Victoria Smith is captivated by Lanny, Max Porter’s long listed Booker Prize novel about the disappearance of a little boy from an English village. Here, Smith reviews the novel against Porter’s 2015 debut, Grief is the Thing with Feathers.
I have a confession to make – I had never heard of Max Porter before my editor suggested reviewing Lanny, Porter’s Booker long-listed follow up to his equally lauded Grief is The Thing With Feathers. I received it through the post the day before we left for our long family holiday and opened it in the hot silence of France. I investigated the dust jacket. I was not feeling it. Lanny seemed like an odd title and there was a slightly odd-looking photo of Max Porter inside of the cover looking like he was trying to merge with a hedge. Winsomely.
But on reading Lanny, it became apparent that my editor, with her unerring taste, had selected another literary gem. Lanny is an extraordinary tale of a boy and his connection with the countryside. Slim though it may be, Lanny offers a deeply rewarding examination of our relations with one another; it meditates on the idea of Englishness and revisits the themes of myth and language (and Hughes) that Porter explored in his debut,Grief is The Thing With Feathers.
In Lanny, Porter employs the same polyphonic technique as Grief. That is, throughout the text we hear the voices of three characters: Lanny’s mum, Jolie; his dad, Robert, and Pete, a famous artist, rising and combining with a third-person narrative of the book’s villain – Dead Papa Toothwort – to form a multi-threaded tale. But whereas the narrative of Grief is disjointed and crow-like scruffy, Lanny has a more cohesive structure, much like that of a crime novel. There’s the set-up: a London family establishing their place in a village and their connection with a local artist who’s been isolated by his fame; the crime; and its resolution. The setting – that of an English village and its surrounding countryside – is familiar from the “cosy crime” of Agatha Christie, Midsomer Murders, Morse, Dorothy L Sayers and Robert Galbraith amongst so many others.
The “cosy crime” setting is one which Porter cleverly exploits to expose both the falsehood inherent in its apparently ordered structure – although he achieves this through his clever mythical creation, Toothwort, who disrupts and distorts. Toothwort is the grotesque villain of Lanny, the perpetrator of the book’s central crime. But he is a fiction, a literary conceit, a mish-mash of the Green Man, the wild man of the wood. Toothwort is Herne the Hunter, Gawain’s Green Knight. As such, Lanny has no human perpetrator, no-one to whom other characters can point an accusatory finger (although the villagers have a good try). Toothwort also acts as a detective; a puppet master who forces Pete, Robert and Jolie to perform their own crimes of character, only to eventually give them the tools to solve the puzzle of Lanny’s disappearance.
Lanny is a rich linguistic tapestry, in which it’s possible to trace notes of other writers who have helped curate our idea of ‘Englishness’
As well as exploring the crime genre, Porter considers Englishness. His prose abounds with references to items and artefacts, things that appear quintessentially English – cricket, hawthorns, Sunday school, driving rain, stiff upper lips, self-deprecation (Robert chastises himself for describing Lanny as mad as a March Hare to humour his boss; Pete remembers his mother saying that she could not sing). The novel, particularly the Toothwort extracts, is a rich linguistic tapestry, in which it’s possible to trace notes of other writers who have helped curate our idea of ‘Englishness’: the Romantic poets; Gerard Manley Hopkins; Hardy; John Clare; Edward Thomas; Ted Hughes, Simon Armitage. Besides those poets I can hear echoes of Lucy M Boston, E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, Joan Aiken, Neil Gaiman and John Masefield, rising and mingling in Porter’s imagined world.
Lanny is also a narrative that’s rich in words that feel quintessentially English. The strands of village voices, drawn together by Papa Toothwort, woven in a symphony, are a particularly good example: yew, whippet, condom, salt of the earth, gyppo, Guinness, goblins, prick, Radio 3, bonkers, Stoppard. An endless list of words and phrases that only come from the mouths of English people. This cacophony of Anglophony was initially the only aspect of Lanny that felt off; the font and arrangement distracting, the voices twee. Porter even sounds a little snide, with phrases such as: ‘we don’t welcome hobbyists, Malcolm’, sneering at the small-mindedness of English villagers.
