Porter's follow-up to his award-winning debut Grief is the Thing with Feathers, which sold into 29 territories, is another dazzling experimental novel. It opens with Dead Papa Toothwort, a sort of Green Man-esque figure, slumbering in a village outside London. Awake, he listens to the voices rising from the village (snippets of speech which twirl and curl across the page-props to Faber's production team). He is particularly interested in young Lanny, a newcomer whose thriller-writer mother is keen that he take art lessons from famous local artist Mad Pete. Then Lanny disappears...
I came to Lanny fearing that lightning was unlikely to strike twice. But no trepidation was needed: Lanny is every bit as startling, moving and overwhelming as its predecessor. Having swallowed it in a single sitting – which culminated in this hardened cynic crying – I immediately returned to the beginning and started it again... The grippingness is new – an area where Lanny, in its way, might even go beyond Grief Is the Thing With Feathers. But it is the familiar gifts of Porter's lyricism, wit, and emotional acuity, undimmed from Grief, that make Lanny such a wonderful little book – one you might be tempted to start reading again the moment it ends.
The inventiveness of the book justifies the familiar subject matter. If it’s not the poetry hidden within the prose, most noticeably, there are snatches of local chatter sprinkled across the pages – quite literally, in typographical terms...This rounded thinking was aided by his studies; his contemporary art MA covered the space in which psychoanalytic theory, feminist theory and radical performance art meet. It also made him all too aware of inequalities in the publishing industry, well before the current wave of feminism uncovered power imbalances in seemingly innocuous industries...as far as the very next steps go, it’s time for Porter to join the others on the Purcell Room stage, and meet his new collaborators ready to bring Lanny to life.
Porter is clearly an immensely talented writer, bold in his approach to form and moved by genuine lyric gifts. For all its style and innovation though, Lanny feels too slight to truly satisfy. Everything seems a little too rushed, a little too worked-up and contrived, and each character is too representative of a type rather than a reality - the eccentric artist, the otherworldly child, the office drone dad...In the context of Brexit though, perhaps the real significance of the novel is in its interrogation of Englishness and its connection to landscape. In ‘Lanny’ Porter is joining writers like Paul Kingsnorth and Gregory Norminton in exploring a deeper and stranger form of national identity. It is one based more on what England is actually like rather than what its political right wing would like it to be.
Max Porter’s second novel is a fable, a collage, a dramatic chorus, a joyously stirred cauldron of words. It follows his startlingly original debut, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, the dark, comic, wild, beautiful prose-poem-novel that was a runaway success in 2015 and won the Dylan Thomas award. Lanny is similarly remarkable for its simultaneous spareness and extravagance, and again it is a book full of love. It plays pretty close to the edge over which lie the fey and the kooky; anyone allergic to green men may need to take a deep breath. But Porter has no truck with cynicism and gets on, bravely, exuberantly, with rejuvenating our myths... The novel, though short, is optimistically intent on evoking forms of growth that might capaciously accommodate all manner of personal trials and English emergencies, cumulatively making a kind of peace.
There’s an incredible amount packed into this tremendous, single-sitting read, from tabloid bloodlust to soul-scouring parental guilt.
Skittery rhymes are deployed to brilliant, increasingly nerve-jangling, effect as we build towards the hallucinatory denouement. Porter seems to offer a beautifully sly concluding comment on how prejudices and preconceptions can stop us seeing the wood for the trees.
I read Lanny in a sitting, and thought about it a great deal thereafter. I don’t want to use reviewer-y superlatives, but I don’t think I will read anything else like it this year. Like his previous work, it is honed, almost whittled. It has a hallucinatory quality to its sort-of-prose, sort-of-poetry. The novel manages to fuse mythic, folkloric subjects – the haunting “Dead Papa Toothwort” who emerges from his slumber at the beginning – with quite precise anxieties and angers about the present state of the country. It is a clash of several kinds of Englishness: the chthonic legends, the fading rural villages, the aspirant middle classes, the Tudorbethan snobs and a vein of potential ugliness suppurating below. If I had to give it a subtitle, it would be “Under Curdled-Milk Wood”. It resembles Dylan Thomas’s almost oratorio in many ways, not least in the polyphony of voices it conjures.
It’s not easy to establish the once-upon-a-time, wild-wood atmosphere of this book and make it credible. Porter’s writing taps into some of the rooted English strangeness of an Alan Garner, or even Thomas Hardy, and gives it a pared-down energy. He is unafraid of risking self-parody; at times some of the typographic tricks he employed in the first book feel like an indulgence here, lines curling and jumping and disappearing into tiny point sizes as Lanny climbs a tree, but mostly you are more than happy to go along with it just for the crackle of the imagery and Porter’s ear for dialogue.
What makes Lanny remarkable is the presence of another narrative running underneath that sketched out above... Porter’s darting and poetic prose gives Lanny a questing weirdness that rings true to childhood wonder... Lanny doesn’t possess the same crystalline economy as Grief is the Thing with Feathers and contains a frustrating number of longueurs for such a short novel. But there is something rich and genuinely strange at the heart of it. Porter’s nature writing has a shamanic intensity, worthy of comparison with that of Hughes himself.
Lanny, Porter’s new novel, uses many of the same techniques as its predecessor. There is the same separation of voices; the same reliance on a childlike point of view; the same interest in a supercharged language which makes sense without quite spelling an exact proposition; the same use of violent and disgusting things (‘the lovely dirt of public spaces’) to express the troubled depths of the human psyche; and the same interest in metaphors that combine realistic observation with surreal fantasy... A plot summary would be a spoiler. Suffice it to say that by continuing to combine the close observation of things in themselves with flights of fancy, and by mixing orthodoxies such as good pacing and convincing characterisation with formal inventiveness, he devises a conclusion which is at once strange and moving.
...Lanny draws on fables and the surreal — but don’t let that put you off. This story also has a modern-day plotline for ballast, told with great wit... The only unconvincing parts are the reveries of a ghostly character called Dead Papa Toothwort. His trippy musings are written in wiggly lines, with long, nonsensical sentences curling around the page. It’s obscure but it may appeal to the more experimental reader. That aside, Lanny is absorbing, pacy and fresh, and whatever your preconceptions are of English village life, this will give you a new perspective.
Very occasionally, a false note is struck. There’s some stridency in the presentation of Lanny’s father. The child himself doesn’t always escape feyness, especially when asking questions such as “Which do you think is more patient, an idea or a hope?”. But more usually — whether offering psychological and emotional finesse, vigorous social comedy or vivid vignettes of the countryside (the “burnt sienna canopy” of autumn beeches, “mile-wide slabs of rain” that “romp across the valley”) — the book is expertly pitched. Shimmering with the uncanny, it’s a remarkable feat of literary virtuosity.
In Lanny we again get a supernatural presiding spirit. Yet this time, instead of seeming to emerge naturally from the human material, it feels arbitrarily imposed. Not only that, but the human material on which it is imposed isn’t very convincing either, as the psychological realism in which Grief is the Thing with Feathers was so powerfully rooted is largely abandoned in favour of a distinctly soppy New Age fable.
Like the boy it is named after, Lanny is an unabashedly peculiar little book. Some readers may find the strangeness of the form and Porter’s propensity for bizarre metaphors and lavish figurative language off-putting, even pretentious. But for those willing to suspend judgment about what a good novel “should” look like, it is a magically beguiling work, a triumph of artistic vision.