A tapestry of living and dead: Max Porter on his new book, ‘Lanny’

Kate Haselden discusses Max Porter, in conversation with Ali Shaw, and his new novel, Lanny.

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On Thursday 14thMarch, Blackwell’s hosted a talk in honour of Max Porter’s latest release Lanny. Porter was in conversation with novelist Ali Shaw, discussing his novel, his development as a writer since his last work, and how Lanny reflects the changing nature of this country and our relationship to the natural world.

Lanny is a novel, but unlike any you have read by anyone else – Porter always bleeds poetry and prose together in the most beautiful, natural way. Lanny exists as a testament to his refusal to conform to the traditional boundaries of a singular medium. The novel is like a lullaby, lament and landscape portrait all at once. Porter splits the narrative perspective into three voices (anyone who has read his first work, Grief is the Thing With Feathers, will recognise this style of writing), each centring around the remarkable young boy called Lanny, describing him, speaking to him, watching him. In this, Porter creates an entire novel around an absence – never hearing Lanny’s voice directly, he is told through multiple voices, and the reader comes to realise that every character is a reflective surface for a central, yet hauntingly absent, presence. I have only seen this done so beautifully in Virginia Woolf’s 1922 novel Jacob’s Room, where the central character is told through the voices, letters and recollections of those who know him. Porter creates a character that is both real and intangible, touchable but painfully just out of reach, human and a form from the natural world. Porter, like Woolf, bends the traditional notion of the ‘protagonist’, refusing to focus solely on the being of one person, denying us complete intimacy with a single presence and instead widening the novel to every type of person, every voice available to him as a writer. 

Grief is the Thing With Feathers (2016) naturally comes into the conversation. I read the collection shortly after it was published, and it remains one of the only works that has ever explained and understood bereavement for me. I always call it a poetry collection, but the beauty of Porter’s work is that it is constantly a hybrid, speaking to you personally – at once poetry,novella,elegy; a startling, modern In Memoriam. Charting the process through which a father and his two sons deal with the loss of their mother, the human narrative voices are joined by that of Crow, a myth, a real voice, a descendant of Hughes’ creation in Life and Songs of the Crow, and an entirely modern presence. Porter’s love for myth and ancestry continues from Grief is the Thing; into Lanny enters the presence of Dead Papa Toothwort, a decaying, shape-shifting, voyeuristic presence from the hidden natural world surrounding the village. When Ali asks about the similarities between Crow and Toothwort, Porter answers that they are different characters but taken from the same realm. Shape-shifting, natural creatures, both ravenous for a new kind of language outside the human order.

Lanny takes place in a quiet English village, commuting distance from London, with a collective memory stretching back to the Domesday Book. It is a tapestry of present voices, and their ghosts, new arrivals, and families that have existed there throughout time. Porter spoke of how he wanted the characters in the village to reflect how we speak of each other in this country, the subtle xenophobic comments alongside the desire for progression, forcing us to remember there is no such thing (at any point in our country’s history) as a purely ‘English person’. Next to these wider, socio-political concerns sits Lanny, suspended between the different worlds of the imaginative, natural and mythological, clearly ‘different’ from other children and people in the village. The novel considers how we see and understand different people, and more broadly the idea of difference itself – difference is figured as a contribution towards the richness of life. 

The female voices Porter creates are a beautiful aspect of Lanny. Lanny’s mum Jolie, actress turned writer, stands for the darker side of maternal life. In this character, Porter shows his absolute proficiency at writing human experience. He writes on the crisis of masculinity Lanny’s father undergoes and Jolie’s struggles of motherhood , illustrating his ability to access the roots of human experience, regardless of gender. 

Lanny is a hauntingly beautiful, strange and empathetic novel, showing Porter’s brilliance yet again. Porter weaves his prose from present voices and memories, from landscape and human emotion. The pages are made both living and dead.

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