author Max Porter

Booker 2019: Lanny

28th August 2019

Lanny by Max Porter
Faber, London, 2019

Reviewed by Claire Steele

Max Porter’s second novel, Lanny, sat neglected on my shelf for a couple of months for the sole reason that I had loved his first novel Grief is the Thing with Feathers so much that I could not bear for his second to be anything less than brilliant. I need never have worried. Here is Porter at his poetic best: simultaneously extravagant, multi-faceted and thrillingly economical.

The novel opens with an evocation of magic in the brooding and enigmatic figure of Dead Papa Toothwort, shapeshifter, green man, part pagan-God, part accumulation of all our excesses: “He splits and wobbles, divides and reassembles, coughs up a plastic pot and a petrified condom…feels his face and finds it made of long-buried, tannic acid bottles. Victorian rubbish.” Dead Papa Toothwort is disturbing. His vocabulary is disturbing. The way he rises above the plot or moves beneath its surface is disturbing. He is the figure who holds the novel to account, and the success of this novel might largely depend on how we respond to these passages.

The novel is structured like a piece of music – a complex chorus of different voices and moods. It is by turn operatic, folkloric, elegiac: now a ballad, now a hymn to Englishness. Read in this way, Dead Papa Toothwort might be said to provide the ostinato bass of the novel.

Lanny, the eponymous main character, is a fabulous child – a child of fable and an exceptional prodigy. He responds to the world with an open-hearted, undiluted pleasure in its mysteries. He skips across its spaces leaving a trail of pureness that is completely enthralling. His note is high, radiant, sweet. He has arrived in this small, unnamed village of bucolic, home-counties, paradise, ‘fewer than fifty red-brick cottages, a pub, a church’, with his parents: Robert, his father, who commutes into the city and who believes that to tell the truth about his family will betray them, and Jolie, his mother, a failed actress, who is writing a viscerally realised crime novel and whose relationship with her son is ‘a strange mix of befuddlement and joy’.

Jolie, who is anxious about acceptance – is Lanny accepted? Are they acceptable in the eyes of the community? – arranges for Lanny to have art lessons with an eccentric, reclusive artist, Pete, who teaches Lanny to look again, to see how the world is saturated with intensity: how dense it is, how layered with meaning and beauty. And in turn, Lanny returns Pete to his own briefly unmediated relationship with a world of sensual experience. Again and again the picturesque is unfolded into something more truthful, and more disturbing, and maybe more threatened.

The contrapuntal soundscape to this melody of family life is ‘Englishness’ -represented as a madrigal: unaccompanied fragments of overheard phrases, disconnected, seemingly random, a counterpoint to the lives of the main characters. These voices provide the general context for what it is like to live in this particular life, a life that is lived deeply against a surface commentary of judgement, anxiety, hope and confession. Lanny has all the resonance of a dream: images surface and hook themselves into the brain, so that a kind of reverse of the novel happens when you are not reading it, and its images are collaged into daily life in much the same way as the polyphony of the novel’s aural kaleidoscope operates within the frame of the plot.

When Lanny goes missing it is as if a piece of magic has been irretrievably lost and we enter a world of banal conclusions, prejudice and salacious misreadings, the space of what we paraphrase as our worst nightmare: the disappearance of a child. In the second movement of the novel, Porter suggests that all we will be left with, if we do not attend to and value the deep melody of the world, will be the repeated refrains of cynicism, suspicion, parochialism, xenophobia. Language will be reduced from its powerful, soaring response to the world, to its meanest overheard observations. At this point the novel becomes a powerful, socio-political critique of Britain. We recognise ourselves all too clearly in the tabloid soundbites. But, as we move into the coda, the heartfelt song of this novel is a song to a world of magic, which is, Porter reminds us, the world of childhood, of innocence, of nature.

Uncanny, melodic, mesmeric, this is a novel that rightly deserves its place on the Longlist and I sincerely hope it will make it to the shortlist.

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