Spoilers everywhere, so do read the book first. It’s only a very intense seventy pages or so…
I read Max Porter’s Grief Is The Thing With Feathers at the end of last year (thanks Graham) and I immediately pre-ordered Lanny.
I was nervous about Lanny because how could it measure up to such an extraordinary debut?
I needn’t have worried. Lanny is maybe easier to read, in some ways a riff on the crime genre, but it is still weird and wonderful.
Again a surreal folk tale is woven through the narrative. In Grief the character of Crow was full of violent and poetic imagery, but was more of a visitor to the people in the story. At the beginning of Lanny, Dead Papa Toothwort wakes up, and seems to be an active participant – the cause of it all, the prime mover. Part Green Man, part bogeyman, all trickster. He embodies a pagan cycle of the seasons – starting with death and decay and ending, magically, with a gift of life.
Initially Dead Papa Toothwort channels the more everyday, demotic language of village life. Is he particularly receptive to the darker, nastier side of human nature? Perhaps. Yet we are also told his favourite voice is Lanny’s – giving us a sense of foreboding but also a hint that perhaps Toothwort isn’t himself a creature of the dark.
The family at the heart of the story – Robert and Jolie and Lanny, are outsiders in the village, and their discomfort is evident from the start.
The artist, Mad Pete, is also an outsider – barely tolerated, and later demonised.
Lanny is a special child – we are shown this from every point of view. Of course, all children are special and lost or missing children even more so. Do we believe he is really gifted, a magical creature in some ways? His parents see him that way. So does Pete. Even his school report makes him fey, other-worldly.
Lanny has the magpie instincts of the artist, collecting bones, shells and rocks, and creating his magical bower in the woods. In some ways the world he inhabits reminds me of Alan Garner’s mythic landscapes in The Owl Service and Red Shift.
“You’ve never seen anything like this kid’s collections. Like Pitt Rivers in his bedroom, fossilised wood and crystals and stones all labelled ‘40 million years old’, ‘Suffolk beach’, ‘Dad’s first fool’s gold’, shark’s teeth, worry dolls, knots, finger bowls, acorns, shells, stalactites, wishbones, everything labelled, everything loved.”
Mostly we see him through other characters and through his notes and the strange bower he builds and we accept he is in some ways other-worldly, not least because he is Dead Papa Toothwort’s favourite.
Toothwort blends into the background part way through the novel – which is dominated by the everyday darkness of village life, from vicious gossip to vigilantes – only to return to orchestrate the dramatic ending the story.
An interesting theme is the villagers’ deep distrust of writers and artists. Lanny’s mother is writing an exceptionally nasty crime novel. She was an actress, so who can know who she really is? How she really feels? Mad Pete’s art has some disturbing elements, although we are not told exactly what they might be. Mostly we know that they are not understood by stolid police investigators and pitchfork carrying villagers.
“RAPE, MURDER AND SADISTIC VIOLENCE: Read scenes from Lanny’s mum’s ‘hotly tipped crime debut’.”
So when the child disappears of course suspicion falls on Mad Pete, the artist. Why would an old man spend time with a child? Then when his alibi is established, suspicion transfers to his parents. Extracts of Jolie’s novel are leaked, and her fiction is used to condemn her. They let their child wander, gave him too much freedom. They entrusted him to Mad Pete.
“LATCHKEY LANNY: FREE TO ROAM Parents of missing Lanny admit he was free to wander the village and they often had ‘NO CLUE’ where he was.
“I wouldn’t say this to her myself, but someone should, that it might not harm her cause if she put some makeup on. She looks so rough it’s hard to sympathise, you get me?”
There are uncomfortable echoes here of the stories of real life missing children.
The gleeful way the villagers and reporters revel in their suspicions and spread gossip is disturbingly realistic. The fears and fantasies about what may have happened to him. The tragedy tourists. It’s not a pretty picture of human nature.
“Look me in the eye and tell me it’s not exciting, the whole country watching.”
Like Toothwort, Peggy is a sort of guardian figure for the village. She dies a year after Lanny is found safe, and wraps the story up for us, beginning –
“False things, endings. Sustenance for fools and never what they claim to be.
The resolution of the story is unexpected and strange. Mad Pete, Robert and Jolie are invited – are they dreaming? – by Dead Papa Toothwort to a play in the village hall. Toothwort demands absolute honesty from them – he wants to know their visions of Lanny’s future – some hopeful, some very dark. Jolie’s turn is last, and Toothwort leads her into a dream/vision of what happened to Lanny.
I was expecting Lanny to be a sacrifice to redeem the village – Golden Bough style, or Wicker Man. His survival – depicted as magical offerings and then explained away by a prosaic rucksack of snacks – is a little bit too easily achieved. Deus ex machina.
Peggy’s words seem like an acknowledgement that the ending doesn’t quite convince, and from beyond death Peggy goes on to describe a very ordinary life for them all – Lanny survives, his parents split up, Jolie becomes a succesful crime novelist, Lanny carries on making art with Pete.
Lanny is a mystery story – not in the sense of a crime story but a fable or folk tale. It’s mythic. The kind of story in which a person visits the underworld and then comes back changed – and the people connected with him are changed too. I am reminded of Innana and Persephone and the many people who have spent time away with the fairies.
So now I’m waiting to see what Max Porter will write next. Even if you don’t generally enjoy experimental fiction, it’s worth giving Lanny a try. In spite of feeling a little disappointed by the ending, I loved it. And endings are always difficult.
At a tangent, thoughts on my own project
Of course I cannot help but apply whatever I’m reading at the moment to the process of working on my memoir. Of necessity that will be fragmentary – no matter how much I try to piece it together or find the missing pieces – in life there can never be completeness.
As a writer who normally writes long and rambles on a bit – there’s a lesson too in just how much emotional punch can be conveyed by writing concisely, poetically.
So much of Lanny’s story is constructed through fragments, as the reader is trusted to piece together their own narrative, piecing together different perspectives, and reading between the lines. I wonder if there’s a way I can do that with my own story? I’m not sure there’s any way of avoiding it, other than by making shit up – which is exactly what I want to avoid. I have fragments of memory from early childhood, longer narrative memories of late childhood and teenage years, odd bits of diary from my twenties, stories told to me by other people. And then there’s way that newer information changes my understanding of the past – sometimes deepens it, and sometimes completely transforms. How much do I weave them all together and shape a narrative? It’s hard to avoid as that’s how I create my own sense of meaning.
The next draft is going to be a challenge.