Sitting on the Booker Prize longlist alongside Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale sequel, and a book titled My Sister, The Serial Killer, is Max Porter’s Lanny. At once, this is the story of a curious, wild-minded young boy named Lanny, and yet, it’s also about his parents, Robert and Jolie, and their exhausted lives and yearning desire to just let little Lanny live his life. Through untethered encouragement, Lanny finds a friend within local artist Peter, or as the village that this matchbook of characters find themselves in calls him, Mad Pete. Peter helps teach Lanny how to focus his ever active mind through art, and it’s with this artistic creativity that a curious friendship is created. Meanwhile, living underground, absorbing the lives of everyone in the village, is Dead Papa Toothwort, a spectral figure who possibly exists outside of time, and yet, listens to everything as it happens at once.
This is the first time I’ve engaged with Max Porter’s writing, and gosh, I already feel inadequate in finding the words to describe Lanny. There is an economy to the words that Porter uses to tell the story of Lanny, with his ability to conjure a world that exists between paragraphs, that inhales and exhales in the spaces between words, and I have no idea how he manages to do it. There’s a deceptive simplicity to his writing, never actually describing characters, but instead allowing their thoughts and dialogue to illustrate who they are. Every so often, he’ll slip in the thoughts of other people who live in the village, or through obfuscated text, he writes out the overheard conversations that Dead Papa Toothwort gleans from his underground existence.
Porter’s ability to employ common phrases that we all utter behind closed doors, thinking we’re safe from eavesdroppers, manages to play on the page like he’s teased those exact thoughts out of us while we’re sleeping, running the days events through our minds as we rest, wondering where we went wrong. And yet, these phrases and diatribes that scramble across the pages of the first third of this narrative like a massive word vomit, feel so drawn from life, so real and in-the-moment, that you can’t help but get the feeling of arrogance from Porter’s writing. Through the character of Dead Papa Toothwort, Porter has conjured an entity that witnesses all, and judges all for what they say and think. And through this observant behaviour, Porter manages to cull every, single, word, that is extraneous to the core meaning of every, single, sentence, in the book. You understand who a person is intimately through the use of a phrase, or the minute description of an item. A lifetime is distilled into a sentence, and you feel like you’ve been along for the ride for every moment of that characters life.
The main characters of Peter, Robert, and Jolie, are all beautiful creations who are tangible, living and breathing people. When Lanny goes missing, one particular conversation that Jolie has with her neighbour is stunning reading. By its pure nature, a book lives within the mind, and this conversation that Jolie has with her neighbour is one that exists within their own minds; the neighbour judges, presumes, second guesses her oddly named neighbour, all the while Jolie runs through a rambling routine of prejudices herself, all existing within the goal of finding her missing son. Max Porter writes with the knowledge that he’s a good writer – maybe even with the arrogance of being a great writer. He knows it, and by gosh is he keen on letting you know it too. Porter’s writing is so brilliant and assured, so precise and knowing, that you can’t help but feel him peering over your shoulder as you read along, every so often chiming in to note how well he wrote this sentence, and remarking about how good that turn of phrase was.
Through the three ‘parts’ of Lanny, we see the world we live in from entirely different perspectives. There’s a looking glass vibe to these characters, where you can’t help but reflect on your own life and judge your own thoughts about the world around you. Max Porter clearly wishes us to reflect on societies prejudices that we all have about that slightly odd single man who lives down the road, or the tussle-haired mother who can’t seem to control her kid, or our opinion on that really weird kid who lives down the road. He wants us to look at ourselves and question whether our prejudices are right or wrong, and for the most part, Lanny manages to do exactly that.
With a wealth of narrative flourishes that make up the view of Dead Papa Toothwort, and a masterfully economical use of the English language, one can’t help but feel the perceived prestige and self-knowing brilliance just drip off the page. It’s a failure in myself that I can’t help but look at this text and feel that it’s almost too good, and it’s because the echo of the clattering on the keyboard from the writers hands are so clearly heard as you’re reading. You feel the presence of the author more than you feel the presence of the book. But when the writing is this good, when the characters are this believable and relatable, isn’t that kind of arrogance allowed? Isn’t this metaphysical literature version of ‘big dick energy’ accepted? For some, sure. For me, while I did thoroughly enjoy this book, and I respect its value, I’m not sure if it’s enough. If anything, it has forced me to attempt to write a deeper review for it, of which I can only hope I have managed to do so.
And what of arrogance? If arrogance is inspirational, then isn’t it justified? If it sets a benchmark for someone to be better than it, or to try attain the same level of brilliance that deserves such arrogance, then isn’t that ok? As long as the arrogance isn’t exclusitory or of the gate keeping kind, then surely it’s a welcome arrogance? In the case of Max Porter, I find that this kind of arrogance is fine. After all, he’s created a novel as engaging, as creatively impressive, as enjoyable to read, as Lanny. I guess if I managed to do the same feat, I’d be arrogant too.Purchase Lanny Here.