Unlike other novels in only the most superficial of ways: its insipid style.
There is a child. He is a little weird. Maybe a little too weird. But, mostly, his is a delightful weirdness. His parents adore him even though their marriage is barely hanging together. He is so smart. He says the funniest things. Strange. Surprising. He asks his dad things like “which do you think is more patient, an idea or a hope?” Sometimes the dad thinks his son is a freak and then he feels bad about it. The mother—an out-of-work actress and aspiring crime novelist—frets over the boy sometimes, but mostly she is just in awe of the lad. And they all live near this guy, an old-school counterculture artist type. He is sort of famous, but keeps a low profile in the quaint little English village in which he now resides. He is the good kind of baby boomer and he is just the thing this kid needs: someone who won’t merely tolerate his weirdness, but encourage it. So the boy starts taking art lessons from the old guy. And guess what? The kid is really good! Maybe not savant level, but better than other kids. The dull kids. The mean kids. The boring kids. The normal kids. None of them can compare to him. “He is Lanny Greentree,” his mother says, “our little mystery.”
If you did not much care for the previous paragraph, it is unlikely you will care much for Max Porter’s new novel, Lanny. It is about the titular star-child. It is also about the village and its colorful, sometimes-backwards inhabitants. Looming over it all is an ancient, maybe-malevolent figure named Dead Papa Toothwort. He has something of the mysterious, archetypal Green Man figure about him. In the opening pages of the book, he sits high above the village and relishes the voices emanating from the village, which “sits up pretty to greet him, sponged in half-light.” The book balances this lyricism with the occasional vulgarity to signal it is a book for adults. The book also separates single sentences by paragraph breaks quite often to signal that it has something important to say. The sections narrated by Toothwort are in bold, while the voices of the villagers are rendered on the page in italics—they physically overlap, bend, loop and sometimes extend beyond the margins like a visual representation of dialogue in a Robert Altman film. These are meant to signal that the book has an innovative, hybrid style, and are there to warn you that this novel is not like other novels.
It’s unlike other novels in only the most superficial of ways: its insipid style. A mixture of fairy-tale, stream-of-consciousness and insta-poetry that a book this slight cannot possibly bear, it has been bafflingly compared to M.R. James (and, even stranger, Henry James). The novel comes nowhere near the meticulous, tightly-controlled and eerie compositions of either. Damning by comparison would be a cheap way out of discussing the book’s content, though.
The first half of the book is relatively plotless. Lanny takes art lessons and there is tension in his parents’ marriage. The old artist warms immediately to Lanny and the two become thick as thieves. This new friendship slowly thaws the tension between Lanny’s parents, and the whole group begins to get along famously. Lest the reader think things are a little too sugary, there is a scene where, not knowing how else to solve the problem, the mother brutally mutilates a hedgehog that has become trapped in a drain. She stabs it repeatedly until it is a bloody pulp that she can wash down because she did not know how to extract it from the drain. This is the most memorable scene in the book because of how ridiculous its folk-horror sense of the macabre looks in comparison to the surrounding prose.
Porter inserts several of these moments of what one might generously call critiques of modernity into this first half. The mother looks at her phone to avoid contact with a talkative neighbor. The father complains about the crowded train he has to take into London for work. When things are bad in the marriage, he watches porn on his phone, thinking his wife doesn’t know (she does). But then the primary plot development falls like a hammer onto the narrative, fracturing its hybrid form even further.
Lanny goes missing—not entirely unusual for the boy—for an afternoon. That afternoon extends into evening and then the police are called. The voices of the townspeople untangle themselves and begin to infiltrate the voices of the mother, the father and the artist. They second-guess the parenting of Lanny. They begin to suspect the old artist of being not just weird, but a pervert. Quickly, the media descend on the town and Porter takes the opportunity to show how such an event, in our age of mass-communication, divides and misinforms. There is even an Alex Jones-like bit about the whole thing being a false flag. The town is conflicted. It is sad, of course, that the boy is missing (probably dead), but the hubbub is good for business. The community comes together over the event nevertheless.
Typical of the novel’s we-live-in-a-society ethos is an exchange between the mother and an elderly neighbor on the first night Lanny is missing. Porter writes the exchange through the perspective of both of the characters. They talk past each other, they misunderstand. As the conversation threatens to become a conflict, the mother asks “What if we, the too-polite sons and daughters of these old fuckers, actually started picking them up on their warped world-view, or their grotesque self-interest and petty entitlement?” Simultaneously, the neighbor asks “What if we, the generation of people who remember the war, actually told these frightful, entitled young people that this is a country we fought for, that you cannot simply buy a sense of belonging on your mobile phone?” The book seems to posit that both views are “correct,” so far as such things go, but the real problem is that we all can’t come together and solve problems across the dubious divide of the generations and find this boy—and in doing so, find a better sense of humanity and community.
It would be unfair to reveal the ending to a prospective reader, but it would not be unfair to say that the ending is irrelevant. There is a preordained nature to the trajectory of these characters that the book lays out and never puts in doubt. The climactic scene—a dreamlike and magical intervention into events that are obviously inevitable virtually from the first page—rings hollow and sentimental in a world where readers have access to the stories of Leonora Carrington and David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks: The Return.”
In his lectures on Russian literature, Vladimir Nabokov says that “the good, the admirable reader identifies himself not with the boy or the girl in the book, but with the mind that conceived and composed that book.” At the risk of accusing myself of such a grotesque crime as being an “admirable reader,” I did search desperately for the mind behind Lanny. I tried to find something I had missed—some idea, some concept or some revelation in the waning magical light of this acclaimed and supposedly moving book—but I came up empty.
Or, nearly empty. There is something worthwhile buried in its pages, after all. The passage comes while Lanny is missing. A narrator (it is unclear who) tries to recall the slippery person of the boy, saying “he had a kind of magic, we all accepted he was enigmatic and special.” The narrator then asks themselves “a kind of magic, and what, it worked on adults, kids, everyone?” They go on to answer their own question. Their answer and my answer are the same: “I don’t believe it.”