local one—has unfolded, the mind finds grounding only in the absurd.

Contributing to this sense of dislocation and confusion—the “errant disarray” that accompanies disaster, as Blanchot notes—are the fractured perspectives from which the stories are delivered. Porter’s book is told in first person through sections that oscillate between “Boys,” “Dad,” and “Crow,” creating a sprawling, not always reliable portrait of grief. Similarly, Nao’s story is told in labeled sections from the perspective of a series of characters, bookended with sections told in first person by Ethos and Catholic. Other characters who deliver the story in Fish in Exile include Lidia and Callisto, a neighbor couple who were witness to the children’s disappearance, and Charleen, Ethos’s mother. These characters play out their distress through different forms of transgressive desire: Catholic and Callisto try to sustain an affair, while Ethos and his mother engage in forms of incest.

As Charleen puts it when trying to articulate her desire for her son, “It must be an ancient maternal yearning: to create something that will reenter you again. . . .” Later, when she alludes to eating the bodies of her grandbabies (“I am a grandmother who turns to cannibalism for closure”), we can read her proclamation empathetically, seeing her not as a child-eating monster but as a metaphorical figure for the maternal desire to reverse the bizarre mandates of childbirth. Charleen calls this “the sultriness of loss” and blames it on the physical demands of mourning: “Grief happens this way, doesn’t it? The mind is unable to cope, so it places the burden on the body.”

Porter puts it differently: “Moving on, as a concept, is for stupid people, because any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project. I refuse to rush.” Grief, like desire, is visceral and requires lingering, and both books’ narrative drives work in this circuitous, un-rushed way. The use of a shifting first-person point of view creates a kind of bricolage or quilt-like network of perspectives, arguing that although grief may craft an illusion of unity, its tendrils emanate exponentially.

If this shifting of focus elucidates the way loss is felt, the scripted dialogue underscores the way loss is discussed. Both books employ this tactic, thereby raising reader consciousness about the mechanics of speech and its relationship to mourning in a way that is more confrontational, perhaps more aggressive, than focalizing speech through a narrator and identifying the speaker with tags. For example, from Porter’s book:

Man          Did I respond as well as you’ d hoped?

Bird         Better. But the credit should go to the boys, and to the deadline. I knew that by the time you sent your publisher your final draft of the Crow essay my work would be done.

Man          I would be done grieving?

Bird         No, not at all. You were done being hopeless. Grieving is something you’re still doing, and something you don’t need a crow for.

Man          I agree. It changes all the time.

Bird         Grief?

Man          Yes.

Bird         It is everything. It is the fabric of selfhood, and beautifully chaotic.

Here the lack of mediation by a narrator—the raw material of speech delivered directly from the characters’ mouths to the reader’s ear—creates urgency while also installing a sense of eeriness because the speech is disembodied, relayed without material or corporeal context, in a manner akin to Beckett. Nao’s use of this device drives the speech into even more lyric territory while still maintaining the momentum of the scene, as in this discussion between the grieving parents:

Ethos: Catholic?

Catholic: Ethos?

Ethos: Where are you going?

Catholic: I am going nowhere.

Ethos: Are you sure?

Catholic: Certainly.

Ethos: Can I come with you?

Catholic: No.

Ethos: Why not? Why can’t I join you?

Catholic: I want to think of ways I can love you properly. Right now you’re getting in the way of that contemplation.

Ethos: Don’t you think it would be good for me to be a part of this conversation?

Catholic: You can’t be involved, Ethos. You can’t be involved in my happiness.

Ethos: Don’t you think this is wrong?

Catholic: No.

Ethos: I’m confused.

Catholic: We are not two halves. We are not some bifurcated thing. Happiness is not fluid. It doesn’t contaminate the body of melancholy. It separates the chaff from the wheat. Think of it this way, love, you are solitude. Our marriage works because I’ve deserted you completely. Let me be and I’ll love you properly. I assure you.

The transcript, what Derrida might call trace, creates the uncanny feeling of voices being both present and absent, both private and public. Blanchot says that when faced with disaster we allow ourselves to speak, even if that speech is “without words.” Here we are offered speech that is carefully scripted, so that the characters seem to be performing rather than expressing themselves. Importantly, this device also confuses temporal borders, creating the illusion of present-tense scene even though the primary tense in both books is past. As in grieving, this technique elucidates the major chore of mourning: to battle the present so that we might simultaneously embrace and escape the past.

If, as Porter says, “grief is the fabric of selfhood, and beautifully chaotic,” then these books have crafted a tapestry that amplifies the chaos and disquiet of grief in haunting and palpable ways. The quilt has often been used as an emblem for coping with loss because it is both fractured and fused, and Porter’s use of fabric here, coupled with the montage structure of both his and Nao’s books, gestures toward this image. Quilt-like narration often serves as the foundation of the novella, a genre that occupies the thin space between short story and novel, a genre that insists on length while also proving itself susceptible to Poe’s single-effect theory. In many ways, the novella’s form parallels the experience of grief: it is at once long, expansive, and to be indulged in, but simultaneously something to be overcome. These books—like the novella as an art form—remind us that narrative depends as much on what is said as on what is left unsaid, and its silences must be managed and governed so that in the wake of their negative space the story is further composed. Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers and Vi Khi Nao’s Fish in Exile are books that are “not narrated” to use Barthes’ phrase, “unwritten” in Rimmon-Kenan’s terms, “de-scribed” as Blanchot notes. By resisting orthodox methods for telling, they craft new grammars in the language of sorrow.


An essay review of:

Grief Is the Thing with Feathers. By Max Porter. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2015. 114 
pp. $14.00, paper.

Fish in Exile. By Vi Khi Nao. Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press, 2016. 192 pp. $16.95, paper.


Lindsey Drager is the author of the novels The Lost Daughter Collective (Dzanc, 2017) and The Sorrow Proper (Dzanc, 2015). She is an assistant professor at the College of Charleston, where she teaches in the MFA program in fiction.