Novelist Max Porter's new tale 'Lanny' lets readers find their own meaning

Author Max Porter
Author Max Porter shot to international acclaim for his debut novel "Grief is the Thing with Feathers." His new novel "Lanny" follows the adventures of a loquacious lad living in a seemingly idyllic English village watched over by an ancient spirit.
Lucy Dickens | Courtesy of Graywolf Press

Lanny will talk to you.

Max Porter said the title character of his novel "Lanny" is one of those curiosity-filled youngsters who are a fountain of surprising but engaging observations about the world.

Book jacket illustration for Max Porter's new novel "Lanny."
The book jacket illustration for Max Porter's new novel "Lanny."
Courtesy of Graywolf Press

"Someone called him 'off-the-charts eccentric.' I think, 'Really?' He seems quite straightforward to me," Porter laughed. "I mean kids say incredibly weird stuff all the time. Lanny seems pretty straightforward I think."

Porter's debut novel, "Grief is the Thing with Feathers," published in the United States by Minnesota-based Graywolf Press, was an international sensation.

In "Lanny," the boy lives in a rural community that's been around for hundreds of years. Now it endures an uneasy existence where the folk with local history going back generations rub shoulders with recent incomers who commute daily to distant London.

That's all pretty normal but there's another key character in the book called Dead Papa Toothwort. He's a 2,000-year-old shape-shifter, who can be a tree one minute and a piece of litter the next. Porter said Toothworth has never left the land the village now occupies.

"He knows that he has a symbolic function in the community. He is used to scare kids, like the sandman. I mean, every community has one," said Porter.

The locals recite ancient rhymes about Dead Papa Toothwort stealing mischievous children. But Porter said what Toothwort really wants is just to hear people speaking. He slips through the village eavesdropping on the dramas of children and adults alike.

"He loves teenage Snapchat gossip as much as he loves Scripture. He loves like people's shopping lists as much as he loves great literature. For him it's an entirely democratic celebrating the way we use language," said Porter.

The things Dead Papa Toothwort hears are laid out in twisting threads of text across the pages of Porter's novel, jumping from person to person, from the sweet to the profane. Porter gives few clues as to who is speaking, and readers are left to fill whatever gaps they perceive.

"I like a lot of ambiguity in the text, and I like a lot of white space because I want it to be a kind of collaborative effort between me and the reader," he said.

Readers also learn of Lanny's life, and that of his parents. His mother is a former TV actor now trying her hand at writing blood-soaked thrillers. His dad is one of the commuters whose dissatisfactions with life may be leading him to do something stupid. There is also Pete, a once celebrated and controversial artist who befriends the boy after Lanny's mother asks Pete to give him art lessons.

Then a crisis hits the village. A child goes missing. Things quickly get ugly. Dead Papa Toothwort hears the voices swirl again.

Porter said he tried to create a place as specific as possible, which in turn made the reaction to the disappearance universally recognizable.

"The kind of unkind instinct to immediately see sinister potential or predatorial sexual behavior in an old man, these things are utterly universal. And they spread fast in the same way everywhere, whether you are in a tiny village in Romania or a good big city," said Porter.

And Porter says people's reactions to the novel often say as much about the reader as they do about the book.

"There has been some interesting writing about 'Lanny' as a Brexit novel," he said. "And one of the things it suggests is that by not actually talking about Brexit but by focusing on individuals in a small place, you might actually be writing a decent Brexit book."

Porter will read from "Lanny" at 7 p.m. Monday at the Grace Trinity Church in Minneapolis. He'll be in conversation with Graywolf publisher Fiona McCrae. He said working with Graywolf has been remarkably personal and pleasant. He describes the small press as a mighty, mighty force.

"I think they are the best independent publisher in America," he said. "I mean on paper they are, in terms of their reach and prizes they win and all that kind of stuff. To me they represent everything that can go right with any kind of cultural industry thing."

Porter said readers should disregard anything anyone says about "Lanny" and just try it because everyone's reaction is different and their own — which may mean you should forget this piece.

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