Weirdo Possible Genius Child

Daniel Soar

  • Lanny by Max Porter
    Faber, 213 pp, £12.99, March, ISBN 978 0 571 34028 6

Sometimes you just have to think of England. It may be embarrassing, it may be awful, but it exists. Max Porter’s Lanny – his second novel – is partly about an idea of England. It’s set in an unnamed village, ‘fewer than fifty redbrick cottages’, within commuting distance of London, a place that is ‘a cruciform grid with the twin hearts of church and pub in the middle’. It’s a place that the Ordnance Survey doesn’t recognise: less than 15 minutes’ drive from a town called Ashcote – not on any real-life map – and not far from a grand house called Carlton Hall, which you won’t find in the handbooks of the National Trust or English Heritage because it isn’t on the map either. But even without any of this being spelled out you immediately imagine the set-up: lawns, tearoom, shop selling a variety of marmalades and overpriced tartan blankets – somewhere for families and pensioners to spend their Sundays.

I know this world. I live on the edge of a cruciform village with twin hearts of church and pub in the middle; I commute to London by train, seeing the same unnameable half-acknowledged faces day after day, sometimes (thanks to the over-loud announcement) half-noticing the train pause at the station of Ashwell & Morden, which might as well be Ashcote; I often spend Sundays with my children at places just like Carlton Hall. In Porter’s village, as in so many English villages, everyone seems to know everyone else – or at least where they are on the ladder, or how annoying they are. One woman, Mrs Larton, has six Neighbourhood Watch stickers by her front door. She is furious that her nemesis once let a friend park a car on the ‘expensively re-turfed’ grass verge near her house. Turf, and where you park what make of car, is a big deal.

But I’m mocking, and this book isn’t. What’s weird and wonderful about Lanny is that it pays attention to and celebrates all the things ordinary people in an ordinary village say, finding them remarkable. An ‘outstanding plus-stage gold elm sticker’ awarded at school, ‘Sheila’s salted caramel rice pudding sweet Jesus I died and went to heaven’, ‘I was a schoolteacher so I know all about bumped heads’, ‘quick kickabout’, ‘quiche au vomit’, ‘I’m apocalyptic about the bees’: these snapshot phrases appear, interrupting the main body of the text; they are mostly presented in italics, sometimes curving upwards, sometimes heading diagonally down, sometimes losing an argument with the margins of a page. If you are someone who is in the village but not of it – there part of the time and interested enough to listen closely – these are the things you’d write down: the odd things people say, the things they really think. They don’t always signify, but sometimes they do: ‘One in The Bell before quiz’, ‘hideous racket, thought they could sell the old barn’, ‘what next Polish adverts in the parish mag’. Porter has explained in interviews that he imagined these snatches of village talk would have run along the bottom like an endless footnote but his American editor wanted them to be part of the text, so they appear with typographical strangeness as a looping assembly in the middle of the page, a chorus to the novel’s story. A village is a slice of the nation; this is a nation’s collected speech.

But what’s weirder and more wonderful about Lanny is that it finds a way – with no time wasted – to bring together all the essential signs of England. Anderson shelters, used condoms, buried Victorian tannic acid bottles, discarded ring-pull cans, tarmac, railway engineers in high-viz jackets, men in tracksuits, men in dinner suits: these all appear in the first two pages. Other writers would spend a whole novel winding such significant things in, but then they would be barely noticeable: they wouldn’t register as a subject. The poets Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley published a book in 2011 called Edgelands, including chapters titled ‘Cars’, ‘Paths’, ‘Dens’, ‘Containers’, ‘Landfill’, ‘Sewage’, ‘Wire’; but this was a series of essays, championing the overlooked at unnecessary length. All you need is a litany, a simple rehearsal of glinting rubbish: we all know the England that is meant.

