Thank you to Maureen for moderating Lanny by Max Porter. It was placed on the shortlist for the 2021 Booker Prize.
Lanny is Porter’s second novel after his successful debut Grief is the Thing with Feathers (2015). Both are experimental texts, playing with characters, format, and language.
In Lanny, Robert, Jolie, and Lanny move to a quintessential English village within commuter distance from Robert’s high-flying finance job in the city. The family imagine they are coming to tranquillity but they find themselves fearful of all the different noises of the countryside. They are resented by the long-standing residents of the village like Old Peggy. She decries their lack of understanding of the traditional rhythms of village life. She is angry that the newcomers force property prices out of the residents’ reach.
We meet Mad Pete a gay artist who had considerable success in his younger days with challenging paintings. He lives alone in a ramshackle house in the woods surrounding the village. Jolie asks Pete to teach nine-year-old Lanny art though Robert is not sure it is a good idea.
Lanny’s story is told from different points of view by Robert, Jolie, Pete, and Peggy. We never hear from Lanny directly. He is a fey ethereal child with a naive sense of wonder. He is regarded as odd because he has long hair and talks to himself. He spends his time building dens in the woods.
Finally, we meet Dead Papa Toothwort (DPT). He is a malevolent, shape-shifting woodland spirit. He has inhabited the village for millennia. He travels through the streets of the village, listening to the resident’s gossip, and watching Lanny’s movements.
The story builds up to the disappearance of Lanny. A huge and predictable search follows with a final miraculous rescue.
Porter uses different formats of text on the page to represent different characters. DPT is in bold. The gossip of the villagers is in italic wavy lines. The other characters’ stories are told in short paragraphs headlined with their name.
Predictably, the reactions of the 13 OBGers gathering at the library were mixed for this complex, experimental text. Some found its lack of direction a distracting read. They were not convinced by the different formats of text on the page, particularly the wavy clouds of single gossipy sentences. It was difficult to grasp the role of DPT. His musings were often hard to interpret when they were written as a stream of consciousness.
For others, Porter’s creativity was welcome and enjoyed. They found the single sentences an effective reflection of village gossip. Displaying them as he did allowed the reader to absorb one sentence at a time disconnected from the others. We imagined walking down a village street where the houses had their windows open and catching snippets of their inhabitants’ conversations. Many appreciated the large empty spaces of white on the page and no punctuation in the text signifying loss and panic when Lanny went missing. One member referenced The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (OBG July 2013). Another experimental novel using different formats of text.
We thought the panic in the community when Lanny went missing was well-written. The book became a page-turner as we wanted to learn what had happened to him.
We questioned Jolie’s violent attack on a hedgehog found in her drain. It seemed out of character from the loving (obsessively so) mother of Lanny. She was the author of gory crime novels. Did the attack represent her fear of moving from the city to the countryside or did it show another part of a character so far just presented in her writing? The police suspected her of being involved in Lanny’s disappearance and began digging up her garden. The memory of the hedgehog attack made us feel suspicious of her too.
Some felt Pete was stereotypical. He is an ostracised gay person, whose artwork was questioned by the conservative villagers. One member was reminded of Bill Henson’s photographs of a pubescent child seized by police from Roslyn Oxley9 gallery in the early 2000s.
One member referenced Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas. A similar exploration of a small village and its inhabitants. Another member noted that the poem quoted at the start of the novel is Green Madrigal (1) by Lynette Roberts. She was a close friend of Thomas. Had this cabal of Welsh poets influenced Porter?
Lanny is a book that needs to be shared and discussed with others. After the meeting had finished, I thought of many other things I wished I had raised, a sign of a stimulating OBG meeting.
I attach Maureen’s moderation notes with more insights into DPT.
Maggie found this interesting interview with Max Porter on YouTube.