Reviewed by Shilo Niziolek
by Max Porter
Faber & Faber
Paperback, 224 pages, Aug 2020, ISBN13: 9780571340293
In Lanny, by Max Porter, the story starts off with Dead Papa Toothwort, the mythical creature of the village the story takes place in. Shortly after, the narrative plunges into the lives of a few of the villagers, specifically that of Lanny’s Dad and Mum, and the local artist who Lanny’s Mum enlists to teach the creative and enigmatic child, Lanny. Halfway through the book Lanny disappears and we spend the rest of the novel in the chaos that ensues with the loss of a child. The book is broken into three sections and each is written differently from the last. In this way, Porter uses style and formatting to manipulate time. It can be contracted and expanded at will; this creates a visceral experience for the reader that capsizes us into the turbulence of the small village and makes the reading fraught with the dramatic tension and sensationalism of a narrative about a missing child.
We begin with Dead Papa Toothwort. He can change form, shrink from a tiny man made of moss and grass and trash into a tall ivy man clambering over a wall, back into a small child made of bark. “Cheering up, he chatters in the voice of a cultured fool to the dry papery wings and under-bark underlings, to the marks he left here last year, to the mice and larks, voles and deer, to the quaint memory of himself as cyclically reliable, as part of the country curriculum.” Through Dead Papa Toothwort Porter establishes narrative as something cyclical, changing, fluid, and mysterious. We understand that times only reliability is through its changes, and Dead Papa Toothwort, a mythology built from the land, wants only what the land wants, to continue its lived experience.
“He clomps through the wood, wide awake and hungry for his listening.
Only one thing can cheer up crotchety Toothwort and that’s his listening.
He slides across the land at precisely the speed of dusk and arrives at his favourite spot. The village sits up pretty to greet him, sponged in half-light. He climbs into the kissing gate. He is invisible and patient and about the size of a flea. He sits still.
Here it is.”
At this moment we enter the first and most extreme of Porter’s stylistic choices, where all the words of the villagers break apart, meld together, and coalesce.
Dead Papa Toothwort is used throughout the narrative to simultaneously slow down and speed up the narrative, to contract, expand, and extract time, to take time out of time. He is hungry for the voices, for the words that come from the villagers who pass through the area where he rests, and there is nobody’s thoughts he loves as much as the young creaturely boy, Lanny.
Although Dead Papa Toothwort is in the first section, his formatting is different from the rest of the text. The actual linear narrative of the prose in section one is broken up by markers: Lanny’s Mum, Lanny’s Dad, and Pete. Porter uses these broken and individuated point-of-view markers to contract time into the individual experience. Where Dead Papa Toothwort experiences all the words at once, the section one breaks allow for us to be in one person’s head at a time. This shows us the minutiae of the lives of those who are most impacted by the disappearance of Lanny and allows the reader to get inside the head of those who will later become suspects when he goes missing. This contraction of time allows for the psychoanalysis of a thriller; we can get inside their heads and see how they thought and what they thought about Lanny. In this way we come to understand why Dead Papa Toothwort is so fascinated with the boy. While in the artist Pete’s POV, we learn that Lanny is much like the mythological creature: “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.” But it is not just Lanny that experiences time fluidly in the way of Dead Papa Toothwort, it is the mind of artists like Lanny, and like Pete, who can experience time slowed down and butted up against itself. Pete thinks:
Either side of us, woods. Ahead of us, hills. Counties lapping falsely at each other over the stone plates which rough-and-tumbled to form this gentle landscape. Some very old trees round this way. Saints.
We tramp down the steep-walled chalk and moss run, tree roots like sea monsters lining our route, and we discuss the passing of time.
It is not just the style and formatting that is soaked with the understanding of time, but the prose itself which is permeated with the musings and misgivings about the passing of time, and the understanding of times influence on the world that surrounds. The first section of the book is half of the text, and through it the reader comes to understand that Lanny, like Dead Papa Toothwort, is so in tune with the earth that he doesn’t follow the rationality of humans, of the mundane. We experience this with him as he speaks to his Mum of a dream he had:
“But this time I wasn’t a boy, running with deer. I was a deer, inside a deer looking at me, wondering if I was an animal. My bones felt lower and stronger, springy, my eyes were deer’s eyes, but I could see me inside the deer and I thought ‘a human boy!’ and I was excited and really, really worried at the same time.”
He propels through the world and his mind nonlinearly. It comes as no surprise then, when Dead Papa Toothwort gets an itch for the boy, “every now and then he does it, puts on a show, intervenes, changes the nature of the place, he can’t resist and never could, he can’t resist and never should, he is up to something.” And even the animals can sense that Dead Papa Toothwort is in a mood, is messing with time, and they hide in their homes, meanwhile Lanny’s parents feel a presence enter their home, but no one is there but time passing.
Entering the chaos of section two, Lanny’s Mum runs frantically from neighbor to neighbor, searching for her missing son. The narrative pops in and out of her mind and thrusts violently back and forth into the minds of those around her, denoted only by a section break and a plus sign to mark the shift. Inside the sections breaks the prose moves fluidly from first person to third person and back again. “Time was straight-faced, ushering, naming me as a principle character,” she thinks as she walks barefoot through the streets looking for Lanny. Porter uses this formatting style to create a frenzied, darting, and chaotic movement to the narrative which mimics the moments and days after the presumed child abduction, where everyone, especially those closes to the child are suspect, and the villagers can talk of nothing else. “She is saying, Please, can you please understand, I don’t know any more. Time’s gone mad. Yesterday feels like weeks ago feels like this morning, it’s all bent and confused.” At first, in section two, we move from Lanny’s Mum to whomever is in her vicinity and back again, but as the section draws on and the days draw out the narratives begin to stack one on top of the other and overlap:
“She says it again in her velvety-soft professional way: There’s no accepted way of reacting.
