Lanny.jpg

It’s difficult to describe the experience of reading Max Porter’s new novel “Lanny”, but it feels somewhere between “Reservoir 13” by Jon McGregor and an Ali Smith novel. In some ways it’s a simple story of family life in a small English village where a child goes missing. But it’s also about ancient elemental forces which periodically cause widespread chaos and test all the moral fibres which we believe hold our society together. Parents Robert and Jolie want their young son Lanny to develop his inherent artistic sensibility so bring him under the friendly tutelage of an aging famous local artist named Pete. The two develop a touching creative bond. But Lanny harbours many eccentricities and beliefs which centre around a figure of local legend named Dead Papa Toothwort. It’s a mystery whether this character from village lore actually exists in the story or is a figment of the eccentric boy’s imagination, but his presence is felt throughout the book as Toothwort takes in the sounds and voices of the village which physically twist throughout the pages of this novel. It’s a rapturous journey which slides from the emotional details of ordinary life to the deliciously surreal. 

That any new book by Porter is unclassifiable comes as no surprise given the highly innovative form of his debut “Grief is the Thing with Feathers”. Both his novels show the way guilt and inner pain distort reality and this is reflected in the way sentences and paragraphs are structured on the page. So reading Porter's books feels more like an experience as if staring at a sculpture where the form conveys as much meaning as the content. He has a talent for illuminating the inner workings and relationships of a family – especially the repercussions when there is an unexpected tragedy. But “Lanny” captures more the feeling of a whole community and how such an event can trigger the release of fear and prejudice to turn a village against itself. While it brings some people together, it also causes others to question who belongs: “Authenticity competitions, striving to be the one that most belongs here, guarding their own special spot in the picture. All this has shown what a bunch of wankers most people are.” In this way, this new novel engages more with the political mood of the country which has been especially preoccupied with questions about who is “authentically” English. At the same time it is a playful, funny and wickedly irreverent story making it such a joy to read. And, at its heart, there is a hopeful portrait of a sensitive boy who has the capacity to reshape the future.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMax Porter

A few years ago I read Rebecca Hunt’s moving debut novel “Mr Chartwell” about Churchill’s “black dog” of depression which is given a physical form. Similarly, Max Porter gives grief a living body of a crow in his debut. But this is an entirely different kind of book. Inspired by Ted Hughes “Crow” poems, this bird infiltrates the lives of a Dad and his Sons following the death of the Mother. It taunts them, plays games with them, offers contradictory bits of wisdom and makes dirty rhymes. The narrative switches between the three perspectives of Dad, Sons and Crow to form an impressionist picture of the years of grief following the loss of the mother. It would be difficult to classify this book. It could be called a novella or poetry/dramatic monologues or self help or a creative literary treatise. Its genre isn’t important because what “Grief is the Thing with Feathers” does is bluntly convey the fact of profound loss and the complicated ways people react to that loss.

What’s so powerful about this book is the way Porter gives the reader the merest outline of these characters lives, yet I was able to experience and relate to their loss completely. He does this with pointed details of smells or memories or bits of dialogue which draw you into the moment and the feeling. Frequently the revolving set of narrators create stories of “Once upon a time…” which evoke alternate realities in order to make sense of the harshness of the true reality they inhabit. Rather than coming across as fantastical or ridiculous, Crow’s physical presence seems natural. It’s a living form which embodies the extraneous forces which have created emotional havoc in their lives. His presence is painful but needed. Conversely, what’s unnatural is the life which persists outside this enclosed house of mourning. The people on the outside who move on in life and the passing of time without the mother are the things which are monstrous. Because the mother is still so real for the Dad and his Sons, the world’s continuation without her is an abomination.

This is a book to ponder and puzzle over, to read very slowly and cautiously despite its necessary brevity. “Grief is the Thing with Feathers” sparks with sharp humour, sensitive emotion and cutting truth.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMax Porter
4 CommentsPost a comment