In Max Porter’s Shy, the titular teenage protagonist has escaped from Last Chance, a “shite old mansion” converted into a school for “very disturbed young men.” A chorus of voices from Shy’s past follow him into the night in this polyphonic novel that gives us stunning, lyrical insights into the psyche of one particularly angry and self-destructive adolescent. Shy, at the ripe old age of 16, has already been expelled from two schools and arrested; not to mention he has stabbed his stepfather in the hand: “It only chipped the bone,” Shy assures a Last Chance teacher. “He’s got chubby fingers.”
Shy is Max Porter’s fourth novel, although it hardly seems appropriate to classify Shy, or any of Porter’s books, as a novel. Porter’s short works of experimental fiction – including the famed Grief is the Thing with Feathers, a moving meditation on mourning – blend prose and poetry, alternating between short, one-sentence paragraphs and breathless, pages-long sentences. There’s a musicality to Porter’s work, and that’s especially true in Shy, the cover of which is appropriately adorned with a cassette tape.
But Porter’s lyrical writing isn’t just flair; his musicality amounts to more than window dressing. Shy’s clash of rhythmic and rhetorical devices is a wholly intentional, and wholly effective, means of exploring the teenage psyche, particularly this teenager’s psyche, because picking a consistent vantage point from which to explore adolescent psychology is to fundamentally misunderstand adolescents, and Porter knows this. He knows that the inner workings of a troubled, insecure, traumatized teenage boy are less a coherent symphony and more a hodgepodge of raucous, competing musical stylings. All of these disparate styles may have merit, but they can hardly be heard above the noise. Shy is an attempt to depict what that noise can do to an impressionable, volatile teenage mind.
Shy’s mind is a warzone. His thoughts are “lopping along in odd repetitive chunks, running at him, stumbling.” In a single second, Shy alternately “feels brave, feels pathetic, feels nothing. Panic. Calm. Mad clatter in the roof of the break like machine guns then swirling calm.” Shy’s sole comfort when he’s in the grips of his incessant ruminations is music, it’s “the thing he always has to look forward to, which will never disappoint him.” His Walkman is his salvation, as the blissful noise it pumps into his ears seems to counteract the painful noise emanating from inside his head. “He’s secure in the sound,” writes Porter. “That’s why he loves the music so much. It promises, and it delivers.” When Shy is alone with his headphones there are “no barriers, no games.” He “can’t hear his own voice because the tunes are so loud.”
Of course, Shy’s inner voice, like all inner voices, isn’t a solitary voice, but rather it’s an amalgamation of many voices: friends, parents, teachers, fellow Last Chance students. Some of these voices are occasionally nagging, pestering, critical, like Iain, his stepfather, who tells the parents of Shy’s friend that, “He doesn’t really know how to socialize with others, you know, classic only child.” Some of the voices are helpful, supportive even, like Last Chance staff member Jenny, who encourages Shy not to run from his more difficult emotions but rather to embrace them: “It might be good for you to go somewhere and shout it out,” she tells Shy, encouraging him to act on his more aggressive urges in a healthier manner.
Jenny is one of many people in Shy’s life who are genuinely trying to help. Shy even admits that Iain, his occasionally-villainous stepfather, “can be alright.” Porter’s novel isn’t interested in manufacturing drama through abusive relationships. Shy’s battle is ultimately internal, and Last Chance is slowly revealed to be the exact kind of center for healing that Shy needs. He even develops unlikely kinship with his classmates when “friendship seeps into the gaps” between them in “unexpected ways.” Beyond all the “abuse and the flashes of violence and cruelty,” Shy acknowledges that his fellow boarders are “definitely his mates now.”
Shy himself seems, on some level, to acknowledge the successes of Last Chance, which is exactly why his running away emerges as one of the central questions looming over the novel. Shy knows that teachers like Jenny are trying to help, and he sees the seeds of friendships in his tumultuous relations with his classmates, so the impetus for his abandoning Last Chance can feel a bit confounding, at least until the political dimensions of Porter’s novel slowly materialize: it’s revealed that the owner of the Last Chance property is seeking zoning permission to convert the house into “luxury self-contained flats.” Shy is running because he knows that Last Chance’s days are numbered.
“Money talks,” says Steve, a Last Chance teacher, acknowledging that the only way to keep the home going is for some wealthy benefactor’s “inner philanthropic lion” to “start roaring.” Porter’s disdain for the politics of philanthropy are clear here, and they’re further concretized during a scene where a local Member of Parliament visits the home for “a photograph or two.” The visit isn’t received kindly by Shy, and he asks the MP a rather difficult question: “I wondered, sir, is it part of the training for, like, becoming an MP, or have you always been such a cunt?”
Porter pulls no punches when it comes to critiquing political infrastructure that’s reliant on effective altruism to keep Last Chance from becoming luxury condos. It’s surprising, and ultimately commendable, that a short novel with so much formal experimentation refuses to sidestep its sociopolitical backdrop. Porter even deals head-on with issues of race, such as when Shy’s Black classmate at Last Chance, Benny, “explains to the group what it was like in the town he grew up in, getting pulled over for no reason, getting searched.” Benny says it’s “not an excuse for what he did,” but it is “part of his story.” Shy tells Benny that he understands, but Benny isn’t having it: “No. That’s my point. You totally don’t.”
Shy doesn’t have to deal with institutionalized racism, but he does find common ground with Benny, and with the rest of his classmates, in the futility of trying to vocalize his fuzzy inner workings. “Stop pretending you know me!” Shy tells Jenny. “You only know what I tell you.” There’s a subtle depth to Shy’s words here, a piercing observation about the distance between what he thinks and what he can actually articulate about those thoughts. That’s the work of Porter’s novel: it’s an attempt to make sense of the thought processes behind Shy’s words and actions, an attempt to cut through the fog and give language to the noise. It’s a difficult, if not impossible, task, and the formal experimentation required to even attempt it causes Porter’s work to, quite honestly, occasionally border on incomprehensibility. But ultimately, this is a wholly unique, affecting portrait of a troubled teenage mind desperately trying to outpace its own intrusive thoughts. The end result is messy, but that seems to be the point. There’s no one writing books quite like Max Porter.