Porter pulls off his trick by means of a special device, an invisible character called Dead Papa Toothwort, the village’s presiding spirit or sprite, a long-buried inhabitant – recorded in the Domesday Book – who is somehow alive and alert to the comings and goings of the village’s people, to all their squabbles and petty dramas. He is part of local folklore – ‘represented on keystones, decorative stencils, tattoos, the cricket club logo’ – but what people with ordinary minds can’t know is that he is and has always been there, residing sometimes in the village’s soil, merging into the bark of its trees, perching on its kissing gate. He’s a shapeshifter, taking the form now of a rusted jeep bonnet, then briefly becoming a leather skirt, then a pissed-on nettle. Sometimes he’s the size of a flea; sometimes he’s ‘an acre wide’, shrugging off all the interesting detritus he has gathered from the ground: a smashed fibreglass bath, a plastic pot. He has a brief communion with a Fanta bottle top. He revels in everything, however unsightly or unacceptable it might seem to a person like Mrs Larton with her numerous Neighbourhood Watch stickers and admirable wisteria. But what really gets him excited is human speech, and the more dramatic the better: he moves from house to house, listening to everything, ears pricked up at the most desirable stuff; he feeds on heightened talk and extreme emotion. He ‘drinks it in, his English symphony … 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 has always been listening, always greedy for more. He forgets nothing. For a thousand years he has watched it all: enclosure, civil war, the church being built, civic organisation, young people getting killed far away, parish do-gooding, village expansion, razed hedges, rising house prices. To him Article 50 would be just a blip. He is ancient and forever young.

All this is so unlike what you’d expect to find in a novel. Dead Papa Toothwort, constituted mostly from greenery and mulch, is closer to being a figure in a play, and the modern play he’s closest to – it seems to me – is Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, another celebration of England’s odd corners and strange magic. I saw it a decade ago at the Royal Court, with Mark Rylance playing Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron, the big, impossible man who lives in a caravan in the woods and talks his heart out to strays and dropouts, meaning everything he says, loving everything he hears, living at a pitch of absolute charisma. As the play opens, Rylance-as-Rooster lopes over stage left and dunks his head and whole torso in a barrel of water, to emerge dripping and yet – in his speech – on fire. The theatre is a place I rarely go, so perhaps when I do I’m more susceptible than most – but I found this moment amazing, and the whole play mesmerising. The intensity of my attention may have been heightened by the fact that sitting in the row behind me were Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn; I couldn’t help watching them watch, in my head at least, and therefore – as it felt – watching more, and more closely, myself. At the interval, naturally, I was as curious as any stargazer to see where Woody and Soon-Yi had got to – but there was no sign of them, and they didn’t come back for the second half, leaving possibly the only two empty seats in the house. It was no surprise that they’d come to the Royal Court: they were in London, this was the big play of the season, what else would they do? But it was no surprise either that they walked out: they didn’t get it, didn’t believe in this weird idea of England. How could they?

But if Lanny is a play – and in some sense it is, with the second of its three acts staging drama by clinging close to the thoughts and dialogue of each of its conflicting characters, occupying each point of view in turn, and with the final act culminating in a kind of masque or allegory presented to a select audience in the village hall – it is also a novel. It has a simple plot and the right number of likeable people. Jolie, often mistakenly called ‘Julie’ by unthinking neighbours, is an ex-actress who is now writing a soon-to-be-bestselling crime novel with plenty of sex and murder. Her husband, Robert, often rudely called ‘Rob’ by unthinking friends, is a highly adapted commuting machine who works in Canary Wharf and times his drive to the station to perfection. She is interesting, he is not. And they have a child, Lanny, who is both interesting and – as various people see it – either extraordinary or away with the fairies, coming out with the most curious things. At one point he infuriates his father, who has been lying in bed ‘thinking of quarterly dividends and Olympic women cyclists’, by going out into the garden in the middle of the night to talk to a tree and then suddenly asking: ‘Which do you think is more patient, an idea or a hope?’ Ten pages later he amazes his mother, who has been busy writing a scene ‘in which my protagonist has pushed a corrupt politician in front of a train and then – hours later – found a little piece of his cranium stuck to her V&A tote bag’, by declaring that he is a bowerbird and has been ‘building a camp full of all the best stuff I’ve found, like a tiny museum of magic things … It’s for the whole village and anyone who finds it. It’s to make them fall in love with everything. It’s my biggest project so far.’