However, it’s all intentional. Firstly, post-Brexit, it’s clear many of us are small-minded. Lanny’s village is like a microcosm of England – with all our small-minded petty desires to keep at bay all those we consider to be outsiders. Porter has said that he didn’t want to write a Brexit book, but he wanted to write about the issues raised in connection with our departure from the EU. As with England, not everyone is hostile. And as the novel progresses, most voices become more sympathetic. After Lanny’s disappearance, for example, the villagers recognise their complicity in the nation’s rubbernecking:
‘What’s grotesque, Theresa, is the ungodly speed of the thing, how quickly a missing child becomes a booming industry. How well-practised must we be?’
Finally, tweeness: chintz, cream teas, the Archers, is English. We are the United ‘Kingdom’, a democratic monarchy, with all the crazy, made-up rituals that entails. Even our idea of the English landscape is contrived (take, for example Capability Brown’s hermitages).
Like the village, Porter’s prose is also full of ‘trinkets and trash’, adjectives stuffing his sentences as the countryside gradually fills with waste.
People aside, the setting of Lanny is dark and dangerous. Toothwort is the best illustration of this. He is an embodiment of the second law of thermodynamics – the ‘tendency of any isolated system to degenerate into a more disordered state’. Toothwort is putrefaction. He has nightmare skin, he rises out of the rubbish, squats in septic tanks, ‘loves it when a lamb gets stuck being born ’. The theme of decay is echoed throughout. Pete’s art is built on entropy – made from ‘the skeletons of dead things’. He hums the Sprig of Thyme, a traditional English rhyme with lyrics like ‘an ocean of pain / And heartache and misery’. Psalm 37, which floats up amongst Toothwort’s chorus of voices, is about God’s vindictiveness against the wicked. England – or at least, the English countryside, is fetid, rotting.
But not all of it. In the village, Toothwort sleeps beneath human bones; to him the villagers are ‘bags of shopping and bags of rubbish’. The countryside decays naturally but the village proliferates with human-created waste, detritus that will not decompose. Toothwort represents infinite entropy but he, it, is part of the natural order – humans are not. Like the village, Porter’s prose is also full of ‘trinkets and trash’, adjectives stuffing his sentences as the countryside gradually fills with waste. Echoing poets such as Ted Hughes, Porter seems to be making an environmental point, that with waste such as the black plastic dog-shit sacks that decorate the hedgerows, humans are ruining the countryside, upsetting the natural order of things.
Porter’s characterisation is strong, particularly when it comes to Pete, an isolated artist who finds joy in connecting with Lanny, and Robert, Lanny’s father. Pete is strung between the two worlds of the village and his London job, that he loves. Porter has an uncanny understanding of human nature, a sensitivity to how we relate to one another, which allows his characters to act and think in ways that are unpredictably terrible and tender – Jolie’s reaction to a hedgehog’s distress is a memorable case in point. His characters are, in short, profoundly human.
Grief is The Thing With Feathers
Reading Grief after Lanny, I struggled. It is breathtakingly original – a made up real crow barging in on the grief of a father and his two boys following the death of their mother. But I hated Crow. Contrasted with Lanny, even taking into account vile Toothwort, Crow grates. He is annoying. He is menacing and grimy; he has a greasy plumage that clogs up mouths and nostrils. He fluffs his feathers, he obscures the narrative. Although Lanny plays on the idea of Englishness, it also has (like so much other literature that considers Englishness – e.g. A Room With A View) a rather genteel, English sheen and is easier to read. But Crow renders Grief scruffy and difficult. He barges into the narrative and pecks at the reader’s consciousness. Toothwort, Crow’s Lannyian twin is more part of the textual tapestry, part of the backdrop to the tale. Crow is in your face.
