Lanny by Max Porter
A controlled, experimental novel about local folklore and the way we communicate, Max Porter’s Lanny is an impressive follow-up to his highly-acclaimed 2016 debut Grief Is the Thing with Feathers. Set in a small town outside of London, the novel follows a quirky local boy named Lanny who appears spiritually connected to the village environs. “He had a kind of magic,” one character recalls, “we all accepted he was enigmatic and special.”
When Lanny opens, the book is narrated by Dead Papa Toothwart, an ancient elder spirit. Porter’s prose unravels here in a hallucinogenic, magical flow: Toothwart is a protean, ethereal entity, “jangling in his various skins… drunk on the village… tingling with thoughts of how one thing leads to another again and again, time and again, with no such thing as an ending.” Between poetic paragraphs, villagers’ thoughts are scattered across the page in a collage of curling italics, lines that quite literally bend into the margins of the bound book.
The novel unfurls episodically, alternating first-person perspective sections between Toothwart, Lanny’s parents, and Pete, a local artist that takes Lanny on as a student. Lanny’s father commutes into the city while his mother works on her crime novel. Pete, who was once a somewhat-famous artist, finds in Lanny a kindred outsider spirit. Toothwart’s strange presence builds a peculiar sort of tension amidst these myriad narrators: “he wants to chop the village open and pull the child out. Extract him.” A second act transforms Lanny into a different kind of novel, all while reinforcing the efforts of Porter’s meticulous stylistic groundwork.
Initially, Dead Papa Toothwart’s sections are ornamentally arresting but quickly begin to feel unnecessarily complicated: the many italicized voices from the village will wash over the reader to a point where they become skippable due to their incomprehensible clamor:
vandalism pure and simple,
foreign woodpeckers, cheaper cassocks
she was in a film with whatsisname from you know and he works in finance
Willis sisters didn’t get the myxomatosis memo, never actually did an undercoat
another tidy premium bond win
Alone, these passages feel primarily visual, more important in their broad concept then their content. There’s little to latch onto, but Porter brilliantly solves this problem in Lanny’s second section: after an event occurs that ripples through the town, Porter’s prose shifts away from his first-person narrators and instead uses the entire community to narrate. The mysteries of Lanny are investigated over the next seventy pages with floating, narrative morsels told by seemingly hundreds of unnamed speakers, all of which are far more substantive than the voices Toothwart picks up in the novel’s opening. They swirl like captivating, omniscient gossip.
What this does is transform the reader into something closer to whatever Toothwart is: we become literary elders, bodiless spirits that can behold the power of a community full of storytellers. Transitioning from the noisy static of Toothwart’s sections to the compulsively readable “communal” narrative, Lanny effectively teaches its readers how to listen and form a story from loose, staggered vignettes.
Although the foundation of Lanny’s plot feels familiar, its strange execution is remarkably fresh. Despite its cliches, Porter shows the magic of a story’s transmission and how it can reinvent familiar lore. Lanny is a typographic and structural marvel, and doubly impressive considering its ability to show readers a new, immersive way to experience a story.