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.
This 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.
It’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.
Both 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.
How many times have I checked my Instagram feed since I attempted to start writing this review? I have lurked on the Internet and seen sulking selfies and sultry men posing with plants and a green glow framed in darkness; I have witnessed cats playing with a Ping-Pong ball, a humble brag shot of mail received and photo “memories” of past AWPs. With Wi-Fi always at the ready, we are armed during our waking hours with iPhones and Androids and multitudes of screens; we are inundated in images like no age previously. We are the “Picture People,” “addicted to images, in all their varieties,” declares Ezekiel “Zeke” Hooper Stark, cultural ethnographer, sufferer of indecision, New Man, middle son, and protagonist of Lynne Tillman’s grand and sprawling new novel, Men and Apparitions.
What does it mean to come of age amongst this glut of images, and how does this alter the way we as a culture perceive? This is one of two central questions asked in Tillman’s Men and Apparitions. As a 38-year-old man, Zeke is situated on the cusp of multiple transitions—from the analog to the digital, from dark room to Polaroid to cell phone selfie. In his lifetime a photo has gone from a way of remembering and memorializing to a throwaway—something evanescent. Zeke is old enough to have a childhood immortalized in the family photo album yet young enough to be fully fluent with digital media. New media’s proliferation has brought about a more fluid and abundant display of images, expanding possibilities of self, and notably, with regard to the “Men” in the novel’s title, new tropes of masculinity. We’ve gone from the iconic tough cowboy of a Marlboro Man, then appropriated by Richard Prince, re-appropriated by Brokeback Mountain’s gay lovers, and by now signals of masculinity have morphed somewhat, though not entirely.
Another transition to consider: Zeke is one among a generation of sons of second-wave feminists who have matured into adulthood. The second central question of Men and Apparitions is how has their idea of masculinity expanded, and has it expanded in commensurate ways? The answer is murky. Zeke doesn’t question the way he performs tropes of masculinity, the way he is on autopilot, with his wife and his advancing academic career, until he encounters personal failure and betrayal. His wife leaves him for his best friend, triggering a crisis (he has dissociative amnesia, wanders Europe, tells people he’s Henry Adams). This rending makes real something he already knew intellectually, that identity is fluid not static. And he starts to discover his depths, to discover his true work, doing investigative work to explore and define this new masculinity, what he calls the “New Man.” Photography plays a role in this redefinition too, Tillman implies through Zeke: “To perform gender there must be an image to base it upon: this is who a woman sits, this is how a man walks.” If nothing else in this book is clear, we are performing ideas of ourselves all of the time.
Zeke is obsessed with photographs, especially their role in forming and reifying identity. In his work as a cultural ethnographer, he analyzes relationships in family photographs—birth order, gender relations, and how this is portrayed, i.e. “how does that ‘fact’ become an image for the family?” Through Zeke we learn of his family’s obsessions: of his mother’s intense connection to her ancestry through their images, of his hatred for his insensitive brother Bro Hart (oldest), and the selective mutism of Little Sister (youngest), with whom Zeke feels a quiet and robust solidarity. We learn of their family propensity to depression and suicide through Zeke’s meandering mental cataloging, just as we learn of his ex-wife’s immunity to failure, and of the nearly mythological status of ancestor Clover Hooper Adams, wife of Henry. And yet it’s striking that in this novel so focused on images, filled with images even, we don’t ever “see” Zeke, either through his perceptions of the physical world or through photographs. While I’m inclined to interpret a photomontage before the final section as Zeke’s personal collection, and wish some of these faces to be his, it’s never defined as such. Certainly my desire to “see” Zeke influences my reading, and the novel’s consideration of images and interpretation leads me to question why I want this. That somehow this “fact” of Zeke’s existence would confirm my own intuitions. As if he weren’t a fictional character. As if the photo were evidence. As it is, we only see through him, and rarely if ever glimpse the physical world around him.