At least … initially I hated Crow. Then I read further into the book. I accepted that he is both real and not. He is Ted Hughes’ poetical Crow, from Crow, From the Life and Songs of the Crow. He is the crow from myth. He’s both real and not real, a literary conceit and a real live bird. As crow cracks open the conventional literary narrative, he creates space for Porter’s playfulness – comprehension questions, mid-edit manuscripts, jokes and playscript (see Porter’s talk for 5×15) that make up the fabric of Grief. And I began to enjoy Grief, to appreciate the originality of the concept – Porter’s idea to take a corvid, consider its literary iteration, add his own embellishments, insert additional mythical connotations. Breathe life into it. Set it hopping and pecking and ruffling its feathers through a text. It has been done before: Stoppard, for example, is fond of taking well-known characters and viewing them from different perspectives, in plays such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Travesties. Arabel’s Raven has a Poeian corvid disrupting the lives of Arabel and her family, intoning ‘Nevermore’ with comic menace throughout Joan Aiken’s books. And, on an avian theme, there’s also Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot. But Stoppard is self-consciously meta-textual; his characters are cyphers rather than real people. Arabel’s raven has very little to say (although I feel I can see Quentin Blake’s illustrations in Porter’s messy, scraggly prose). Barnes’ parrot is, of course, dead silent.
Porter’s Crow appears tangible, fully fledged, able to operate without reference to his literary heritage. The playfulness is dazzling. Crow is bawdy, hilarious, vile. He makes Grief both dark and light, his beak, his propensity for violence, for unpredictability mess up what might otherwise be a gentle meditation on grief.
After my teens I was, predictably, prejudiced against Hughes – because, well, Assia Wevill and Sylvia Plath. But Grief converted me…it drove me back to Hughes’ Crow.
The main characters, Dad and the Boys, are startling pictures of grieving people. Unlike Lanny, the characters are unnamed, amplifying the mythical atmosphereof the book; but, like with Lanny, Porter has an uncanny understanding of human emotion. His words emanate truth. The aftermath of the mother / wife’s sudden death does not bring perpetual misery and lamentation. It ‘shocks and shocks’, memory becomes confused, the boys grimly relish their motherless freedom: ‘Really, on reflection, the best possible time to lose a mum’ they say, deadpan. I read the book wondering how anyone could depict grief with such apparent accuracy – until I watched Porter’s 5 x 15 talk and realised that his father died, suddenly, and that this, his first book is a meditation on his own grief, on his familial relations.
Porter has an astonishing gift for language: his words dance and loop and effervesce across the page. I could pick out a passage and it would be bouncing with inventiveness, without ever sacrificing meaning. Dad says, at one point:
‘our love was settling into the shape of our lives like cake mixture reaching the corners of the tin as it swells and bakes’
‘Swells and bakes’ is a good description of Porter’s poetry/prose – it is fecund, fertile, it swells to fill the page and the reader’s heart too.
If there were two things that I most enjoyed about reading Lanny and Grief the first is that, having recently completed a creative writing MSt, I know how difficult writing is, how ‘originality’ feels so elusive. When you are struck with an idea that you don’t dismiss as complete nonsense, to have the stamina, the dedication and the tenacity to finish, is a real struggle. You also feel that there is a certain way you should write. Porter’s magpie-ing (a phrase used in primary schools to encourage children to borrow ideas from all over the place) and his hybrid texts are inspirational – they make one want to undo and re-do all that good work, to re-think writing.
The second aspect I loved was that Grief drove me back to Ted Hughes’ poetry. After my teens I was, predictably, prejudiced against Hughes – because, well, Assia Wevill and Sylvia Plath. But Grief converted me. I read Hughes’ Crow. It is a beautiful, masculine incantation, a long trawl through the textured blackness of misery (although, of course, it’s so much more). I listened to an interview with Hughes and Plath, Ted’s soft Yorkshire lilt buffeting softly against Sylvia’s American warble. I read The Paris Review’s ‘The Art of Poetry’ no. 71’, dedicated to Ted Hughes. I would not have done any of this if I hadn’t read Grief.
Both Lanny and Grief Is The Thing With Feathers are astonishing books and Max Porter an exciting new literary prospect. As a footnote, the picture on the dustjacket does him no justice – in the clips I’ve seen on Youtube, he is, rather wonderfully, a compelling speaker, as eloquent on screen as he is on the page.
Lanny and Grief is the Thing with Feathers are published by Faber & Faber and are available to purchase online and in all good bookshops. For more information on Porter and his work see his website or follow him on Twitter.
Max Porter will be performing from his novel with musicians Alula Down at Cheltenham Town Hall on the 4th October. Click here for more information and to book tickets.