Author(s): Max Porter
From the award-winning author of Grief is the Thing with Feathers comes a dark, playful, propulsive novel about an ethereal young boy who attracts the attention of a mythical, menacing force. There's a village an hour from London. It's no different from many others today: one pub, one church, red-brick cottages, some public housing, and a few larger houses dotted about. Voices rise up, as they might anywhere, speaking of loving and needing and working and dying and walking the dogs. This village belongs to the people who live in it, to the land and to the land's past. It also belongs to Dead Papa Toothwort, a fabled figure local schoolchildren used to draw green and leafy, choked by tendrils growing out of his mouth, who awakens after a glorious nap. He is listening to this twenty-first-century village, to its symphony of talk: drunken confessions, gossip traded on the street corner, fretful conversations in living rooms. He is listening, intently, for a mischievous, enchanting boy whose parents have recently made the village their home. Lanny. With Lanny, Max Porter extends the potent and magical space he created in Grief Is the Thing with Feathers. This brilliant novel will enrapture readers with its anarchic energy, with its bewitching tapestry of fabulism and domestic drama. Lanny is a ringing defense of creativity, spirit, and the generative forces that often seem under assault in the contemporary world, and it solidifies Porter's reputation as one of the most daring and sensitive writers of his generation.
Wherever humans gather they begin to do each other harm. The size of human gathering that optimises this harm is called, in England, a village. Neither small enough for differences to be accommodated nor large enough for them to be ignored, a village allows its inhabitants full exercise of their capacities for intolerance, for suspicion, for collective cruelty. In Max Porter’s poetic and affecting short novel Lanny, a couple move to one such village with their highly imaginative son, Lanny. The first part of the book is told in the alternating voices of the parents and of Pete, the elderly artist from whom Lanny receives art lessons. Lanny’s mother is trying to pull out of a period of depression, writing a crime thriller, and his father continues to commute to London, both a presence and an absence in the lives of the other members of his family. We see the ethereal Lanny through their eyes, but it is perhaps Pete who identifies most with his original ways of thinking and original ways of seeing. Narrated in the voices of these characters, the text provides access only to what they are prepared to acknowledge, leaving uncertain spaces. There is a fourth ‘voice’ in this first part of the book, that of ‘Dead Papa Toothwort’, a personification of a force of nature suppressed in modern life, a principle of decay and regrowth, assailing social fixity and seen primarily in its negative aspect as a force of destruction or death. From beneath the structures of stultification that comprises, to Porter, English village life, even Englishness itself, from the land, from growing and rotting things, from nature, comes the force that will bring down those structures. The first part of the book is saturated with ominous feeling as Toothwort approaches and wanders the village. As with the plant from which he gets his name, Toothwort is parasitic: like death, he has no form but the form he borrows, no words but the words he borrows. “He does the voices,” writes Porter, after Shakespeare, referring to himself, perhaps, as much as to his character. The Toothwort sections are comprised largely of odd snippets and freighted phrases such as are overheard in passing the conversations of others, lines often arranged on the page in a typographically eccentric way like the verbal detritus they are. Just as Toothwort uses phrases gleaned from the village to remake into his purposes, so does the author. A text always contains the ominous presence of the author’s intention, the author as a fateful presence, constructing the sentences but at the same time drawing them towards their death. Toothwort appears in the guise of ordinary things because the ordinary really is full of horror and the kind of undoing that he represents. He is “reckoning with the terrible joke of the flesh and the rubbery links between life and death.” Toothwort wanders the village and ‘chooses’ Lanny, the being most like himself. The second part of the book is told in myriad unattributed but distinct voices of people in the village, along with Lanny’s parents, Pete, and people involved in the search for Lanny after he disappears. These muttered, declaimed, gossipped or published passages demonstrate how, after a crisis is not quickly resolved, the worst aspects of people often come to the fore and people speak and act their prejudices, suspicions, jealousies and