Book review: Lanny, by Max Porter

Max Porter PIC: Lucy Dickens
Max Porter PIC: Lucy Dickens
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I ought to begin with the “full disclosure”: I have worked with Max Porter and found him to be a commendably subtle, kind and intelligent editor. His debut work, Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, chalked up a staggering number of awards and short-listings. But being an editor and being a writer are different kettles of coconuts; and then there is the problem of a follow-up to a book so successful, the so-called “difficult second album”. So it was with some trepidation that I opened Lanny. Although I am moderately long in the tooth in terms of reviewing, there is still the frisson of panic when a writer, and person, whom you admire brings out a new piece of work.

I read Lanny in a sitting, and thought about it a great deal thereafter. I don’t want to use reviewer-y superlatives, but I don’t think I will read anything else like it this year. Like his previous work, it is honed, almost whittled. It has a hallucinatory quality to its sort-of-prose, sort-of-poetry. The novel manages to fuse mythic, folkloric subjects – the haunting “Dead Papa Toothwort” who emerges from his slumber at the beginning – with quite precise anxieties and angers about the present state of the country. It is a clash of several kinds of Englishness: the chthonic legends, the fading rural villages, the aspirant middle classes, the Tudorbethan snobs and a vein of potential ugliness suppurating below. If I had to give it a subtitle, it would be “Under Curdled-Milk Wood”. It resembles Dylan Thomas’s almost oratorio in many ways, not least in the polyphony of voices it conjures.

We start with the supernatural Dead Papa Toothwort, shape-shifting through the village as an engineer in a Day-Glo jacket, an exhaust pipe, a “pink-strangled” lamb, a tracksuit, a dinner jacket, a rusty car-bonnet. What he wants is to eavesdrop. The book then becomes typographically daring, as the words weave over the page, curling, crossing each other out, almost hiccupping from the straight line. Like Gilbert and Sullivan’s wand’ring minstrel, Toothwort is a thing of shreds and patches and the ballads, songs and snatches he feasts on soon turn into distinctly un-dreamy lullabies. It does not take the reader long to realise we are being inundated with a kind of symphony of the overheard. It is impossible to convey the effect, given the snaking nature of the print-setting, but this might give a flavour of it: “rooks quacking, laminate the rota, year9s lost control, Agnetta’s piled on the pounds, a sign up at Elm House, my trusty friend Diarrhoea, quick kick-about, original windows, nip into town, old people die, satsuma peel down the street like a treasure trail, littleshit, interesting light, Special Delivery and Signed For are not the same thing, countries go wrong”. As someone who lives in a village, I had the horrible feeling that Porter has been stalking a similar place with a dictaphone.

But what of the titular Lanny? Lanny is the out-of-focus focal point of the book. The reader encounters the young boy through narratives from his mother, a former actress and up-and-coming crime writer, his father, who commutes to London to work in the City, and “Mad Pete”, a once successful artist who takes Lanny under his wing. Lanny is a vaguely faerie character, prone to strange singing, sudden disappearances and unsettling questions. It is not a spoiler to reveal that the driver of the plot is that one day Lanny disappears for longer than usual. It is then that the ticker-tape whispers become far more callous and accusatory. The yuppie father, the eccentric artist and the ambitious mother all become the drifting attention of rumour. The eerie and the awful narrative converge in a kind of Twin Peaks-style finale (set, of course, in the Village Hall).

Although stylistically more experimental, this book has an affinity with works like The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley or The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry or even Iris Murdoch’s The Time Of The Angels, in that the horrific and the urgent are tethered together. It is also very English – but the same England of Ravilious prints and campanology is also the England of pub-bore bigots and ancient monsters. The prose is full of vowel assonances and consonant alliterations (“The make and shape of his rucksack, but not the little scar on his knuckle”), and the central section has a curious use of the plus sign to separate voices: does it reflect addition and accumulation or is it a cross? It is a book which offers a morose kind of redemption in the end, without distancing from the terrors.

I ought to let the book speak for itself to prove its quality. Lanny and Pete are discussing his nickname and one resident is mentioned. Apparently “She wears a Santa costume every day of the year and carries a golf club in her wicker basket but I don’t hear anyone calling her Mad Jean”. Later, if you listen to the whispers, you learn why Mad Jean is Mad. - Stuart Kelly

Lanny, by Max Porter, Faber & Faber, £12.99