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The Vernacular Of Places: Max Porter's Lanny
Hannah Clark , May 5th, 2019 11:12

The second novel by Max Porter (Grief is the Thing with Feathers) is a rich, emotionally resonant work of literature, finds Hannah Clark

Beyond all other things, Max Porter is an author who writes about love. In Grief Is A Thing With Feathers he offered a portrait of a family coping with a situation and a loss that for most of us remains distant, only glimpsed in the bleakest, darkest point of our fearful imaginations. Lanny contemplates a similarly diabolical domestic occurrence: a child going missing. Lanny is a deeply moving, folkloric odyssey that blends ancient magic with modern life, the ordinary and the miraculous, and most importantly our innately human hopes with our deepest fears.

Set predominantly in an unnamed, sleepy rural village “one pub, one church”, placed a commutable distance from the sharply contrasting world of London, Lanny is also set in the woods surrounding the village rich with half-glimpsed pagan enchantment and events are observed throughout by the shadowy voyeuristic presence of Dead Papa Toothwort, a Green Man figure for the post-millennial age, at once invoking traditional pastoral lore and embracing the new magic of technology in his tricks.

The novel begins with Toothwart awakening after a long sleep of indeterminable years, though it is later stated that he likes to explore the village ‘once a century or so’. Toothwort has been around for millennia and has seen the rise and fall of the village’s fortunes. He consumes with a greedy relish the sounds and objects that herald the modernisation of his land, though when he is angered by the villagers he will punish them in various ways such as slipping a piece of “his nightmare skin” into the home of someone to disturb their sleep. Toothwart makes his way toward the village, shape-shifting and melding his form from forest matter and junk “…he shrinks, cuts himself a mouth with a rusted ring pull and sucks up a wet skin of acid-rich mulch and fruity detritivores. He splits and wobbles, divides and reassembles, coughs up a plastic pot and a petrified condom, briefly pauses as a smashed fibreglass bath, stumbles and rips off the mask.” Once there he waits for the sounds of people and the snippets of their conversation brought to him on the breeze and hear, crouched in a turn-stile “approximately the size of a flea” Toothwart hears Lanny’s bedtime thoughts and zeroes in on the boy’s presence as something special.

Lanny, the titular protagonist, is a Pan-like sprite of a child, with seemingly uncanny connections with the natural world. He both amuses and worries his parents with his strangely delightful questions “Which do you think is more patient, an idea or hope?” and deep connection to the natural world. He collects bones and wood and moss. He makes a den amidst the trees and writes made up incantations to protect and charm the bushes he plays in. He sings made-up songs and finds his way through literal labyrinths with mysterious ease. Lanny is not the child that either of his parents expected and he has now crested the twilight of his childhood and is at an age where his all-encompassing imagination is beginning to clash with his awareness of and burgeoning beckoning into the adult world. However, despite Porter’s clever depiction of a boy who verges on the mystical and Toothwart’s interest in Lanny, this novel is also a tender portrayal of any typical child made possible by Porter’s exceptional talent for crafting a child’s world, tempered with wry humour and an endearing respect. Reading Lanny it feels safe to assume that Max Porter is not a person who uses a high-pitched squeaking voice to speak to children and his real-world recognition of the way children tend to be is critical for maintaining the balance of light and shadow throughout. There is a particularly endearing scene in which Lanny is distraught having broken something at Pete’s and tearfully confessing this disaster to his mother in a heart-warming passage that is instantly recognisable as one of the many tiny disasters that befell us all.

Set in three distinct parts, the story is centred around Lanny’s interlinking relationships with the three key adults in his life: his crime-writer mother, his London-bound businessman father, and his cantankerous loner art teacher, Pete – known by most in the village as Mad Pete, and when Lanny goes missing each of these relationships is pulled into the public spotlight in a terrifyingly frank critique of loss, guilt, hope and pain; told via a seemingly shambolic chorus of gossip, journalism, internal thoughts, and sloping conversation, often literally slipping into the margins.

Porter’s language is compelling and poetic, a celebration of the eccentricities of the English language as a whole and the individual vernaculars of particular places. The scraps of conversation from the village chorus that scatter across the pages like wind snatched blossoms may seem random at first but pay them attention as they slip and slide and roll amusingly over and under each other, as free to roam and weave as Toothwart himself, and smaller stories and voices start to appear. “Dylan needs a dimmer switch on his temper … floral prints … a whippet’s good nature … a dick that big should be on a leash …” the voices explode across the page in all directions like snatches of fading radio static and it is a disorienting labyrinth for the eyes and imagination as you are first invited and then forced to join Toothwart in his eavesdropping. Not a new stylistic choice for Porter, the typographic explorations nevertheless lend a solid weight and beauty to the novel’s architecture that should be savoured alongside the more standard delivery of prose.

An emotionally resonant work of literature, Lanny not only richly deserves its place beside Grief Is A Thing With Feathers but stands in its own right, an elegant mystery embedded within a deeply compassionate exploration of the human condition and our most enduring, shimmering emotions.

Lanny by Max Porter is published by