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Fearing the Forest

Miriam Balanescu

Lanny, by Max Porter, Faber & Faber, £12.99, 224 pp, ISBN: 978-0571340286

Max Porter has said of his second novel, Lanny, that it is about “sound on the page”. More than that, this book is about the physicality of language, earthiness, the smell of ink and metal in print. The layout of the text is highly experimental: words drip, curl and crawl off the page, reminding us of their tangibility. Lanny is about the landscape of language in an unnamed village defined by its proximity to London. This village, home to mythological Dead Papa Toothwort, exists in a kind of twilight state between urbanity and greenness. There is an ecosystem of language amongst its residents. Porter explores how, under the threat of tragedy, this interweaving ecosystem of words decomposes.

The epigraph to Lanny is taken from Lynette Roberts’s “Green Madrigal”:

Peace, my stranger is a tree
Growing naturally through all its
Discomforts, trials and emergencies
Of growth.

On the next page, Dead Papa Toothwort awakes, a grotesque chameleon folkloric creature akin to Crow in Grief is the Thing with Feathers. He is covered in “liquid globs of litter” and “Victorian rubbish”, an amalgamated environmental metaphor. This being takes its name from the toothwort flower, a plant unable to photosynthesise. To survive, it feeds off the roots of other plants. Dead Papa Toothwort has a similarly parasitic relationship with language: he slurps and gulps at it as if it were a solid food source. At first, this ominous grim monster, who crushes a blackbird’s beak in his shape-shifting hands, seems set on revenge. He rages at chemicals spilled on the land, laments that humans are cutting into his “belt” (possibly the Green Belt surrounding London) and has a strange love of death. The opening scene closes with his fascination with the child Lanny.

Initially, it is unsettling how little Lanny is about Lanny. As we are guided through the mumblings of village folk by Toothwort’s ugly lyricism, we learn our way around Lanny. He is etched in the words of his mum, dad and Pete, a local artist. We only hear him directly in his songs, bird-like “chit chat” and “garland[s] of part-rhymes”. Max Porter summons the influence of John Clare, Seamus Heaney and, once again, Ted Hughes in his descriptions of Lanny. The boy is described as “mad as a March hare”, which seems to hark back to Hughes’s “A March Calf”. “Chit chat” and the strange noises Lanny makes evoke Clare’s bird poems. The mulchy language of the start reminds us of Heaney’s “Digging”. This is a text in which, especially in the beginning, Max Porter has laboured over language, carefully selecting each word and juicing each one’s depth and texture. In a way that is reminiscent of Under Milk Wood, he extracts the utterances of village members and makes them curl like singed paper. Dead Papa Toothwort and Lanny are drawn together by their shared hunger for words.

In the first part of the novel, Lanny has a receptive, enchanted bond with nature. He regurgitates profound lines and poetic sounds as if “possessed”. The child is always outdoors, and, like Pete, cares little about the village’s view of him. When at work, his father struggles to comprehend that Lanny really exists and wonders where his gifts came from (surely not from him?). While writing a graphic crime novel, Lanny’s mother tussles with the seemingly irrational guilt that her words may seep into Lanny’s consciousness. Max Porter’s world is one in which words are indissoluble, curious, throwaway things – that decompose into other things.

In Lanny’s magical relationship with nature, an underlying eeriness is echoed in the presentation of the words on the page. The prose poetry aspect of the book makes us acutely aware of absences. At the ends of lines of his mother’s narration there are unsettling gaps. Later in the novel, she compares herself to the painted Virgin mother, “with a gap in her lap where the future should be”. As with his father’s musings on the source of Lanny’s gifts, this book is about where things come from and where they go. After the gaping loss of Lanny, the village talk, which in the first section is stoppered up, outpours.

The heavy misery of the book’s second section makes for a difficult read. Events, speculations and accusations appear indirectly through village chatter. The talk dissolves any sense of magic or mystery in Lanny: after rummaging through his collected notes and prayers, he is dismissed as a “freak”. The third section provides a stark contrast, setting out Porter’s specific but perhaps over-described vision of Toothwort. In Toothwort, ideas of religion and nature converge. He is the “mass-produced green-man”, oddly commercial, a modern reinvention. Porter seems to touch on themes set out in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a medieval romance in which the forest is both “other”, a place of threat and magic, but also the place of destiny.

At Lanny’s close, we are reminded that urbanity itself is constructed from natural things. The final scenes unravel like a grim adult fairy tale. We are left with an image of Pete sketching tree roots, which “play at being bones, […] burnt buildings, ravaged metal frames of industrial leviathans”. Though a child’s innocent interior relationship with nature is ripped from him, we, the reader, are asked to reconsider our suspicions. Despite the brutality of the natural world, there are guardians in the forest.

1/1/2020

Miriam Balanescu is a freelance books journalist and bookseller who has previously written for Stylist, the Wales Arts Review

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