I was delighted when Porter’s second book, Lanny came out of the hat for our Book Group’s ‘L is for’ nominations. I bought it soon after it was published, and just hadn’t got around to reading it yet. It wasn’t my suggestion either, (mine had been Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner). I was keen to discover what the group thought of Lanny’s style, which is experimental and polyphonic, but accessible.
Lanny is the story of a village, but in particular a child – Lanny – who will go missing. Lanny’s parents are Jolie and Robert, incomers to the commuter village. Robert works in the city; Jolie, a former actress, is writing a psychological thriller. Their relationship is a bit tense these days.
Does my husband sit on the train and worry that the crushing dullness of Collateralised Loan Obligations might be leaking into Lanny? I doubt it. Does he feel disgusted and ashamed that his phone, which Lanny uses to watch videos of blue whales, is the phone on which he watches porn, sadly whacking away at himself in the bathroom while I pretend to be dreaming of murder plots? No, he doesn’t. Such burdens are always hers:
Lanny is an artistic young boy, always singing. Also living in the village is Pete, whom many call ‘Mad Pete’. A famous artist in his heyday, Pete still creates beautiful things; birds made from found objects wound with wire at the moment. Some of his previous work is rather edgy and sexual, but that was then. Jolie persuades him to give Lanny art lessons after school, and the two take to each other instantly, and the pair can often be seen tramping around the fields and woods, drawing and collecting. The pair are out, and going past the bus shelter where youths are smoking joints:
WEIRDO coughed one of them, spluttering into giggles.
We walked on.
I was a little stuck for what to say and then Lanny asked, Do you think they were talking about me or you?
And I shrieked with laughter then, because for some reason I found that stupendously funny and Lanny was saying, What? What’s so funny?
[…] and I was still wiping tears of laughter from my eyes and considering how surprising it was, me, and old man, tail-end of a good career but a mainly lonely life, finding such a good friend in this little kid.
Observing everything going on though is Dead Papa Toothwort. He’s the village’s spirit, like the Green Man, but on steroids! He’s mischievous, gets in everywhere and is distinctly earthy.
Dead Papa Toothwort lies underneath a 19th C vicars wife and fiddles with the roots of a yew in her pelvis. He loves the graveyard, he listens…
When Dead Papa Toothwort listens, we hear fragments of conversations all over the village, chopped up and swirling over the page in italics, a chorus if you will – see to your right. This is so cleverly done. And as we’ll see, Dead Papa Toothwort is wide awake and ready to make havoc.
The first part of the book alternates between Papa Toothwort, and sections voiced by Lanny’s Mum and Dad, and Pete. In part two, the style changes to shorter vignettes voiced by unnamed characters, although we can work out who is talking, many are single paragraphs, separated by a ‘+’.
When they realise Lanny has disappeared, the spotlight immediately falls on Pete. Jolie never believes what the public are saying for one minute. It’s nasty, and the village gossips are doing their worst to spread unfounded rumour, and we get to meet several of them in these vignettes. I can’t tell you how it pans out in part three, except to say that it all goes a bit trippy!
I loved Porter’s writing in this novel, injecting the family drama with folk-horror, and highlighting both the joy and danger that nature can give. While the whole is less overtly poetic than his debut, Grief is the Thing With Feathers, his careful choice of words for Papa Toothwort certainly gives a prose poem feel to those sections, and the wafting voices could be cut-ups of course.
Lanny went down well on the whole with our group. Our favourite character was Pete by far. Lanny’s relationships with his parents were interesting and contrasting – the mother writing a nasty novel which almost presages what happens; the father not understanding his different son. Interestingly, one of our group said it was a very Southern novel (she comes from Yorkshire). When she moved back recently everyone was so welcoming, whereas in Lanny’s commuter village, there was little socialising between inhabitants beyond the school gate and more gossips worrying about incomers parking on the verges.
I loved this book, and am making it my first 10/10 read of the year.
Source: TBR. Max Porter, Lanny, Faber 2019, 213 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)