On this description it would be easy to refuse to fall in love with Lanny. What he says seems fey and sentimental, dismissible unless you’re in the mood. But the novel does a clever thing: Lanny himself is an absence at the centre of the story, always glimpsed from other people’s perspectives; he speaks only in their recollections. Sections are titled ‘Lanny’s Mum’ and ‘Lanny’s Dad’, and Mum and Dad voice their delight and fury about their strange and brilliant child, whose own thoughts we never really know. He’s endlessly unfindable, always up a tree or in someone’s house or building a bower, always a mystery. He’s a boy of deliberately undeclared age, whose effective existence can only be measured by the way it registers with others. ‘In comes Lanny clicking and murmuring like the peculiar transmitter-device he is,’ thinks Mum, quickly hiding the age-inappropriate chapter she has open on her screen. ‘I sit at work in the city … and the thought of him existing a sixty-minute train ride from me, going about his day in the village, carrying his strange brain around, seems completely impossible,’ thinks Dad. Mum and Dad are both totally thrown one weekend when Lanny finds his way in a flash to the centre of a garden maze and back out again without ever taking a wrong turn. He’s special, with inhuman gifts, unless – as Dad suggests – ‘what the fuck? … it’s a freak event.’ Either way, he leaves an impression: always talked about, never solved.

One person he particularly impresses is an artist, getting on in years, called Peter Blythe, who was – someone says at a dinner party – ‘pretty famous back in the day’. He is in fact still famous outside the village, busy putting on a new exhibition at a Mayfair gallery, but most locals think him eccentric or ludicrous or dangerous and call him Mad Pete. There are, in this book, a handful of people who stand out from the crowd: people who would never put a Neighbourhood Watch sticker anywhere near their door, people who are interested in fabulous things, people who believe in having real conversations. Lanny is one, his mother another, Pete a third. He has no time for the banal or unthinking, and he demonstrates his impatience on a forced visit to a ‘neat detached house with underfloor heating and wipe-clean walls’, whose owner – a crime of all crimes – has a framed print in her hallway. ‘I can usually see a way to understand terrible things,’ he thinks. ‘Satanic worship, decaffeinated coffee, cosmetic surgery, but Renoir’s portrait of Madame de Bonnières? No. It cannot be understood or forgiven. And framed in gold plastic and spot-lit from above? No offence intended, Charlotte, there is not a chamber of hell hot enough for a woman of your taste.’ This isn’t entirely a novel of the lovable and cute.

Lanny’s mother is full of admiration for Pete. She likes his work, she likes him: ‘He reminds me of an old Cornish fishing boat.’ Pete recognises that she’s interesting too; she may not be a trained artist, but she knows how to look, how to make shapes with the bits of dried moss on his kitchen table. Knowing that Pete is a good thing, she asks him if he’ll give her Lanny art lessons once a week; being crotchety – ‘a miserable solitary bastard’ – Pete naturally says no, but naturally not for long. So Lanny starts spending Wednesdays after school at Pete’s house, learning to draw. ‘Ah, Lanny, my friend,’ Pete says, ‘look at these blank pages. Don’t you feel like God at the start of the ages? You could do anything.’ And Lanny – being the indescribable, inexplicable creature he is – fascinates Pete: ‘Often as he works Lanny says strange and wonderful things, mumblings, puzzling things for a child to say.’ Such as, out of nowhere: ‘I’m a million cameras, even when I’m sleeping, clicking, clicking, every second something is growing and changing. We are little arrogant flashes in a grand magnificent scheme.’

What he is, really, though no one knows this, is a child-sized equivalent of Dead Papa Toothwort – always watching, always listening, always collecting. Sometimes he chants things that sound like nonsense, and Pete thinks: did he catch this from TV? Or ‘maybe it’s just Lanny taking things from wherever he’s been listening, soaking up the sounds of this world.’ And Toothwort, in his greed, as he hovers over the land, absorbing everything, twiddling the radio dial to tune in to the village’s speech, seeks out Lanny’s words most of all, ‘listens to the boy for a while, his bedtime thoughts, his goodnight words to his mother, his waking mind trickling into visionary sleep’. Lanny is Toothwort’s kindred spirit: he is ‘young and ancient all at once, a mirror and a key’.

