I will be the first to say that I usually find the form of literary fiction too self-satisfied to connect with. Its multi-layered prose and flowery vocabulary, ordinarily leave me feeling relatively confused and incredibly inadaquate. In sum, I’ve never quite felt “clever” enough to basque in this genre’s glory. So, were it not for my haphazard book club, Lanny would have entirely passed me by – and, oh, what a shame that would have been! Longlisted for the 2019 Man Booker prize, Lanny, is a tale that has bewitched the literary world – and more impressively me – with its ethereal composition. Successor to his 2015 debut, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, Max Porter’s Lanny chronicles the growing chasms between country life and metropolitan mentality. Pre-cursing the abduction of a child by the village spirit, Papa Toothwort, this title beautifully highlights the ramifications of a 21st century lifestyle on not only the environment but human connection.
Told via alternating points of view, the title starts with Papa Toothwort – a godlike spirit – waking up from his slumber and eavesdropping on the conversations of a small English village. The devilish spirit becomes fascinated with a little boy called Lanny; a “creaturely” child, “young and ancient all at once”, immersed in nature and always singing. His mother, Julie, (an actress turned crime writer) and his father, Robert, (a chauvinistic workaholic) have recently migrated from the upper crust life of frantic London. Struggling to parent their wild and mystifying child, Julie enlists the help of the ageing artist Peter Blythe. Spitefully nicknamed ‘Mad Pete’, Peter is the village outcast that overcomes his grumpy ways to teach Lanny art. The two develop a heartwarming friendship – much to the disgust of the local mob. As such, when Lanny mysteriously disappears, all eyes are on Peter. But who’s really to blame?
wHAT IS MORE PATIENT, AN IDEA OR A HOPE?– Max Porter, Lanny
To paraphrase Alexandra Harris, Lanny is both a collage of emotion and a delicately stirred cauldron of words. Although initially apprehensive about the abstract prose of the first few pages, I strangely became accustomed to the poetic rhythm of Porter’s language. No doubt crafted to mimic the steady stream of consciousness that we hold in our minds eye, you can almost feel Pappa Toothwort shapeshifting and becoming one with the world around him. The moments when he is eavesdropping are some of the most emotionally and typographically engaging – predominantly because it felt true to everyday life. Porter has almost perfectly re-created the grumbles of village life and the disparity that exists between country folk and capitalist clones. The paragraphs in which everyday “country” phrases disappear and overlap across the page highlight this innate voyeurism that we have as neighbours and as human beings. Much like Pappa Toothwort, these mean-spirited comments feed on our senseless love for idle gossip and melodrama; reaching their crescendo when Lanny goes missing. Porter has a mystic ability to arrange words in such a way that their meaning is intensified and their imagery hyperboled. They are otherworldly and familiar all at once.
As you might have imagined, whilst I was impressed with Porter’s authority over the written word, I did struggle at times. Pappa Toothwort’s sections were particularly difficult for me to follow. I know this says more about me than it does about the title itself but I did find it rather pretentious and overly high-brow (this, might I add, is coming from both a linguistics and publishing graduate). Consequently, without giving away any spoilers, I was not entirely on board with the ending. There is a weird psychedelic nightmare sequence where Pappa Toothwort becomes a terrifying gameshow host and challenges Lanny’s parents. He is goading them and exploiting their flaws as human beings. This whole section of the book, for me, just felt too disjointed from the enigmatic tone that had been built up to this point. It pushed just a little too far over the edge of incomprehensibility. Of course, I’m sure there was some deeper meaning behind it all but I have to say…I just didn’t get it.
Taking folkloric elements of Midsummer Night’s Dream and meshing them with the contemporary connotations we have of country life (mainly from Hot Fuzz), Lanny, is a hybrid fable about the environment and the potholes of parenthood. Porter manages to bring to life his characters in such an immersive and familiar way that I almost expect them to come walking through the door any second now. Although I’m not sure I’d want the menacing Papa Toothwart to make a visit anytime soon…
…especially, with that great big bushy beard.