Fame at last: Nan was on the ten o’clock news saying about how Mad Pete was well dodge.
I am speaking, but I don’t recognise my own voice. My voice and all these other voices and the hammering noise of the fact that he still hasn’t turned up.”
The use of the unknown and un-signified townspeople interspersed with the narrative voices of Lanny’s parents and Pete create a tangible experience, as if we the readers are thrown into the madness of living in a small village during a missing child case. There are individual narratives in section two, but we have to sift through them to hear the important voices over the clamor of the villagers. By the time we come to the end of the section, we are unsure how much time has passed as the chaos of trauma has dominated the prose.
When the story enters section three, the last and final section, the narrative is under the control of Dead Papa Toothwort. The only voices are those of Toothwort, Lanny’s Mum and Dad, and Pete, but Toothwort is holding the controls and has slammed the readers into loose prose and a continuous stream of movement. With the removal of the noted section breaks everything is broken down into paragraphs; even that doesn’t necessarily mean a shift from character to character. In this way, Porter smooths and expands time to create a cohesive connectivity of all the characters to each other. The three human characters wake in the middle of the night to invitations from Dead Papa Toothwort to come to the town hall. They arrive at the same time and are put through a series of test. Pete is made to recreate the first drawing lesson with Lanny; he passes the test. Toothwort speeds up time to test Lanny’s Dad by showing him various possible outcomes to Lanny’s future. He is supposed to admit which futures he has seen in his dreams and nightmares, but he lies. The only future he has seen is the one in which Lanny is no more. The narrative builds on itself until we reach Lanny’s Mum, the decider, and in her test Porter and Toothwort bring about the effect of a time lapse: “And so Dead Papa Toothwort gently breaks open time, and shows her Lanny.” The prose here loosens its grip entirely, only broken by commas, as we speed through the experience of Lanny’s entire life simultaneously slowed down and sped up. Porter pulls us out of the time lapse to grasp us in the reality of Lanny’s Mum’s experience:
“She tries to give chase, but she is only watching. She is only vision, no body. She follows but not at her own speed, not touching the ground or feeling the weather. She is caught between what’s real and what’s not, moving through the partial air, through the solid trees. She is like a camera panning across a set. It is sheer torment but she is also suffused by a deep gratitude, the drug-like bliss of appreciation for what she is being shown. She is being shown Lanny. They are up in Hatchett Wood.”
The time lapse begins to slow, to unfold into the scene where Lanny finds an old bunker, crawls down inside with his rucksack, only to hear the metal lid slip and latch above him. Time slows and she watches the hours tick by as he calls for help. “Time accelerates and pauses, wobbles and misbehaves in a way that is familiar to Jolie, speeding through the dark hours so that she doesn’t have to listen to the sobs of her son and then holding still while he’s quiet, and the terrible closeness between them is all there is.” Finally, she is ushered out of her trance. Dead Papa Toothwort releases them once she sees the mythological creature come out of the tree, a child, and offer fruits and water and nuts to Lanny through a hole in the lid. She finds herself tramping through the brambles, and behind her is her husband and Pete. They are getting closer and suddenly there are search dogs behind them and they are pulling Lanny from the bunker and he is alive, but barely. The story ends in the mind of Peggy, one of the only villagers left who believed in Papa Toothwort, who called for him to keep the child safe, and she has passed and is a ghost. She watches in the woods as an old Pete and an adult Lanny meet in just the right light to draw the trees.
Dead Papa Toothwort, the mythical creature, loops through these pages, grasping words and moments as he watches the village. He is a collector, by nature, and what he is collecting is time and stories. Max Porter uses the musicality and movement of Papa Toothwort up against very purposeful stylistic choices in the portrayal of POV, section breaks, and linear story telling to give the reader more than a story to read but a visceral and tangible experience of being caught in the middle of a missing child’s case. Sure, a classic prose style could have told this story, but it never would have captured the chaos, the frantic and frenzied nature of this sort of trauma, nor would it impact the reader in such an intense and consuming way. Through Porter’s stylistic choices we can see a time lapse of our own unfold before us where the possibilities of prose expand and contract around us, mimicking the love, fear, grief and expansiveness of the human condition, of what it means to be alive, and how that can be captured on the page.
About the reviewer: Shilo Niziolek’s (she/her) cnf book, FEVER, is out from Querencia Press. Her chapbook, A Thousand Winters In Me, is out from Gasher Press. I Am Not An Erosion: Poems Against Decay, a micro chapbook of collage poetry was part of Ghost City Press’s online summer series 2022. Her work has appeared in Pork Belly Press, [PANK], Juked, Entropy, Oregon Humanities, HerStry, among others, and is forthcoming in West Trade Review, Phoebe Journal, Crab Creek Review, Alice Says Go Fuck Yourself, Wishbone Words, Literary Mama, Sunday Mornings at the River and Pumpernickel House. Shilo holds an MFA from New England College and is Associate Faculty at Clackamas Community College.