- Author: Max Porter
- Genre: Fiction
- Publisher: Strange Light
- Pages: 224 pages
When people call Lanny Greentree, the titular character in Max Porter’s atmospheric new novel, a “special” child, they mean it genuinely rather than euphemistically. Sweet, sponge-like and disarmingly malice-free, Lanny has an unusual connection to the natural world. He sings, speaks to trees with his “creaturely breath,” collects things from the forest. His teachers point to his “innate gift for social cohesion” as he calms classrooms with a joke or a song. His father, Robert, on his daily commute to his job in high-finance, thinks of Lanny “carrying his strange brain around,” while his mother, Jolie, who’s trying to parlay a sputtering acting career into crime-novel writing, thinks of him as her muse.
He has vaguely supernatural abilities. He vanishes from one place then reappears in another; gets to the middle of a complex hedge maze in mere seconds. Well aware of the impossibility of controlling their lovable, sprite-like cipher of a son, Jolie and Robert now allow him to roam freely around the bucolic English village outside London to which they moved a year ago.
That is why Jolie doesn’t initially worry when Lanny goes missing for what seems longer than usual. As the hours bleed into days, however, dread sets in; authorities are summoned. Focus immediately turns on “Mad Pete,” a local artist Jolie recently hired to give Lanny private art lessons. Pete was once the toast of London for his controversial, sexually graphic work, and in the eyes of the villagers, there can be no separation between his professional and personal proclivities: Only a pedophile could produce “art” like that. Even Jolie is viewed askance: Won’t a real-life mystery such as this one fuel sales of her forthcoming murder-thriller?
As readers, though, our skepticism lies elsewhere. We’re pretty sure this isn’t your typical abduction scenario. That’s because like Lanny – and unlike most of the villagers – we’re privy to the existence of an ancient, subterranean, mildly sadistic, shape-shifting entity known, in local lore, as Dead Papa Toothwort. Like everyone else, Dead Papa Toothwort feels irresistibly drawn to Lanny; he flatters himself that they’re alike. For the villagers, on the other hand, Dead Papa Toothwort is a useful myth: A means of controlling their children’s behaviour (“Say your prayers and be good, too, or Dead Papa Toothwort is coming for you!”), and a reliable driver of trinket sales.
Structurally speaking, Lanny has obvious similarities to Porter’s much-admired debut, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, both novels mitigating against raw subject matter – the death of a parent, the disappearance of a child – with narrative technique and fantastical figures. In the case of Grief, the latter were prose-poetry and a Ted Hughes-channelling crow.
Like its predecessor, Lanny begins by alternating between several characters, before moving, in its final two sections, to a more impressionistic, and, finally, borderline-surreal style. Snippets of cacophonous village chatter overheard by Dead Papa Toothwort appear on lines that curve and bend in the manner of concrete poetry. As tensions mount, they overlap to the point of unreadability. People will have opinions about this. Personally, I found the technique a little too reminiscent of the Corel Draw graphic design tutorials I did in the nineties – but they’re far from a deal-breaker.
What carries this slim but rich book is Porter’s gnarled, terrestrial prose, which is both artful and satisfyingly reflective of its setting. In its details, the story conjures endless others: Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, even Stephen King’s It. And Porter is frequently witty, taking obvious and particular pleasure in Joycean village-talk: (“biotech my arse I kill pigs for a living,” “lord snooty comb-over and his blonde bimbo,” “I suggest he get an effing job and vacate that barstool”). Dead Papa Toothwort, too, is arguably as comic a figure as he is a sinister one. How scared can you really be of a monster who “lies underneath a nineteenth-century vicar’s wife and fiddles with the roots of a yew in her pelvis”? He’s also vain and peevish, scoffing at the costumes in the village’s annual Dead Papa Toothwort contest.
Lanny delves into many things, among them environmental alienation and indifference (arising from his slumber, Dead Papa Toothwort “scrapes off dream dregs of bitumen glistening thick with liquid globs of litter”) and the clash of urban and rural sensibilities. Being an English novel, it’s naturally also about class; when Lanny first goes missing, some villagers are reluctant to help Jolie and Robert out, seeing them as arriviste interlopers. But most movingly, and successfully, it’s about how we treat difference, and the magnetic pull of goodness at a time when the latter can feel like the rarest of commodities.
Emily Donaldson is the editor of Canadian Notes & Queries.
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