CW: death (mentioned, not detailed), missing child, child in danger, ostracism
I’m finally getting into some Booker Prize 2019 nominees! I’ve discovered over the last year that I really enjoy reading from prize lists while they’re fresh, but I am taking it a bit easier with this one. Even so, There are some titles on this year’s longlist that I’ve been really looking forward to picking up, and Max Porter’s Lanny was first up.
In the novel, Lanny’s mother arranges for a local artist to give her young son private art lessons. Lanny’s father questions the man’s intentions in spending lots of unpaid and unsupervised time with a child, but otherwise it is an ideal situation for everyone- the man and the boy are fast friends, and Lanny’s informal lessons mean less time for him to spend at home where his mother works, or wandering the small village and its surrounding landscape alone, which he does often. At this time Lanny is perhaps closer to nature than people, and fascinated with a local mythic being called Dead Papa Toothwort; this magical creature, though seemingly an extension of the land, is fascinated by human civilization- and Lanny.
“Then Dead Papa Toothwort leaves his spot and wanders off, chuckling, jangling in his various skins, wearing a tarpaulin gloaming coat, drunk on the village, ripe with feeling, tingling with thoughts of how one things leads to another again and again, time and again, with no such thing as an ending.”
Though short on plot, Lanny has plenty of heart. This is a charming book with lovable characters that’s half magical realism, half literary fiction- sometimes a perfect blend of both, though most often the ratio is skewed either one way or the other.
This story is divided into three very different sections.
In the first, we become acquainted with Lanny and his parents, the outcast artist, and the village where they all live. We begin to see the dual faces of the community, in which newcomers and oddities are accepted publicly though perhaps not sincerely. Dead Papa Toothwort’s magical presence ebbs and flows, seeming at first rather whimsical but gradually spooling into something larger and more complex that will take up real space in the narrative. Dead Papa Toothwort catches bits of conversation that he spins together into an impressive tableau of modern human life; these are beautifully rendered on the page as the fragments curl and bend and even overlap each other, but as the bits and pieces are not strictly cohesive they seem to lend a tone to the narrative rather than supply useful content, which makes them a bit dry to read, despite their visual draw. I found this section a bit boring, to be honest, as nothing much is happening yet and the style felt a bit gimmicky to me at this point.
The second part introduces a calamity to the plot. In this portion, the magic takes a step back as the narration instead shifts from person to person, most of them anonymous, showing the many varied opinions and actions prompted by one disastrous event that both unites and divides the community. This portion of the book is absolutely brilliant- a nuanced study of how we react to tragedy, how living in a group shapes and reshapes our experiences, how wide an umbrella “human nature” may be. I also found the crisis itself very moving and compelling at this point. If the entire book had been written this way, it would surely have been a 5-star read for me.
Instead, the third portion brings the magic back to the forefront as a wild daydream guides our characters to a conclusion they’ve proved unable to reach without Dead Papa Toothwort’s assistance. The resolution of this tragedy throws realism entirely out the window- which is fine, though I tend to prefer magical realism that leans toward ambiguity.
There is a final passage- a sort of epilogue- from several years farther out; this I appreciated nearly as much as Part 2. These final pages ease back on the magic again and bring together the full implications of Dead Papa Toothwort’s role and reach. They suggest an intriguing theme that, despite the excess of magic in the lead-up, is really not so far-fetched or unheard of. Porter manages to approach a familiar point of curiosity in an entirely new and innovative way.
“I am thinking of my baby lying next door asleep. Or possibly he’s not asleep. Possibly he’s dancing in the garden with the elves or the goblins. We assume he’s asleep like a normal child, but he’s not a normal child, he is Lanny Greentree, our little mystery.”
All in all, I found Lanny a mostly enjoyable read; though I didn’t love every moment I spent with it, I am impressed with what it accomplishes. It’s a story full of fascinating dualities- the community and the self, human and nature, life and death. It’s style is unique and captivating. I can fully understand the enthusiasm it has been met with, and its placement on the Booker Prize list.
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was a quick read with plenty of depth despite its foray into magic. Some parts were quite a bit stronger for me than others, which made this one hard to rate; I’ve been wavering between 3 and 4 stars. (I’m also still wavering on a final rating for my previous read- clearly I’m having an indecisive week!) In any case, I appreciated Lanny enough that I’ll want to read Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers as soon as possible.
The Literary Elephant
The Literary Elephant