Zeke, however, does describe and analyze the expressions and posturing and framing in photos, and some are included in the text. Early on he describes a series of photographs by Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier, and specifically, one of a child standing in a crib on the lawn of a suburban house: “The picture was shot from the child’s POV, from behind his head, so the shot was low to the ground. The child looked out from his crib, the view was cone-shape, of street, houses, a car. It was a child’s eye-view, a Christina’s world. A new theoretical world, with a new eye wide open.” This description provides a key to understanding the reader’s relationship to Zeke, and Tillman’s as author. I couldn’t help but read this as a nod to Tillman as author/photographer who turns the reader’s gaze toward the world with a Zeke’s eye-view, or rather, to witness through Zeke’s filter of a mind, which is analytic, punny, and always thinking.
It’s an authorial wink, too. Tillman has written male narrators before, though her only novel from a male perspective is an older gay man in Cast in Doubt. Women authors write men all of the time, and vice versa. What’s striking in this instance is the intimacy of voice, and Zeke’s focus on defining masculinity, his intent of reappropriating Henry James’s feminist ideal of the 19th-century’s self-made New Woman (Portrait of a Lady’s Isabel Archer, for example) to define the 21stt century’s New Man. Or rather: Henry James wrote in drag then; Tillman is doing it now, inquiring into the status of the New Man as a second-wave feminist. Gender is performance. Writing it is too. It makes me wonder, too, what nuances Tillman as a woman perceives, what she misses too. The attempt is certainly ambitious.
Much of the book’s first section is a Roland Barthes-like disquisition about the image, all from Zeke’s point of view. It includes a consideration of images and photos scattered throughout the text. Zeke states: “Images don’t mean as words mean, though people (and I) apply words to them.” However, these images are very much a kind of language too: a transmission of postures and facial expressions and gestures and framing; they tell stories, of identities, of the eye behind the camera’s lens, of pasts, of inheritance, of how we are seen and how we wish to be seen. The photograph creates and reinforces mythologies and narratives, about members of a family or a social group and their interrelationships. It makes me think of the four Brown sisters, photographed by Nicholas Nixon every year for more than 40 years. Always standing in the same order, with subtle changes in their gestures and faces and expressions; the most striking changes are in appearances: haircuts or a change in weight. The series captures their relationships over time and forms an intimate story. While the Fox sisters aren’t mentioned by Zeke, he traffics in contemporary photography and culture (riffing on O.J. Simpson, the Kardashians, Caitlyn Jenner, Bernie Madoff, John Cage) and a network of 19th-century Americans associated with Clover Adams (Henry Adams, the James brothers, etc., etc.)
As Susan Sontag writes in On Photography, “All images appropriate.” Zeke too considers appropriation in many dimensions: how we fall in love with projections, our aspirational branding and signification. He doesn’t state this directly, but this fantasy of transformation is the foundation of the American Dream: “Portraits of selves reside inside or beside portraits of desirable or desired others, too. The other’s desired life is a fashion or style, there is no inner to the outer-wear. Fashion and style rule because the shopper assumes the style of the designer and imagines it’s his or her own. When in fact he or she is merely branded. (See Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.)”
Erving Goffman is a touchstone for Zeke, as are Sigmund Freud and Clifford Geertz and a smattering of cultural anthropologists and thinkers, but it’s through Goffman and his The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life that he considers performative qualities we bring to the daily interactions that define us. In effect, Zeke confirms Goffman who confirms the old Shakespearean adage—“The world’s a stage” — in that the roles we play and the way we convey (and betray) ourselves is a choice, or a repetition. Habits, they make you. Or they become you. A disruption can also change you. As Zeke remarks at the beginning of Men and Apparitions, he’s been conjugating breakfast for his entire life. It seems relevant here to tie in Tillman’s writing on the gaze and the desire in Cindy Sherman’s photos, from an essay in The Complete Madame Realism:
[Sherman’s] photographs are not about her. They are about us. Human beings want to look at themselves, and the ubiquity of the camera and its photographic products demonstrates that obsession. People construct ways to look at themselves and others. It is an incessant desire, impossible to satisfy, which creates more pictures. Humans stare at each other longingly, or with disgust, anxiety, curiosity. People watch people, as if everyone might live in a zoo or be a zookeeper…Sherman’s art registers the restlessness of people to see who they are, or who they might be or become. And what will happen to them.
