The Choir of Man: Max Porter’s ‘Lanny’ Wants You to Listen

March 25, 2019 | 5 books mentioned 7 min read

Max Porter’s second novel, Lanny, begins with an awakening. The semi-mythical village spirit “Dead Papa Toothwart,” known to children through cautionary rhyme, wakes from his centuries-long sleep and at once begins to shapeshift:

He splits and wobbles, divides and reassembles […] He slips through one grim costume after another as he rustles and trickles and cusses his way between trees. He walks a few paces as an engineer in a Day-Glo vest. He takes a step in a dinner suit, then an Anderson shelter, then a tracksuit, then a rusted jeep bonnet, then a leather skirt. […] [He] wanders off, chuckling, jangling in his various skins.

coverThis isn’t just a fitting introduction to Porter’s style, but an accurate description of it. His 2015 debut, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, was a genre- and form-bending work, sitting somewhere on the border between novella and narrative-poem. Beyond formal concerns, it is stylistically shapeshifting, riffing on ideas from Ted Hughes’s The Crow, and full of heavy allusion, reference, and wordplay. The publication of Porter’s debut was both a major publishing event and a commercial success, despite its avant-garde leanings, and he gained a deserved reputation as a literary heavyweight.

It is therefore no surprise that Lanny, published in the U.K. by Faber, opens in language that owes as much to poetry as to the contemporary English novel. Every word is chosen not just for its meaning but for its feel and its sound.

But in Lanny, the most striking formal choice is its typographical quirks. As he approaches the village, Dead Papa Toothwart listens for the sounds of human conversation, and what he hears is conveyed to the reader by the words spreading themselves across the page as though floating through the air. Banal snippets of conversation wind in and out of each other, overlap, and run backwards or upside down between other paragraphs in a way that’s impossible to faithfully quote. It’s the kind of innovation that could be called a gimmick. But it’s also substantive. It helps us imagine how Dead Papa Toothwart experiences “his listening.” As readers, the shape of the words affects how we read them, and somehow influences the way it sounds. Of course, it doesn’t sound like anything, unless read aloud. But in doing so, Porter reminds us that our language is not primarily a written form of communication. Language is, above all, spoken. In these sections, words mimic the way they would travel toward the ear, the way the various villagers pronounce them, their country accents. They stretch out in the middle, or gracefully fall down the page like a descending scale. We feel as much audience to their everyday conversation as the enigmatic Dead Papa Toothwart does:

He swims in it, he gobbles it up and wraps himself in it, he rubs it all over himself, he pushes it into his holes, he gargles, plays, punctuates and grazes.

This focus on character as conveyed to the reader through narrative voice is a central concern of the novel. Porter uses language and form as a means to convey the spirit of the village, as faithfully as possible, in text. Following our introduction to Dead Papa Toothwart, the novel splits into several first-person narrative strands, taking on the voices and thoughts of “Mad” Pete, an octogenarian and retired artist; “Lanny’s Mum,” Jolie; and “Lanny’s Dad,” Robert.

The eponymous Lanny, seen by adults around him as an unusually inquisitive, maybe even gifted child, isn’t given his own sections, though he is central to the events of the novel, and to the thoughts and words of its characters. He is, of course, the main concern of his parents. Lanny’s dad, commuting every day from this small village into the center of London, thinks about his son all day, but often finds his playfulness, his sense of wonder, and his strange profundity a frustrating contrast to the supposedly sensible, practical concerns of everyday life. Lanny’s mum works from home—writing her crime novel—where Lanny continually interrupts with his comings-and-goings, “stinking of pine tree and other nice things” like a woodland sprite. And Pete, their eccentric neighbour, is tasked with giving the child art lessons, though they are as much conversations as they are lessons.

And Lanny is what Dead Papa Toothwart is most interested in, too—perhaps the reason he’s awoken after centuries of sleep. Out of all the voices in “his English symphony,” Lanny’s is the most delicious: “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.”

In a novel made up of first-person voices, sometimes all streaming in at once, overflowing across the page, Lanny is never given a voice of his own. His character and his thoughts are always mediated through the words of others. To them, Lanny often feels less like a person and more like a thing that happens to them. Pete even notes that “[At] times like this Lanny seems almost possessed.” Rather than a fully-fleshed out character that we have direct access to as readers, Lanny is instead the thread that winds all the other characters and the overall structure of the book together. Like most children, he is implicitly patronised in this way: often more spoken about, and spoken for, than he is listened to.