*

This impossible boy, this absence at the heart of the book, defined entirely through his effect on other minds, inhuman in his adoration of everything that lives and breathes, can’t exist in reality for long. In the village reality means biotech and topiary and solar panels and open-plan kitchens and a church bell-rope renovation project and a neighbour’s shiny new car: thoughts about practical, ordinary things; thoughts that are sometimes trivial and mundane, sometimes necessary but annoying, sometimes nagging, petty or jealous; the sort of thoughts that occupy most people’s minds most of the time. There’s no space here for a weirdo possible genius child who sometimes thinks he’s a human running as a deer.

So the impossible boy – the boy who was always already elsewhere – goes missing for real. And here the novel enters its second act, conjuring up another eternal dream of England – except this time it’s a fever dream or nightmare. We all know what happens in this particular dream, as police descend and search parties are sent out and neighbours panic and bicker. As with the minimal necessary touches that allow the reader to summon up a picture of a place like Carlton Hall without any of it being dutifully described, Porter doesn’t have to labour the detail: a few little signals – helicopter, hovering like a fat bee; interrogation room, under bright strip-lighting – are all we need to know exactly what story it is we’re being told, so familiar from TV serials and bogeyman fears. A nice little village where the biggest drama is about the upkeep of verges may in an instant turn into a breeding ground for rumour and hate. Suspicion falls, as suspicion would, on the eccentric old bastard who has spent questionable hours alone with a vulnerable young boy – and what sort of mother would put up with or encourage such a deviant arrangement? So Mad Pete is hauled in for questioning, his shed and studio forensically searched, and the whole village starts to fall apart. There’s punching and screaming; bricks are thrown and messages of apology and fury fired off; Lanny’s dad fantasises about rough sex with the police liaison officer. This is and always has been the village’s dark underside: all it takes is a nudge and it comes teeming up to the surface.

But Lanny is not a TV serial, and this isn’t an ordinary story. The fantasy of the missing child is a thing built from fear, prejudice, half-forgotten fairy tales and the woeful background drone of the radio news. As a ‘nice lady’ at one point says, trying to put this local horror into perspective, a child goes missing somewhere in this country every three minutes – a figure which may to a rational mind sound like a total fabrication but which feels real to an unconscious battered by the repetitions of the daily news. And how can you have a child and not at least occasionally and fleetingly sense at least some small fear that next time it might be yours who gets snatched? This fantasy, of course, is what fictional stories of abduction so lucratively exploit, racking up so many paperbacks sold, so many telly-watchers gripped. (If it were possible to request his view on this industry’s workings, Dead Papa Toothwort, with his insatiable appetite for all strong human emotion, would probably appreciate the delicious symbiosis it involves, since stories like this both feed on the fear and nourish it, making it grow and spread – fear in endless supply.)

But for all its apparent sentiment about its special, magical boy, Porter’s book is far from being a genre-compliant missing-child narrative. It’s slipperier and more complex. We’ve come to understand that Lanny, when present, is present as a series of effects in people’s minds. And then we find that Lanny, when absent, is a vehicle for people’s fantasies. Everyone’s personal fears and imaginings are projected onto the event of his disappearance. ‘He’s a sex slave in Saudi Arabia,’ someone thinks. ‘He’s a busker in Fez. He’s in a bag of builder’s rubble on the mossy bottom of Dudley Canal.’ He’s in a wheelie bin, or he’s that lump in a field. ‘Into a van, chloroformed, to Dover, down through France, Spain … wakes up the plaything of a rich pervert with a pomegranate in his mouth.’ Even in his absence, Lanny is anything anyone wants him to be, a receptacle for dreams.

And just as when present he always made a mark, signs of him in his absence are all over the place in all the objects and scribbles he left lying around. The ubiquitous trace of his wanderings derails even advanced forensic science: as one officer explains, there’s no point following his DNA, since it’s ‘all over this village … It is all up and down the street, behind the hall, around the pub, in more than a dozen of the houses, into bedrooms and playrooms and garages, into the woods, onto the common, up the bloody trees.’ Endlessly elusive in himself, Lanny has always left behind some imprint of his actual existence – like Lacan’s footprint in the sand.

