I have to be honest. When I first flicked through Lanny, Max Porter's second novel following his much-lauded Grief is the Thing With Feathers, my stomach started to sink. Fragments of text float across the page in rainbow arcs, words flowing into each other like beat poetry. Symbols separate paragraphs. There are no quotation marks to indicate speech. Oh no, I immediately thought: this is going to be the kind of book I will be expected to "get" and, if I don't "get" it, I will be written off as a cretin. Turning the first page, I prepare myself to treat the book like an art installation rather than a story. Luckily, the feeling doesn't last long. By page 9, I got it.
Jolie and Robert are a chic London couple who have relocated to a commuter village with their young son, Lanny. Robert takes the train at 7.21 ("I miss breakfast with Lanny, but I avoid Carl Taylor and usually get a seat") leaving his ex-actress wife to write her crime novel and take care of Lanny.
Lanny is special. A gentle, well-liked, aristocratic little chap who spouts poetic verse and is usually found up a tree or wandering the woods, he develops a Goodnight Mister Tom-style friendship with a local curmudgeon, Pete. Like many of the canonical Unusual Children Of Literature, Lanny smooths out the social edges on his elderly friend, and by page 50, everyone is getting along famously.
And perhaps they would continue to get along famously, if their story weren't being directed by Death Papa Toothwort. He is a folk legend, a woodland spirit, a demigod, a demon. He awakens at the beginning of the novel, gathering a body together from earth and litter, and cocks an ear to the town. He "splits and wobbles, divides and reassembles, coughs up a plastic pot and a petrified condom". He takes the shape of an engineer, then a rusted car bonnet, then a bird. "His body is a suit of bark-armour with the initials of long-dead teenage lovers carved in the surface."
Death Papa Toothwort is not a benevolent spirit, but he does like to listen. This is where the rainbows of text come in. They are overheard snatches of conversation, layers of sound building and crowding each other out, layering on to each other senselessly. These are the sounds of the village, and mostly, he finds them banal, even repugnant.
Except Lanny, whose speech never comes to Death Papa Toothwort in bursting splutter, but in poetic tranquillity. "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," Lanny murmurs, and Death Papa Toothwort listens. Like King Kong and Ann Darrow, Death Papa Toothwort fixates on Lanny. He kidnaps the boy as his "once-in-a-century effort" to disturb the village he is usually content to observe.
Here is where the novel shifts from modern fairytale to a tense, experimental thriller. The reader is plunged into the role of eavesdropper. It's here where Porter's writing goes from impressive to masterful. The dialogue of his characters is disturbing yet compulsive, as each speculates wildly on Lanny's whereabouts, Pete, the parenting decisions of Robert and Jolie, the violent thriller Jolie is writing. Theories about paedophilia are bandied around like football scores as the nation begins to focus on the village. "Into a van, chloroformed, to Dover, down through France, Spain, Morocco, wakes up the plaything of a rich pervert with a pomegranate in his mouth," chats one villager to his wife. "Goodnight Lorraine, I don't want to think about it anymore."
Lanny is shot through with a glinting thread of magical realism, but never becomes overwhelmed by the ghoulish aspects of the plot. The supernatural is here to make the natural look all the more bizarre: like the villager who confesses to "loving" the drama of Lanny's disappearance, the man down the pub who claims to understand paedophilia as a global industry, the neighbour who tells off Jolie about illegal parking when she's looking for her missing child.
This all swells to a story on aspects of commuter-town life. Who truly belongs, and who is merely driving up house prices? Post-war nostalgia hums through the streets, but all of this is meaningless to the puck-ish Death Papa Toothwort, who has been observing disease and genocide for hundreds of years, laughing outright at the idea of a peaceful or tranquil English countryside. What's especially satisfying is that Porter has the courage of his convictions, committing fully to Death Papa Toothwort, never once opting for an easy-exit where he might be a product of Lanny's over-active imagination.
Ultimately, the unusual structure of Lanny might scare off some readers, but the story is solid, the writing accomplished, witty, and sticky with the fragrant earthiness of its setting.