The narrative pace speeds up in the novel’s second act. The once clearly distinct strands are replaced by long, unadorned sections. Character’s voices become brief vignettes without clear signposts as to who is speaking. We learn to infer from their idioms, their habits of speech, accents and turns-of-phrase. Here the whole village comes into play as a chorus of voices which butt in on the main characters with casual conversation, speculation, thoughts, and insults surrounding a dramatic event.  Without knowing who’s speaking, we get the same sense of familiarity. In the most powerful passages, from the perspective of Mad Pete, there is no separation at all between voices, and events take place as one long stream: What’s thought, what’s said, and what’s heard by Mad Pete are distinguished only by tone and content.

coverIt’s unsurprising how well-suited Porter’s work has become for theater. Lanny’s launch at London’s Southbank Centre will feature a dramatized reading. Grief Is the Thing with Feathers’s most recent iteration is a stage-play starring Cillian Murphy. Lanny in particular has plenty in common with George Saunder’s Man Booker-winning Lincoln in the Bardo, which reads as much like a script as it does a novel, featuring a cast of more than 100 characters with almost no third-person exposition. Similarly, both of Porter’s novels lack an authoritative third-person perspective and are instead mediated through the voices of their characters alone. In doing so, Porter highlights the importance of character in his work. For him, it is the way in which these voices are realised, rather than the content of what is said, that is most relevant.

Lanny, more than Grief, takes this idea of narrative voice as its subject and problematizes it. When the world of the novel is mediated through its characters, it fundamentally affects the nature of that world. There’s a moment midway through the novel that really draws this out. Lanny’s mum goes to her neighbour Mrs. Larton in a moment of emergency. Their confrontation is conveyed to the reader twice. The paragraphs alternate between Mrs. Larton’s voice and Jolie’s, both of whom see themselves as the more virtuous and innocent victim of the other’s rudeness. Even the specific wording of their conversation is contradictory. And afterward, they each reduce the wider problems of society to the small differences between them:

Oh god, you horrible crone, you are the worst thing about living here, you are the worst thing about this English village. You are the worst thing about England. And villages. I wish you would die so somebody nice could move in here.

[…]

I’d like to tell her about the real community around here, a community that is dead and gone thanks to people like her, buying up the houses and putting in ridiculous open kitchens and glass walls […] she may as well be a bloody foreigner. I worry about the impact on the community. I worry about the standards slipping. I worry about this country. I wish she would get bored and let somebody decent move in.

If language is an unfaithful lens into reality, Lanny and Dead Papa Toothwart, two characters who aren’t given their own unmediated first-person voice, are best understood by the reader as manifestations of, or reflections of, the people who describe them. The way Lanny is seen by the reader isn’t necessarily the way he actually is. Instead, he’s as much a reflection of the essential nature of the village as Toothwart is. Mad Pete, early in the novel, says of Toothwart:

He’s real if people believe in him. So yes. Just as mermaids or Springheeled Jack or the Green Children of Woolpit are real if people have thought about them, told stories about them. He’s part of this village and has been for hundreds of years, whether he’s real or not.

coverBoth Toothwart and Lanny come to us as embodiments of the village itself—Toothwart because the villagers invented his legend; Lanny because their version of him is the only version we get. Lanny and Toothwart reflect the village’s essential, timeless character that is ultimately ambivalent to the temporary concerns of the humans that live in it. Both Lanny and Toothwart have an innocence and an ambivalence to them that reminds me of Miyazaki’s Forest Spirits in Princess Mononoke. Somehow ancient, and yet at the same time, they are an amalgamation of the villagers themselves, with all their contingent, messy humanity.

At one point, Jolie sees this: “and she realises their life at home, his time at school, what she thought of as his real existence, was only a place he visited.”

It’s a line that could only have been written by a parent: that realization that something you thought of as entirely yours is an independent being. That your children exist when you’re not there. That they have a life beyond you. That for them, as for everyone, they are the absolute center of their own experience.

Porter extends this idea to the village at large but conveys it in the exact opposite way. He presents it to us, in Dead Papa Toothwart’s all-hearing, typographically experimental prose, as “A tapestry of small abuses, fights and littering, lake-loads of unready chemicals piped into my water bed, green and decline, preaching teaching crying dying and walking the fucking dogs, breeding and needing and working.”

By giving us this stream of unfiltered human self-involvement, Porter show us the nature of a village as a microcosm of human society, and he shows how difficult it is for people to live with one other. The existence of characters—such as Lanny and Dead Papa Toothwart—who seem more attuned to the world, suggests that there might be a way out. Lanny’s character in particular implies that while self-centredness is intrinsically human, it’s not an inescapable part of the human condition—maybe something learned rather than innate. Early in the novel, Mad Pete gestures towards it: “Maybe it’s just Lanny taking things from wherever he’s been listening, soaking up the sounds of this world and spinning out threads of another.”

Max Porter’s Lanny is an attempt to capture a village, entirely, in language, and it does so by trying to represent the village’s breadth of narrative voices. It’s an ultimately empathetic, even humanist project. But its representation isn’t always positive. People are human. They’re unsympathetic, rude, racist, ungenerous, speculative. They beat up pensioners and make false accusations and invite hysteria and sensationalism. They can be judgemental neighhors or maybe self-aggrandizing, polluters or gardeners. But in the act of reading, we’re made a mute witness to them. Like Lanny and Dead Papa Toothwart, or Porter himself, we are made active, careful listeners. In doing so, we give them space to speak.

We can’t live each other’s experience. But we can start by listening to them.

is a writer, musician and bookseller from Bristol, UK. He is assistant editor of The Cardiff Review, a magazine of new writing.

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