Tillman, through Zeke, is not asking how should a person be or how does the world look, but rather, how does a person become? And how do images complicate these notions of ourselves and this desire to become someone else?
Zeke’s rhythm of thinking, his patois, his clipped observations, his tendency to employ maxims evoke a far different mind than the narrator of Tillman’s previous novel, American Genius, A Comedy, whose smooth recursive thoughts loop back on themselves, riffing on skin, memory, and American history. And yet, what unites their voices is Tillman’s commitment to writing the drifts and vagaries of the mind, attempting to capture the generation of ideas on the page, and to stay with them over an extended period of time—here for nearly 400 pages. The depths Tillman plumbs seem almost paradoxical to a novel so intensely focused on surfaces and photography. It’s as if Tillman is acknowledging that life is life, but the active life occurs in the interface with the mind. Thinking is life. Zeke’s inaction or as he puts it, his “Hamlet disease,” is pitted against a multitude of photographic surfaces. Zeke’s depth begs the question, how does coming to know Zeke through voice differ from knowing him through an Instagram feed? And do the profusion of images surrounding him threaten depth of character, as in, will our surfeit of images lead us to understand, or “see” character or personality differently? Think of the balderdash on Twitter, the sound bites, the seduction of social media feeds, selfies. The fragmentation already.
The novel ends in fragmentation. A field study, “Men in Quotes,” was performed and collected and arranged by Zeke, but his observations merely order the responses by subjects interviewed about their roles, their love lives, their relationship to masculinity. Of the largely heterosexual pool, some are confused, some admit to repeating their fathers’ lechery, some admit to desiring partners who are equals and more independent than their mothers, some aren’t mystified by women while others still are. Zeke articulates his idea of the New Man as a reappropriation of James here. too, but with a twist:
Guyville in Jeopardy: The New Man is analogous to Henry James’s New Woman, but change for him isn’t about his greater independence; it’s about recognizing his interdependence, with a partner, in my study, usually female, even dependence on her…He must recognize different demands and roles for him, and for her. A New Man must investigate the codes that make him masculine, and the models for hetero-normative behavior. And make him who he is or was, make him what he never believed had been ‘made.’
This new awareness of interdependence between sexes seems all the more timely, and fragile too, given the resurgence of the strong man, partially as backlash to this new masculinity. As this recent headline in The Guardian states, there’s a crisis in modern masculinity. This too is shifting, not set. “We think we can be whatever we want to be,” says one subject in Zeke’s field study.
“Men in Quotes” is a collection of observations more than a summation, and it’s meaningful that the voices are not mediated through Zeke. It’s also curious to note how this section nods to the final chapter of Susan Sontag’s On Photography—“A Brief Anthology in Quotations”—which collates an assortment of quotations relating to photography; this in itself nods to Walter Benjamin’s cataloguing of quotations documenting the shift to modernity in Paris in The Arcades Project.
Earlier in On Photography Sontag observes, “A photograph could also be described as a quotation, which makes a book of photographs like a book of quotations.” Men and Apparitions, then, appropriates Sontag’s linguistic equivalent of the photo album with “Men In Quotes,” and in doing so marks its own shift in voice. Ending the novel with prismatic voices speaking to the many facets of the New Man is a deliberate opening of form to other voices, and quite literally, too. The responses from interview subjects are in fact responses to questions Tillman posed to a small survey of interlocutors identifying as male, age 25 to 45, and “Men in Quotes” features a glimpse at their candid responses with Tillman’s Zeke acting as a guide. Could this making room for other voices also mark a shift towards a new form of novel? It opens up possibilities. The gesture expands upon a form used in David Shields’s Reality Hunger and George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, where the proximity and ordering of quotations creates a narrative of its own. Like setting images side by side. Like in the best books, where readers’ imaginations are coaxed to leap. Men and Apparitions is a loose and beautiful baggy monster of a novel that opens in on itself like a fun house hall of mirrors. What a tremendous experience it is to walk through, never quite sure who’s who or what you’re looking at.