Max Porter’s latest novel, Lanny (Graywolf Press, 2019), is a contemporary English folktale, a hybrid re-envisioning of ancient Green Man legends, and a multi-faceted glimpse of a small, post-Brexit British village. Its success lies in its unique structure, which reveals how a variety of characters may experience a single event in a myriad of ways.
The novel centers on the newly awakened presence of the fabled Green Man character, named Dead Papa Toothwort, and his relationship with the villagers, especially a whimsical young boy named Lanny, the eccentric new kid in town. Lanny is an old soul, sensitive and deeply connected with nature. There are hints that he might be magical—or at least more tuned in to fairy spirits and folkloric creatures than, say, your average PlayStation-obsessed little boy. He asks questions like, “Which do you think is more patient, an idea or a hope?” He sees things that others, particularly his father and many of the villagers, would consider to be harmful fantasy. Take this exchange, for example, in which Lanny confuses his father:
I heard the girl in the tree.
There’s a girl living under this tree. She’s lived here for hundreds of years. Her parents were cruel to her so she hid under this tree and she’s never come out.
OK, nutbar. Come on.
And eventually his father thinks:
I’m suddenly really annoyed. He’s too old for shit like this. Or too young. It’s fucking silly.
Lanny represents an innocence and an imaginative quality that seem to be lacking in the rest of the village—and in the lives of most contemporary adults reading Porter’s novel. Lanny is a celebration of that which is underappreciated: the peculiar specialness of childhood, of creativity, and the importance of individuality over conforming to what is “normal” in order to please others. In some ways, Lanny’s whimsy seems to be typical of many children who like to play pretend. The town’s lack of understanding or openness, however, highlights his etherealness, which exists in contrast to others’ fundamental disconnection from innocence and an overall overemphasis on gossip and exclusion.
When Lanny goes missing and his mom asks a neighbor if she’s seen him, the neighbor is more concerned with social graces:
Of course it is arch-lunacy to expect this young girl with a made-up name to understand […], she may as well be a bloody foreigner. I worry about the impact on the community. I worry about standards slipping. I worry about this country.
Lanny’s kind and otherworldly character contrasts with the petty and often mean-spirited townspeople around him. Because the novel lets us overhear snippets from village conversations via Dead Papa Toothwort and shows us the interior lives of various characters, we see how hostile the villagers are to outsiders, or to anyone or anything they might consider to be abnormal. We see snide comments and uncontextualized phrases, and when looking at them as a whole, Porter reveals a broader social context, a modern “English Symphony.” In post-Brexit small town England, distrust of the unfamiliar predominates.
While the novel doesn’t explicitly reference the current political climate, snippets of conversation paint a picture of the town’s feelings: “Iranian or something,” “It’s us versus them and it’s always been thus,” “What next Polish adverts in the parish mag,” “I don’t mind them if they pay their taxes,” “This is our land.” Even though Lanny’s outsider status stems from the fact that his family recently moved from London, it still provokes strong feelings in the villagers.
Lanny’s appearance also provokes Dead Papa Toothwort to awaken and subsequently listen for Lanny’s poetic voice amongst the town’s gossipy chatter. Thus, new changes collide with an old force, a fantastical creature of the forest who is ensorcelled by Lanny, and who wants him for his own. Once the forest spirit awakens, he listens to Lanny’s speech:
Dead Papa Toothwort chews the noise of the place and waits for his favourite taste […] and then he hears it, clear and true, the lovely sound of his favorite.
It would have the head of a dolphin and the wings of a peregrine, and it would be a storm-warning beast, watching the weather while we sleep.
Surgical yearnings invade him, he wants to chop the village open and pull the child out. Extract him. Young and ancient all at once, a mirror and a key.
Just as the story interweaves content that is both ancient and contemporary, Lanny plays with the form of the fairy tale in inventive ways. It shifts between perspectives, sometimes rapidly, and uses unconventional formatting. In the sections in which Dead Papa Toothwort eavesdrops on the townspeople, the words float across the page in swirling patterns. The font changes, and the mythical creature’s own thoughts are written in bold. Sometimes the trails of thought merge into each other so that they obscure each other so much the reader cannot decipher them. The effect is organic and lyrical. At the same time, an aesthetic sparseness predominates, in contrast to the dense tapestry of intersecting conversations and stories. Porter leaves much up to interpretation and allows blank space on many of the novel’s pages to amplify enigma and to ignite the reader’s imagination.
By offering different perspectives and using an experimental form, Porter writes an unusual sort of objectivity that is not usually associated with fairy tales. No longer is there simply one storyteller, but a whole village of them.
Lanny juxtaposes the ordinary and the extraordinary. Fantastical myth and human drama are intermixed in equal measure. As they intertwine throughout the story, they emphasize the importance of myth in human beings’ lives. Dead Papa Toothwort is bigger and more powerful than any human, and he exists inside of them. Take this passage, which describes his ubiquitous presence:
He has been represented on keystones, decorative stencils, tattoos, the cricket club logo, he has been every English trinket and trash, moral for cash, mascot and curse. He has been in story form in every bedroom of every house of this place. He is in them like water. Animal, vegetable, mineral. They build new homes, cutting into his belt, and he pops up adapted, to scare and define. In this place he is as old as time.
By yoking both ancient magical tale and contemporary British problems, Porter emphasizes the timelessness of the story’s themes, one of which is the uniquely challenging nature of familial love, particularly parental love. In this way, Lanny is written with extreme pathos and dark lyricism. Like his first book, Grief is the Thing With Feathers (Graywolf Press, 2016), Porter writes masterfully about gut-wrenching moments of loss and grief amidst a family crisis. This time, the pain of loss is dislocated by the myth of a forest spirit, who is as emotionless and politically indifferent as Lanny’s family is flawed.
Ultimately, the book is a triumphant look at the value of childlike imagination, a celebration of forces greater than our understanding, and a reminder that ancient myths are as alive now as they ever were. While many parts of the book are enigmatic and puzzling, eluding any clear meaning, Lanny ultimately invites the reader to interpret the story how they wish. This is, the book seems to suggest, the power of myth. We can make it our own.