resentments, using them to vault to conclusions that relieve their uncertainty. Pete is beaten, Lanny’s mother slurred, anyone with a difference resented or suspected. The village builds itself into an unhealthy state of what could only be called excitement. These ‘external’ snippets are uncomfortable. The reader, like the villagers, is a voyeur, implicated in the crisis that exists for and because of those - villagers and readers - who observe and shape the crisis. We jump to conclusions and reveal our prejudices as do the villagers. We resent the author who reveals us to ourselves as the stories of the voyeurs swamp the facts (or, rather, the absence of facts). The third part of the book begins in the most internal of modes: the dreams of those closest to Lanny (his parents and Pete), dreams of Toothwort-catalysed possible Lannys and possible fates for Lanny. The sequence resolves into a dream of Lanny’s mother, of how Toothwort reveals Lanny to her in this dream, of how she wakes, “breathes in the flesh particles of generations of villagers before her and it tastes like mould and wet tweed,” and finds him, and of what comes after. Lanny’s mother is “caught between what is real and what is not,” however, and I can’t excise my suspicion that the entire sequence, including its resolution, is her dream or desire, a ‘possible’ but not necessarily ‘true’ story, a trajectory in her mind, a disengagement from other, external, possibly more ‘true’ stories - but isn’t fiction always like this? This is a remarkable book. Porter has the uncanny ability to evoke the ordinary and then make it reveal a certain beauty and depth and horror just as it slips away from our ability to hold it in our minds.
Lanny is an exquisite novel. You are immersed from the beginning (and I read this in a single sitting), the voice of Dead Papa Toothwort opening the past and present to the reader’s eyes. An ancient being, a force, a mythical creature, Dead Papa Toothwort is threatening and ambiguous, is present in the surroundings (in the earth and air) and, later we realise, in each of the villagers. This story is set in a village - a commuter trip from London. It is the story of a young boy, Lanny, and his disappearance. Lanny lives with his mother Jolie, a writer of grisly revenge crime novels, and his father Robert, a financial advisor working in corporate London. Lanny is unusual, creative and playful - a child of about eight who is fascinated by nature, loves ideas, and has an active imagination. Also living in the village is an artist, Pete, rather famous but now at the end of his career, nicknamed by his neighbours as ‘Mad Pete”. Art lessons with Pete are a wondrous thing for Lanny, and the two find solace in each other’s way of seeing the world and of being misfits. The book is split into three parts. In the first, we are introduced to our cast of players, their voices distinct and their desires articulated. Dead Papa Toothwort’s desire to take something living. His fascination with being within others and objects as he flits from one to the other is lyrical and sprightly while at the same time surrounding us with decay and darkness. Lanny’s Mum’s suffocation at the hand of village life and her cynicism will strike chords with trapped parents anywhere, while her description of her latest plots might make your skin crawl. Robert, pretty much the lousy father and unhappy husband, uncomfortable about his son’s oddness and more concerned with social status, is a familiar trope. And the other major voice in this novel is Pete, curious and generous but no hero. We only know Lanny through the eyes and ears of these characters, what they feel and describe, and their conversations and interactions with this child. In the second part, the style and pace change. The lines are fraught with urgency: Lanny has disappeared and he must be found. Here, the world of the village is laid bare in all its hypocrisy, prejudice and pettiness. The police arrest Pete and the villagers jump to conclusions supported by their small-mindedness. Old Peggy (our sage) directs her conversation directly to Dead Papa Toothwort, calling him out, but is disinclined to help the frantic Jolie - why does she dislike her so much? Both Robert and Jolie are understandably distraught, yet they both start imagining life without Lanny. Porter reveals the cruelty and tenderness of people with directness and spareness. The language is lean and taut but also encapsulates a lyricism that is melodic in parts but staccato and punchy when necessary. The final and third part of the novel is a dream-like sequence starring Pete, Robert and Jolie, an attempt to reveal Lanny’s whereabouts or to mystify us further. This is a novel to be immersed in, to re-read and think about, to appreciate the beauty of the language and the assuredness of the prose. A must for your reading pile this winter.
Longlisted Booker Prize 2019