There is something phenomenally clever about all this. Lanny is absent when present and present when absent. Or perhaps it’s that in some Schrödingerish sense he’s always both present and absent. Either way, Porter has performed a remarkable metaphysical trick. And yet. However clever this book is, there is a question that I’ve so far avoided directly addressing: isn’t Lanny – with all his funny, silly, offbeat sayings which everyone insists are so adorable – fundamentally just rather embarrassing? ‘Which do you think is more patient, an idea or a hope?’: you can talk in koans – but so did J.D. Salinger, and look where he ended up. As a general rule, a book reviewer presented with a character declared to be brilliant but not shown to be, a character who loves everything and everyone without limit, a character who is in turn loved by everyone he encounters, should – like Peter Blythe responding to the icky spot-lit gold-framed Renoir on a wipe-clean wall – immediately and irrevocably declare: ‘No. It cannot be understood or forgiven.’ There is not a chamber in hell hot enough – a reviewer ought to say – for a novel that demands its readers fall in love with some super-cute kid, even if that kid goes scarily missing and makes everyone sad.

Porter’s previous book, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, has a similarly sentimental premise: the father of two young boys struggles with the death of his lovely wife, remembering all the things he’ll never now do (‘And I will never shop for green Virago Classics for her birthday’). But they survive, thanks in part to the intervention of Crow, a figure or device which functions much like Toothwort in Lanny, feeding off and seeking out the extremes of emotion. ‘I care, deeply,’ Crow says, having flown out of the pages of Ted Hughes to land on the widower’s shoulder. ‘I find humans dull except in grief.’ Like Toothwort, he is simultaneously a psychic, imaginary and material thing. ‘There was a rich smell of decay,’ Crow thinks, ‘a sweet furry stink of just-beyond-edible food, and moss, and leather, and yeast.’ Like Toothwort – like Ariel, like Puck – he has a mischievous tendency to provoke, to generate the drama he exists for and cares for if he ever finds it lacking. But because the premise of the last novel – dead mum, lonely dad, sad boys – was so simple, and would if not complicated and ironised be utterly cloying, Crow was also deployed to puncture and deflate any moment when excessive ickiness started creeping in. Dad gets self-pitying and clichéd; ‘Eugh,’ Crow says, ‘you sound like a fridge magnet.’

Lanny is less simple and more ambitious, encompassing vaster territory, describing an archetype of a village that also represents the whole of England. Toothwort’s memory reaches back to the beginning of village time; he has registered everything – good, bad, indifferent – that has left its mark on village land. His unflinching perspective brings politics into the book: reminders of what England did in Bengal, in Kenya, in Ireland; a recognition that some proudly English things aren’t as pretty as the postcards suggest. Pete the artist has a fugue episode – obscurely provoked by Toothwort as the village’s trouble begins – in which he angrily considers England’s ‘Neolithic bullishit’ and ‘pleasing clouds’ and ‘chuff-chuff’ trains; he takes a biro to a postcard Ravilious a friend once gave him and scratches all over it to erase its lying loveliness. Toothwort, like Crow, is a means of bringing out the darkness, of disrupting and shaking up whatever is merely boring or clichéd or nice.

Yet this is still a novel which makes the claim that a single unusual child may be the most unimaginably incredible thing in the world. I could ridicule that claim, in my role as cynical old book reviewer, but frankly: I just like Lanny as a principle. And why can’t I? Why can’t I be like Lanny and Lanny’s mum and Pete? Forget the sensible and the boring: why can’t I, if I wish, uncynically care only about what’s wonderful and weird? Fuck grass verges. But at this point I wonder: is all this just how I read it? Was this all just my own midsummer night’s dream? Do other people have different dreams? Can you, as with Lanny the boy, project what you want onto Lanny the book? For Toothwort the boy is both ‘a mirror and a key’. If the same is true of the book, it’s a mirror in which you see your own reflection. But what does the key unlock?