By Max Porter
Faber & Faber
Max Porter’s second novel, Lanny, bears plenty of surface level similarities to his 2015 debut, Grief is the Thing with Feathers. Both texts are told in three parts and are constructed from an array of different voices and viewpoints, and intervening swathes of blank space – on the page, and within the narrative – abound. And like its predecessor, Porter’s new tale is deployed with striking use of wordplay and features an ambiguously rendered, not-quite-human character capable of providing commentary on, and perhaps interfering with, the dramatic action. But whereas Grief is firmly concentrated on a compact household reeling in the aftermath of sudden loss, Lanny offers a peaceful, rather affluent community and a story that slowly, carefully takes root before it jolts towards unexpected crisis, and a thoroughly gripping denouement.
The novel follows the movements of Lanny, a dreamy, artistic boy who has moved to a small village within commuting distance of London with his parents. Though he is the titular character, his actions are primarily transmitted through the observations of others: his mother, Jolie, a former actor and now a writer of crime fiction; his father, Robert, who works in finance; Pete, an artist tasked with teaching the boy to draw; and Dead Papa Toothwort, a mystical ‘Green Man’ figure of local folklore, who morphs through the rubbish-laden natural landscape, attending to the many overlapping mutterings of its gossiping residents. It is this latter figure that follows Grief’s Crow in simultaneously grounding and circumnavigating the narrative – and this purpose may be emphasised by the heavier weight applied to the typesetting of Toothwort’s ‘voice’.
Though the novel’s plotting is in some respects more conventional than Grief, the reader may feel challenged by the frequent accounts by Toothwort – particularly in its opening pages – of village life; he delights in the human sounds of his environment, and snatches of unattributed dialogue dart and weave about the page in scattered lines and curving overlaps. On close inspection, however, these sections are very precisely sculpted, and patience with them, as the story develops, is generously rewarded. Porter revels, moreover, in the freedom for poetic flourish presented by the expression of this character, unrestricted by time or bodily shape: ‘He takes a step in a dinner suit, then an Anderson shelter, then a tracksuit, then a rusted jeep bonnet… His body is a suit of bark-armour with the initials of long-dead teenage lovers carved in the surface.’
In Lanny, Porter cultivates a carefully plotted tale of cracking suspense, which plays with issues of artistic and social performance, entirely fitting to the theatrical nature of voice-driven narratives. Through purposeful, acutely observed social satire, distinct character viewpoints, and wonderful use of pacing, it constructs a gripping tale that cleverly – and appropriately – harnesses the dreamscape and task-based motifs familiar to us from folk tales, to bring us to a satisfying conclusion that nevertheless gestures towards ambiguity. Entwining ideas both innocent and sinister, the text, like Toothwort, bursts and branches in a variety of directions, mushrooming with narrative possibility.
Words: Catherine Gaffney