by ELISA FAISON
Max Porter, Lanny (Graywolf, 2019), pp. 224.
In the opening lines of Lanny, Dead Papa Toothwort, the enigmatic, leafy-green shape-shifter from the novel’s local folklore, rises from his nap and shakes off the debris of the ages. He “divides and reassembles, coughs up a plastic pot and a petrified condom…feels his face and finds it made of long buried tannic acid bottles. Victorian rubbish.” Toothwort loves and collects refuse. Named for a parasitic species of wildflower which ingests other plants, Toothwort himself seems to feed off of the trivialities of other people’s lives, savoring scraps of conversation from the local townspeople. “Human sound” gets “sucked into his great need” and he luxuriates in the mishmash of phrases. The text reads: “Private property, honeycomb Gorgeous. Shampoo in my eyes, windfalls A lovely time of day.” From the chaos of overlapping domestic conversations he “delicately pulls out threads” of dialogue and seems to arrange them in elegantly curling patterns across the page for our benefit. These conversational blips range from the beautiful to the mundane to the gross. Toothwort enjoys hearing townspeople discuss “watching the weather while we sleep” just as much as he enjoys hearing them say “piss off Alan” or describe their dinners as “quiche au vomit.”
Max Porter has built Toothwort—and the novel more generally—as a literary collage. Porter is interested in assemblages of the literary past. His previous work Grief is a Thing with Feathers (2015), also a hybrid of prose and verse forms, imagines a literary scholar bringing the dead to life in the form of a bird. The text, fittingly, resurrects and revises the poetry of Ted Hughes, and takes its name from an Emily Dickinson poem. Toothwort’s initial appearance in Lanny evokes Rip Van Winkle, another literary figure who suddenly wakes from a years-long slumber to find his world degraded from its past state. Like Rip Van Winkle who delights to find that his wife has died in the intervening years, Toothwort grows fond of his corrupted present. His intense sense of place and attachment to the “symphony” of the unnamed town recalls Shakespeare’s Ariel, while his desire to possess others and perpetuate chaos is pure Caliban. By my reading, Toothwort’s clearest literary kin is Tiresias as he is depicted in T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. Though more vindictive, Toothwort too sees all and remembers all—and watches as his world falls apart. Eliot’s poem is certainly a literary forbear for Lanny. Porter writes his contemporary small-town landscape as similarly disordered and debased, mistrustful and alienating. Lanny’s town gossips, judges, and thrills at thoughts of both pain and fame; Lanny’s world is rife with poverty—particularly in Africa, whose residents Lanny cries for—and is polluted. With Lanny, Porter seems to attempt that which Eliot’s fisher king attempts before him: to shore fragments against ruin.
Built from literary refuse which ranges from the contemporary to the early modern, Lanny seeks to preserve an aesthetic past that is depicted in the novel as threatened by globalization, technology, and mass marketing. Its innovative language and form aside, the novel is aesthetically conservative, and seems to punish the characters—and readers—who live firmly in the domestic mundanity that the novel purports to celebrate. Lanny’s father, Robert, occasionally masturbates to images on his phone. This compulsion ensures a wildly bizarre punishment late into the novel which suggests that to “know [one’s] way around a device like this” is to imagine– even desire– the death of one’s child. Lanny’s mother, Jolie, writes crime novels for a living. Her job is presented as “making terrible things up to entertain people” for a “good sum of money.” Though Jolie finds fault with her husband’s belief that crime fiction is immoral, the novel nevertheless equates her mass produced novels with ugly, parental negligence. To say “I’m a good enough crime writer” in this novel is to say “I’m a bad enough mother,” as Jolie does. And, indeed, at the very moment Lanny reads a scene of abuse in his mother’s draft, he is kidnapped. This is the event which propels the novel’s main plotline– a search for the missing Lanny. As readers, we are intrigued: where is Lanny? Our interest is scorned by the narrative voice: “I have to ask. Do you want Pete to have killed Lanny? Do you want that? Do you want a body?” Like Jolie, Robert, and the novel’s other adults, we readers are vulturous, diminished selves. All of the punishment heaped on the characters– and by extension on us– grows wearing.
Lanny’s title character, on the other hand, is not of this twenty-first century familiar world: his “life at home, his time at school, what [Jolie] thought of as his real existence, was only a place he visited.” Lanny is a whimsical young boy who sings to himself, builds a bower in the woods full of the beautiful things he likes, has a magical knack to climbing, and earnestly asks his parents questions like “Which do you think is more patient, an idea or a hope?” An unbelievably precocious and saccharine child in the vein of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Oskar Schell, he is a utopian character—moral, creative, otherworldly. Lanny is depicted as untainted by the moral failings of the adults around him. As a child, his purity is precarious—not only because he will grow up, but because his childishness makes him vulnerable to those who might prey on goodness.
The majority of the novel revolves around Lanny’s abduction by Dead Papa Toothwort, a corrupted and corrupting figure who is entranced by Lanny’s fey-like spirit. As the townspeople try to recover Lanny, the novel itself tries to resurrect the innocence and artistic purity that Lany represents. In the novel’s best section, the chorus of townsfolk – led by the novel’s three principle adult characters, Jolie, Robert, and Lanny’s art teacher Pete—gossip and wonder and search for Lanny, their voices intertwining to tell us the story that is happening just off page. In this portion of the novel, we see what Porter can do that is new: in almost a sleight of hand, he conjures the whole police-procedural genre with which we are familiar through fragmentary and unattributed bits of dialogue. Though we know Lanny has been taken by Toothwort, the story is propulsive, fueled by Porter’s literary craft.
But alas, the novel’s baffling ending—plucked straight from a morality tale, and remixed with hints of Leopold Bloom’s dreamy trial in James Joyce’s Ulysses –returns us to the impenetrably twee. Shaking off the ugly domestic blips like so much trash, the novel, like Toothwort, goes back to sleep, and dreams.