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.