Did you ever pick up a book in spite of yourself? I was never really all that drawn to read Lanny – despite the endless glowing recommendations from fellow readers and Keeper Upperers – until I heard Max Porter give a reading at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. The organisers called Lanny “a tapestry of fabulism and domestic drama”, and even though I was skeptical, I couldn’t stop myself from picking up a copy.
Lanny was first published in 2019, the follow-up to Porter’s cult success Grief Is The Thing With Feathers. As in his previous novel, myth and modern life come together through the eyes of children. The titular character, Lanny, is an every-child, with all the oddity and gnomic wisdom we expect from these miniature humans.
Lanny is a remarkably short novel, quick to power through and with lots of white space, but it seems to contain multitudes: magic, suspense, horror, joy, and wonder. Porter really pushes the boundaries between prose and poetry, but it’s hardly one of those highly-literary Experimental Novels that make you feel like you’ve just dropped far too much acid to understand. It’s compulsively readable, and even the dullest among us will be able to pick up what Porter is putting down.
The story is told in three sections. The first switches between four narrators. We’ve got Dead Papa Toothwort, a spirit of some kind who watches and listens to a small English village. Then, there’s Lanny’s dad, an office worker in London. And there’s Lanny’s mum, a crime writer with ambivalent feelings about their suburban life (there’s no ambivalence about her love for her son, though). And, finally, there’s Pete, a local eccentric who was once a famous artist; Lanny’s Mum seeks him out, and he starts giving Lanny art lessons.
Through these grown-up eyes, Lanny emerges: idiosyncratic, silly, and sometimes wise beyond his years. He builds things, talks to trees, and baffles just about every grown-up he encounters. His relationship with Pete, the artist, deepens quickly. Pete was actually my favourite narrator, and my favourite character overall.
“I can usually see a way to understand terrible things; Satanic worship, decaffeinated coffee, cosmetic surgery, but Renoir’s portrait of Madame de Bonnières? No. It cannot be understood or forgiven. And framed in gold plastic and spot-lit from above? No offence intended, Charlotte, there is not a chamber of hell hot enough for a woman of your taste.”Pete (Page 68)
Lanny reveals in conversation with Pete that the mysterious Dead Papa Toothwort is a local myth, a man made entirely of ivy. The rhyme goes: “Say your prayers and be good too, or Dead Papa Toothwort is coming for you,”. Lanny could have been told without Dead Papa Toothwort’s perspective, but it adds a layer to our understanding of what Porter is trying to do with the story. Lanny isn’t just about one mildly interesting kid; it’s about England, and small town politics, and perspective.
Toothwort allows the reader to “ride the smells” of the town (including Jenny’s lasagne, and Derek’s hot-pot-for-one – yes, your mouth may water a little). The snatches of conversation he draws from the town are formatted differently to the rest of the narrative, curling across the pages in at-first-glance nonsensical italics. The topics are just what you’d expect from small-town conversation: dog walks, cancer scares, mini-breaks, local gossip… And Toothwort’s commentary on it all serves to remind us just how small, and simultaneously how large, our lives are.
The second section is told in snippets of internal dialogue. (Spoilers ahoy!) Lanny goes missing, and the whole town (mostly) joins in the search for him (eventually). Many of the insights come from Lanny’s distraught mother; Porter will really do a number on you, if you’re sensitive to this kind of thing, with the way he lays out her terror and guilt. Then there’s Lanny’s father, who doesn’t feel as close to the child, and the sneaky little voice in his head who wonders if they’re not all better off with the kid gone.
Dead Papa Toothwort’s perspective interjects occasionally, but he takes a back-seat to Pete, who is accused of abducting and/or assaulting the child. The village shows its true colours in the witch hunt; Pete is beaten (and my heart broke for him more than it did for Lanny, if I’m honest), but he maintains his innocence and his determination to help Lanny’s parents find the boy. He’s made a scapegoat, purely for the fact that he chose to colour outside the lines when he chose how he wanted to live his life, but he holds his head up high and fuck the lot of them (I told you he was my favourite!).
The third section gets
a little a lot weird. The best way I could describe it is a series of feverish dream-like explanations of what has happened to Lanny, and what his parents and Pete make of it. I suppose, given that I’m already elbow-deep in spoilers, I’m obligated to tell you that Lanny is found safe and (relatively) well, having been fed and watered by Dead Papa Toothwort on his adventure… but beyond that, I’m really not sure how to describe the ending to you. You’ll just have to read Lanny for yourself.
Lanny is a short book, as I said, but it’s “about” so many things. There are as many interpretations as there are readers. For me, it was about an innocent man harangued and almost hanged by a small town, but maybe you’ll find in it a book about nature, a book about a child’s sense of wonder, a book about parental obligation and fear, a book about a town ghost, a morality tale, an environmental allegory, a hybrid fairytale, a freewheeling fantasy. I’m not sure I could recommend Lanny blindly, because it’s so weird, but I’d welcome the opportunity to talk to others who have read it (that’s a hint to tell me what you think in the comments, by the way!).
My favourite Amazon reviews of Lanny:
- “Probably didn’t like the book” – Amazon Customer
- “Just because you can change the orientation of your font doesn’t mean you’re doing something creative or cutting edge. Mush like A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, the author is so obsessed with how amazing and creative they are, they fail to tell a fundamentally sound story. Inside cover says $24 for a book that can’t break 20,000 words. There seems to be a trend in the vein of Pirate Utopia where an established author shovels overpriced garbage and tricks loyal readers into buying their hot trash.” – LJ
- “Having trampled “Hope is the thing with feathers,” Mr. Porter now turns his oh-so-clever combination of full-on thesaurus assault, “whimsy,” and “never use seven words when forty-nine words would do just as well” on the Green Man legend. Yeah… no, Max. No.” – L. Chaney
- “Very odd book. Doesn’t take long to read would be its only plus.” – Miss Sara Claire Mason